This is the first in a 10-part series that takes a closer look at Richland County’s eight Medal of Honor winners. Coming Monday: Sgt. James Wiley from Bellville captures the battle flag of the 48th Georgia Infantry at Gettysburg.
This series is supported by Mansfield Cemetery Association.
Sgt. James Wiley was the first Richland County native to earn one for his efforts on July 2, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg.
PFC David Winder was the most recent recipient for his heroism in Vietnam on May 13, 1970.
The two soldiers from Richland County, along with six others, all earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for military valor in action that the United States can bestow.
Beginning Monday, as the United State celebrates its 247th birthday, Richland Source will take a look at these eight soldiers, all of whom earned the Medal of Honor in service of that country.
In addition to Wiley and Winder, we will review the exploits of:
— U.S. Army Private John Henry Ricksecker, who earned the medal for his actions on Nov. 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tenn., during the Civil War.
— U.S. Army 1st Lt. David L. Cockley, who earned his medal on Dec. 4, 1864, in Waynesboro, Ga., during the Civil War.
— U.S. Army 1st Lt. Joseph S. Hedges, who earned his medal on Dec. 17, 1864, near Harpeth River, Tenn., during the Civil War.
— U.S. Army. Cpl. Smith Larimer, who earned his medal on April 8, 1865, at Sailor’s Creek, Va., during the Civil War.
— U.S. Army Pvt. John F. Rowalt, who earned his medal on Oct. 14, 1869, at Lynx Creek, Arizona Territory, during the Indian Campaigns.
— U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Matthias Walter Day, who earned his medal on Sept. 18, 1879, at Las Animas Canyon, N.M., during the Indian Campaigns.
The standards to award the Congressional Medal of Honor have evolved over time. But the medal has always stood for actions that go above and beyond.
The current criteria were established in 1963 during the Vietnam War.
The medal is authorized for any military service member who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
— while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
— while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
— while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”
All recommendations require thorough reports on the act itself, the battlefield and its setting; at least two sworn eyewitness statements; and any other compelling evidence that can be gathered.
Recommendation packets must be approved all the way up the military command structure, ending with the U.S. President as the Commander-in-Chief.
By federal law, recommendations for the Medal of Honor must be submitted within three years of the valorous act and the medal must be presented within 5 years.
Any submissions outside of this timeline require an Act of Congress to waive the time limits.
Source: Congressional Medal of Honor Society
The series will offer a glimpse into how each of these soldiers earned one of the 3,535 Medals of Honor the nation has awarded since the first was earned in 1861 by Bernard Irwin.
It’s worth noting, the Medal of Honor was not awarded to Irwin until 1894. He was an assistant surgeon who voluntarily led the successful rescue of 60 U.S. troopers trapped by Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise in Arizona.
Before the award gained such distinction, it started as an idea from Iowa Sen. James W. Grimes, a member of the 1861 peace convention in Washington, D.C., staged to devise the means to prevent the impending Civil War.
On Dec. 9, 1861, he proposed legislation authorizing the production and distribution of “medals of honor” to be presented to enlisted U.S. Navy seamen and marines who “distinguish themselves by gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities” during the war.
President Lincoln signed the bill into law on Dec. 21.
On Feb. 17, 1862, Massachusetts Sen. Henry Wilson introduced a similar bill to honor enlisted members of the U.S. Army. Lincoln signed it into law on July 12.
Since then, the Medal of Honor has undergone numerous legislative, design and presentation changes while still retaining what makes it truly special — its status as the nation’s highest award for military valor in action.
(Coming Monday: Sgt. James Wiley from Bellville performs heroically at Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg.)