Upon Further Review, "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Medal of Honor Reinstated

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Upon Further Review, "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Medal of Honor Reinstated

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, c. 1875
Albumen print, from George Eastman House Photography Collection
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 12, 1989

Our military history spotlight today falls upon one of this country's legends of the Old West. He became a larger-than-life character in his own lifetime. But not many people know about his actions while serving as a scout for the U.S. Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment.


In the spring of 1872, on the Nebraska frontier William F. Cody was called to duty. A band of Mineconju Sioux had raided McPherson Station near the newly completed transcontinental railroad and stole horses at Fort McPherson. Cody, chief civilian scout for the 3rd Cavalry, pursued the Indians with Captain Charles Meinhold and 30 troopers. On April 26, while guiding an advance party, Cody and his men discovered a dozen Indians encamped with the stolen horses.

The troopers were 50 yards away when the Indians spotted them, and a fight ensued. Cody killed one warrior, and noticed six mounted Indians escaping. He and 15 cavalrymen pursued them for 12 miles, near the Loupe Fork of the Platte River. The chase ended as a partial success: the Indians escaped, but Cody and his men recovered two of the stolen horses.

Meinhold's report recommends the Medal of Honor for Cody. His report of the incident ended with, "Mr. William Cody's reputation for bravery and skill as a guide is so well established, that I need not say anything else but that he acted in his usual manner."

Cody was ever after the favorite scout of the 3rd Cavalry. He kept them from being ambushed, he guided them to victory, and his own fame reflected glory on the regiment. Cody was wounded in action just once, and was considered "good luck."

Buffalo Bill's Medal of Honor; On display at Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody WY; Image coutesy of http://centerofthewest.org
Buffalo Bill's Medal of Honor
On display at Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody WY
Image coutesy of http://centerofthewest.org

Cody received the Medal of Honor sometime afterwards. His MOH citation is short and to the point: "Gallantry in action." He never made a big deal about his award, just went about his business as an Army scout, buffalo hunter, and later showmaster of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West." [His Western-themed circus-like attraction never used the word "Show" in its title.]

The 1916-17 Reexamination of MOH Records

In early 1916, Congress passed legislation to establish "The Army and Navy Medal of Honor Roll" and authorized a $10 monthly pension for Medal recipients over age 65. The legislation also tightened the eligibility requirements for receipt of the Medal of Honor. About one month later, a board of review was authorized by Congress, "…to consist of five general officers on the retired list of the Army, [it] shall be convened...for the purpose of investigating and reporting upon past awards or issue of the…Medal of Honor."

Four months later, on October 16, 1916, The Board of Generals convened under Lieutenant General Nelson Miles, a Medal recipient from the Civil War. General Miles had taken an active role in promoting legislation to protect the Medal as commander of the Medal of Honor Legion and approached the work of his committee with determination and dedication. Every award of the Army Medal of Honor since the Civil War was reviewed. The recipients were anonymous to the board, each record examined represented only by a number.

The board presented its report on February 5, 1917. The report recommended that 911 MOH awards be stricken from the Medal of Honor roll. Two major groups affected were:

  • 864 members of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The Medals of Honor were given to these men as an inducement to remain in the Army of the Potomac past their term of enlistment. The Gettysburg Campaign had just begun, and President Lincoln was concerned that veteran units were needed to repel Lee's invasion;
  • 29 members of Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard; and,
  • 5 civilian scouts – including Buffalo Bill – who, though employed by the Army, were not members of the military. Another civilian employee MOH recipient whose medal was revoked was Surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. [Readers interested in Ms. Walker's story should read my BurnPit post from July of 2011 Mary Edwards Walker, First (And Only) Female MOH Recipient.]

The report's release occurred a month after Buffalo Bill died.


The Buffalo Bill Historical Center acquired William F. Cody's Congressional Medal of Honor in 1983. Shortly after, the museum joined with Cody Family descendents and Wyoming's congressional delegation in an effort to restore Cody's name to the roll of honor. The U.S. Army Board of Correction of Military Records reviewed the records, and ruled on June 12, 1989 that Cody's name – along with the other four civilian Army scouts – should be restored to the rolls of the Medal of Honor.

Footnote #1: Another result from the 1917 Board of Generals review was the establishment of the "Pyramid of Honor." This is the hierarchy of medals awarded to Armed Forces members that do not reach the level of the Medal of Honor. Below the Medal of Honor are:

The Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, and the Coast Guard Cross;

Then follows: the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal.

Footnote #2: A second result of the 1917 review is that there will never again be any servicemember receiving two Medals of Honor. In the history of the MOH, there were 19 double-Medal of Honor recipients.

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Notably, the pyramid of honor was developed in WWI, by direction of General Pershing. President Wilson acted on Pershing's recommendation by creating the lower medals by executive order and then congress retroactively codified the order by legislative action in 1918. So, the 1916-17 review board really had nothing to do with that. The primary impetus was that US soldiers were serving in the trenches alongside Allied soldiers who had far more developed award systems (notably the French and British). Pershing was concerned that this would result in a morale problem, because having only one medal for valor or service meant that commanders had to deny most potential recipients any tangible recognition after the strict criteria were introduced in 1897.

Oh, and the prohibition against multiple MoHs was repealed at the behest of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2014 defense bill, I think). So now anyone can receive more than one.

The Army Commendation medal can also be awarded with "V" device.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.