LEGION OF HONOR
What is the Legion of Honor / la Légion d'honneur ?
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte 200 years ago to recognize military and civilian recipients who have made exceptional contributions to humankind, both in France and abroad.
On December 24, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted the "Arms of Honor" to recognize feats of valor by members of the army. But, he was already thinking about instituting a new award that would not be conferred exclusively for military valor. He conceived the formation of an honorary order that would reflect the principle of equality not only between military and civilian but also in services rendered to the country.
Napoleon's project was adopted and on May 19, 1802, the new order, which he named the Legion of Honor, was instituted.
From the beginning, it has been conferred on illustrious individuals in all walks of life--the military, magistrates, administrators and civil servants as well as men of distinguished achievement in the arts, fine arts, teaching, agriculture, trade and industry.
It was not enough, however, to recognize personal achievement and leave matters there. The founder of the Order wanted more, he wanted to spur the members of the Legion to even greater efforts in the service of their country. He accomplished this by instituting four ranks in the Legion: knight, officer, commander (until 1814), and grand-officer. In addition, Napoleon, as Emperor, added a fifth rank: grand croix or cross. The ranks of grand officer and grand cross are known as dignités.
From the outset, the emperor intended membership in the Legion of Honor to be a distinction of such illustriousness that it would fire people's imagination, spur soldiers to valor and be held in high esteem in other countries.
On July 15, 1804 the first crosses were awarded in the Church of the Invalides with all the splendor of imperial pomp. The emperor personally bestowed the awards on members of the great bodies of state--the assemblies, judges, clergy, the Institute, etc.-- and of course on the marshals and soldiers of the garrison in Paris after receiving their oath of loyalty as required by law.
The Legion of Honor was retained during the Restoration and coexisted from 1814 to 1830 with the old royal orders that were revived. At that time, it went to many civilians. Victor Hugo and Lamartine were made knights in 1825. Then starting with the reign of Louis Philippe, the Legion of Honor became the sole French national order, and the awards instituted by the kings disappeared for good.
The scarlet ribbon and the cross with its motto "Honneur et Patrie" is coveted to this day by the most illustrious men and women of France and much esteemed abroad.
The individuals listed below are just a few of the approximately 10,000 Americans honored:
- Dwight D. Eisenhower (1943), Grand-Croix five-star general in the United States Army, 34th President of the United States, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, and the supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower received his decoration directly from General Henri-Honoré Giraud who gave him his own. Eisenhower, as promised, did not put it on until the French tricolor flew over the city of Strasbourg in the French region of Alsace
- Douglas MacArthur (1918), Grand-Croix. American General, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and field marshal of the Philippine Army
- Audie Murphy (1948), the most decorated US soldier of World War II
- Chester W. Nimitz (1945), Grand-Croix. US Navy Fleet Admiral – Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II.
- George S. Patton (1944), Commandeur. US Army general
- Alexander Graham Bell (1847), inventor of the telephone
- Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd (Chevalier 1926), (Commandeur 1929) Leader of the first flights over the North Pole and South Pole
- Charles Lindbergh (1927), American aviator
- Julia Child (2000)
- Wynton Marsalis (2009), (US), an American trumpeter and composer
- Toni Morrison (2010), American novelist
- Robert Redford (2010), American actor
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1951), Commandeur
- Steven Spielberg (2004), American film director/producer
- Elie Wiesel Commandeur (1984), Grand-Officier (1990) Grand-Croix (2000), Holocaust survivor and author, Nobel Laureate
- Legion of Honor
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