In the 153 years that the Medal of Honor has been awarded there have been few changes in the symbolism and design of our nation’s highest military award of selfless valor. The Medal of Honor for Navy recipients introduced in 1862 consisted of an inverted 5 pointed star. On each of the five stars there was a cluster of laurel leaves symbolic of victory along with oak leaves symbolic of strength. Surrounding a circular insignia were 34 stars representing the number of states in the Union, including the 11 Confederate states at the time. The stars were also symbolic of the “heavens and the divine goal which man has aspired to since time immortal.” Inside the 34 stars were two engraved images. One image was of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and war, on whose head was an owl representing wisdom and in her left hand a bundle of rods and an axe blade symbolic of authority. The shield in her right hand represented the shield of the Union of the states, consistent with the shield on the Nation’s seal and otherwise symbolically displayed on our Nation’s important emblems. The other image is a man clutching snakes in his hands who represents discord which became known as Minerva repulsing discord. Taken in the context of the Civil War, the symbolism was the struggle to overcome discord and preserve the Union.
The ribbon holding the medal was originally a blue bar on top of and 13 red and white stripes running vertically down the ribbon representing the 13 original colonies. The white symbolizing purity and innocence, the red hardiness, valor and sacrifice, the blue representing perseverance and justice with the stripes collectively representing the rays of the sun.
The Army introduced its design version of the Medal of Honor in 1862 and shortly after the Navy Medal of Honor had been introduced. In contrast, the Army version of the Medal of Honor had the eagle, symbolizing the United States of America, with a saber in its talons and perched atop a cannon barrel. Then in 1904, the dominate image of the Navy Medal of Honor was changed to a portrait of a Goddess of War in replacement of Minerva repelling the symbolic image of discord. Then too, the red, white and blue ribbon was replaced with a light blue background colored ribbon with 13 stars symmetrically arranged to the dimensions of the ribbon. In 1919 the inverted star shape of the medal was replaced with the Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross had eight points that symbolized the 8 virtues of a knight with the cross represented the 4 directions of the sun. The Maltese Cross was not popular and accordingly discontinued in 1942. In 1965 the Air Force Medal of Honor was introduced and the Minerva and discord image were replaced with the head of the Statute of Liberty. Lady Liberty is in fact the conceived image of the mythical figure of Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, who was famed for her beauty, strength, and wisdom.