HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the bill creating a day to honor “members of the armed forces who have distinguished themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty.”

The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg has an exhibit about the first Medals of Honor ever awarded. Their special exhibit, “Above and Beyond: Medal of Honor Recipients of the Civil War”, runs through January of 2023.

“It’s not so much about the medal itself, but the soldiers who earned the medal of honor,” says Brett Kelley, the museum’s curator of collections.

Get daily news, weather, breaking news and alerts straight to your inbox! Sign up for the abc27 newsletters here

The Medal of Honor almost didn’t happen. When first proposed in 1861, as the Civil War began, the Commanding General of the Army, Winfield Scott, rejected the idea.

“General Winfield Scott wasn’t too happy about handing out medals,” says Kelly “because that was kind of a European custom. And a lot of the old school generals felt this way.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, on the other hand, thought it was a grand idea, and on December 21, 1861, Congress passed a bill creating a medal for the Navy. An Army version of the medal didn’t come around until 1862, after Scott retired.

So why is Medal of Honor day on March 25th? That is the day in 1863 when the first medals were presented, to six of the men who took part in Andrew’s Raid, popularly known as the Great Locomotive Chase.

358 Their raid into Georgia is more commonly known as the Great Locomotive Chase,” says Kelley. “Probably thanks to the Disney film.” (Film history note: the Andrews Raid also inspired the classic Buster Keaton comedy, The General.)

The raid didn’t go well.

“They were captured, a lot of them were kept in captivity for a while, some escaped, and seven of them were hanged.”

Over 1500 Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War. The oldest winner was Henry Shutts, age 58, the youngest was Willie Johnston, age 13.

The rules for winning the medal weren’t really firmed up at the time. There were individual acts of bravery like Joseph Chambers, who captured the flag of the 1st Virginia Infantry during the Battle of Fort Steadman in 1865. “As they were advancing,” says Kelly, “he was running ahead, I guess he had some adrenalin going. He jumped into the trenches and saw the colors and he went for it. The Confederates there weren’t expecting a lone Union soldier to jump a trench and try to steal their flag, And as they were grabbing for their rifles the rest of the regiment came over the top, so he captured their flag and made it safely back to turn it in, and rejoined his regiment.”

Even some chaplains won Medals of Honor. “You think about Chaplains as being more caring for the spiritual wellbeing of the soldiers, and not so much being on the front line fighting alongside them,” says Kelley. Some of them got the Medal of Honor for their heroics in evacuating wounded soldiers from the front line, so they were perfectly willing to go and put themselves in mortal danger.”

Some Medals were clearly deserved. At Gettysburg Joshua Chamberlain won for his defense of Union Army’s left flank at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, stopping a Confederate advance by ordering a bayonet charge.

General Dan Sickles also won a Medal at Gettysburg, even though his actions almost brought disaster on the Union army. “He moved his entire 3rd Army Corps forward without orders. And that kind of left his flanks hanging in the air,” says Kelley. “And the confederates counterattacked and basically overwhelmed his corps. A division of the 2nd Corps had to be moved in to basically rescue him.” General Sickles lost a leg in the fighting, but managed to get down to Washington to plead his case with Lincoln.

“President Lincoln at that point wanted Generals that would fight. So he ignored the fact that he had moved his corps forwards without orders,” says Kelley.

Some, like Alonzo Cushing, gave the last full measure of devotion, staying with his artillery battery during Pickett’s Charge though severely wounded, keeping his command together until he was killed.

And then there was the 27th Maine. The entire regiment got medals for… just showing up.

According to Kelley, “It was right before the battle of Gettysburg, the army desperately needed men, they needed men to stay behind and guard Washington.” The 27th Maine was asked if they would stay for a few weeks after their enlistments expired. “The Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, promised that any who stayed after their enlistment date would get the Medal of Honor.”

African American soldiers won Medals of Honor but nowhere near as many as they deserved.

“Over a thousand were given to white soldiers, but only 26 for African American soldiers,” says Kelley.

One medal winner is truly unique. Doctor Mary Walker, the only female recipient, was awarded her Medal of Honor for treating the wounded in battle and across enemy lines during the Civil War.

“Dr. Mary E. Walker was the only woman to earn the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and actually even since the Civil War.”

Years after the war ended, the Army decided to do some housecleaning.

“In 1916 and 1917 The Army did a review of all the Medals of Honor,” says Kelley. “They wanted to make sure that everyone who had gotten a Medal of Honor had earned it.”

The 27th Maine had their medals rescinded. So did Dr. Walker. She would eventually have her medal restored in 1977.

Kelley says the Medal of Honor is one of those things that can unite us all. “I hope that people will come in, and read the stories, and understand that the Medal of Honor is truly a medal for all of us. An individual may earn the Medal of Honor, but we have the collective pride in those individuals, and it stays with us as a nation, it helps bind us together.