American Sailors and Marines were without official medals or other visible signs of their overseas service or combat for the first 120 years of the Navy's existence, since orders, medals and decorations were seen as the trappings of royalty and empire and ran contrary to the republican spirit present at the founding of our country. On rare occasions, Congress authorized special commemorative medals for heroes of dramatic naval victories, but these went chiefly to the vessels' commanding officer and were not medals intended for wear on the naval uniform. Congress repeatedly showed a reluctance to authorize official medals commemorating service by the armed forces.
In 1905, the U.S. Army, with the encouragement of then-President Theodore Roosevelt, created a series of badges for wear on the uniform commemorating prior service in designated campaigns. The issuance of badges as part of the uniform fell under the authority of the individual services and required no congressional approval. The Navy Department followed suit with Special Order No. 81 of 27 June 1908, authorizing a series of "badges" for service as distant in time as the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion.
The 1908 directive was but the first step in molding a system of service medals recognizing service by Navy and Marine Corps personnel in the far-flung corners of the world that continues to this day.
The bulk of the information in this section comes from the 1948, 1953, and 2006 U.S. Navy Awards Manuals. Changes and revisions occur over the years and, when appropriate, are noted. Several historical notes are annotated. Information has also come from the Manual of Military Decorations and Awards: DoD Service Awards—Campaign, Expeditionary, and Service Medals, May 15, 2015.
Most commemorative medals (those issued prior to Navy sanctioning in 1908) are not included here because they rarely are encountered. Two, however, the Battle of Manila Bay Medal and the West Indies Naval Campaign Medal, 1898 are included because of their widespread issuance. Many of the medals described are in the collection of the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.