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Connecticut’s Purple Heart Connections

Submitted by Phil Devlin.

The first three recipients of the award all hailed from Connecticut – including an ancestor of Winston Churchill.

On August 7, 1782, General George Washington created the Order of the Purple Heart. The first three recipients of the Purple Heart — given by George Washington himself — were all from Connecticut.

The first recipient was Elijah Churchill of Enfield. Born in 1755 in Newington, Churchill was 20 when he joined Connecticut’s 8th Regiment as a private in July of 1775. Also known as the 17th Continental Regiment, the 8th fought in many significant battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. In May of 1777, he re-enlisted in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons as a corporal and was soon promoted to sergeant. Often broken up into separate raiding units or serving as Washington’s personal bodyguard, the 2nd Dragoons played a very important role in the war. It was as a raider from a whaleboat that the carpenter from Enfield, Sgt. Elijah Churchill, was cited for gallantry for attacks upon Fort St. George and Fort Slongo.

During the Fort George assault, Church was part of a group that captured 300 prisoners, destroyed the fort, and burned several cargo vessels belonging to the Redcoats. The Fort Slongo Raid — near modern day Northport, Long Island — produced similar results. As a consequence of these raids, Churchill received the Badge of Military Merit with the following citation:

General George Washington, Esquire 
General and Commander-in-Chief of
the Forces of the United States of America, Etc.

That Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons, in the several enterprises against Fort George and Fort Slongo on Long Island, acted in a very conspicuous and singularly meritorious part; that at the head of each body of attack he not only acquitted himself with great gallantry, firmness and address; but that the surprise in one instance, and the success of the attack in the other, proceeded in a considerable degree from his conduct and management.

Now therefore Know Ye, that the aforesaid Sergeant Elijah Churchill, hath fully and truly deserved, and has been properly invested with the Honorary Badge of Military Merit, and is authorized to pass and repass all guards and military posts as fully and amply as any Commissioned Officer whatever; and is hereby recommended to that favorable notice which a Brave and Faithful Soldier deserves from his Countrymen.

After the war, Elijah Churchill, his wife, and eight children eventually moved to Massachusetts. He died there in 1841 and is buried in the Bell Cemetery in Middlefield, Mass. (see photo). One of Sgt. Churchill’s great-grandsons from Michigan — a farmer — owned the badge until he donated it to a museum in Vails Gate, N.Y.

The second recipient of the Badge of Military Merit was William Brown. He was born in Stamford in 1759 and joined the 5th Connecticut Regiment in May of 1775 — just after Lexington and Concord. He re-enlisted in April of 1777 and was promoted to corporal two years later and then to sergeant 14 months later. There is no record of his citation, but most believe that the award resulted from Brown’s heroic performance in the assault on Redoubt #10 at Yorktown. Brown moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, after the war — a city honoring George Washington and largely settled by those who served with him. He died there in 1808. The exact location of his grave is unknown, though a commemorative tombstone has been placed there. Though the location of his grave is unknown, Brown’s badge was found in a barn in New Hampshire in the 1920s and is currently on display in a museum in Exeter, New Hampshire.

The third Nutmegger to receive a Badge of Merit from Washington was Sergeant Daniel Bissell of East Windsor. Born in East Windsor on December 30, 1754, Daniel Bissell first joined the 8th Connecticut as a fifer. He later re-enlisted as a corporal in the 5th Connecticut and was later promoted to a sergeant. He served as a spy for George Washington, posing as a member of a British regiment headed by Benedict Arnold in the New York area for 13 months. Apparently blessed with a photographic memory, Bissell provided details about the British and maps of battlefields drawn accurately from his memory. Washington gave him the award in June of 1783 — the last of the three badges to be awarded. Bissell’s award was lost in a house fire in 1913. He died in 1824 at age 70 in Richmond, N.Y. He is buried in Allens Hill Cemetery there.

Washington’s purple Badge of Merit eventually morphed into the Purple Heart Award, the world’s oldest known military award. The National Purple Heart Trail appropriately begins in Virginia at Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. So far, 45 of the 50 states have sections of roads or highways named to honor this prestigious award. The segment of Route 5 in Connecticut named the “Purple Heart Highway” currently runs from East Hartford up to the Enfield border and appropriately includes recipient Daniel Bissell’s home town of East Windsor, as well as the very first recipient of the award, Elijah Churchill, who was from Enfield.

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