The Richmond grave of a Revolutionary War soldier with a notable history will be the site of a ceremony this weekend.
The Richmond grave of a Revolutionary War soldier with an interesting history will be the site of a ceremony Saturday, as the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution honors veterans.
Today, the Purple Heart is one of the highest honors a soldier can receive. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor in the Hudson Valley estimates that 1.7 million of the medals have been given out since 1932 to men and women killed or wounded in combat.
But long before there was a Purple Heart, there was a Badge of Military Merit. In 1783, Gen. George Washington awarded three of the purple, heart-shaped cloth badges to soldiers who fought in the Revolution.
Recipients of the original Badge of Military Merit were Sgts. Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell Jr., all volunteers from Connecticut.
He will be among many veterans honored Saturday at 10 a.m. when the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution hold a grave-marking ceremony at Bissell’s final resting place, Allens Hill Cemetery on Belcher Road in Richmond. The event is free and open to the public.
The badge was awarded, according to Washington’s original order, “for any singularly meritorious action. ... Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” It was not necessarily tied to being wounded or killed in combat.
No more Badges of Military Merit were awarded after those first three. Efforts to reinstate the award began in 1927, and in 1932, the U.S. Department of War brought it back as the Purple Heart with the stipulation it be awarded to those who were injured or killed during a “meritorious act of essential service.”
Bissell, the last of the three to receive a Badge of Military Merit, died in 1824 and was buried in Allens Hill Cemetery in Richmond. His original gravestone still stands, worn thin by age and the elements. It reads, simply, “He had the confidence of Washington and served under him.” In 2005, the Sons of the American Revolution placed a modern stone, bearing a similar inscription, just yards away.
Bissell’s contributions during the Revolution read like fodder for a good book.
In 1781, Washington asked Bissell to undertake a dangerous undercover mission to ascertain the plans of the British army, which was occupying New York City. Bissell posed as a deserter from the American army and made his way into the British infantry, where he served for 13 months — all the while collecting information about British plans, committing it to memory.
During a fever-induced delirium, Bissell confessed to a British doctor that he was a double agent. The doctor decided not to report Bissell’s confession, and Bissell escaped to American lines, where he delivered a full report to Washington. Bissell’s memory was so accurate that he was able to reproduce maps showing troop locations.
According to author Rupert Hughes, Bissell had worn a piece of his wife’s purple silk dress, coiled into the shape of a heart, pinned to his shirt during the war. It was that “purple heart,” Hughes said, that gave Washington the idea for the badge’s heart-shaped design.
After Bissell retired from the military, he moved to Richmond, lured by the appeal of cheap land. He and his wife, Theoda, had nine children.
Bissell lost his Badge of Military Merit, his citations and discharge papers in a house fire. This prevented him from collecting a veteran’s pension. Bissell died Aug. 21, 1824, at age 70.
-- Daily Messenger