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207 James King’s conspicuous gallantry at the Battle of Missionary Ridge led to his Medalof Honornominationin1901,thirty-eightyearsafterhisactsof heroism, and offers a window into an infrequently discussed phase in the history of the U.S.military award system.Much ink has been spilled about the lax standards for awarding the Medal of Honor in the early decades of its existence,but much less known is the swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction at the turn of the twentieth century.James King’s ill-fated medal nomination faced hurdles that simply did not exist for the more than six hundred CivilWar soldiers who were awarded the medal in the 1890s. Should James W. King have received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Missionary Ridge? During the Civil War—and into the early years of the twentieth century, when King was nominated—the medal represented the only decoration provided by the federal government for recognizing valor,and the criteria for earning the award were less demanding than at present. The basis of today’s medal system is a hierarchy of awards known as the Pyramid of Honor, recognizing varying degrees of bravery and service, with the Medal of Honor at the pinnacle; correspondingly, the requirements have evolved to the point where Medal of Honor recipients usually perish in the act of earning the award.For the Civil War,however,it was quite the opposite case: less than 1 percent of medal winners died in the act of earning the decoration. It was primarily an award for survivors.In practice,a deed performed outside the line of duty and at mortal risk was likely to be deemed medal worthy.1 A ppe n di x A James W. King and the Medal of Honor R 208 · Appendix A At Missionary Ridge, James fearlessly risked his life when his duty would have placed him literally miles away from danger. He sprinted ahead of his brigade in two separate charges—with the first concluding in hand-to-hand combat—under heavy artillery and rifle fire, and was among the first Union soldiers to crest the ridge.After engaging the enemy with short-range flanking fire at a critical time and place, he received a serious wound and still further exposed himself in an effort to hurry his comrades up the slope. Did these actions warrant a medal? The ranks of CivilWar medal winners provide ample opportunity for comparison; one may readily identify a handful of individuals who voluntarily entered battle outside their line of duty and earned the award. Consider the case of regimental quartermaster Charles Murphy of the 38th NewYork,who grabbed a rifle at First Bull Run,fought with his regiment,and stayed behind to help the wounded after the battle ended—with the Rebels in control of the field and despite repeated urgings to retreat. Murphy was captured. Next, Private Henry T. Johns of the 49th Massachusetts, detailed as a quartermaster’s clerk, voluntarily joined a picked squad of men to charge across open field under heavy fire at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863; the attacking force retreated after taking heavy losses, but Johns escaped unharmed. Sergeant John H. Cook of the 119th Illinois, detailed as a headquarters clerk, armed himself and joined his regiment at Pleasant Hill,Louisiana,on April 9, 1864. Cook deployed his company as skirmishers and urged his men forward into the fight under brisk rifle fire.He made it through uninjured.For our final comparison, we need look no farther than Missionary Ridge, just hours prior to the charge of the 11th Michigan. Seventeen-year-old drummer boy John S. Kountz of the 37th Ohio set aside his drum and—defying his colonel—took up a rifle to join in a charge during Sherman’s assault on the Confederate right. The Ohioans were twice driven back with loss; on the second occasion Kountz took a bullet through his left thigh, falling closest to the enemy works out of his regiment’s forty-one casualties. He was rescued by a brave comrade who went back for him, but he still suffered amputation. Kountz was found guilty of disobeying orders, yet his action became the subject of a dramatic poem, “The Drummer Boy of Mission Ridge”; he went on to be elected commander in chief of the GAR in 1884—and like the rest of these soldiers, he received the Medal of Honor.2 Thejudgmentof valorissubjective,butitseemsreasonabletosaythatJames King’s actions compare favorably with...


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