Army Corps of Engineers’ 1st MoH Recipient Earned it for Years of Service

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

To be a Medal of Honor recipient means you’ve been recognized for an extraordinary act of valor. But did you know that two recipients earned it for their entire career of service instead of just a single action?

Army Sgt. Maj. Frederick W. Gerber in 1867. Army photo

Army veteran Frederick William Gerber was one of those men. He served over the span of 32 years throughout the 1880s, during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

Gerber, a German immigrant, joined the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division in 1839. He returned to civilian life five years later, but decided to reenlist when a battalion of engineers (later known as the Army Corps of Engineers) was created in 1846.

Gerber was quickly sent to fight in the Mexican-American War, which was basically fought because Mexico was not happy the U.S. decided to admit Texas into the union after it won its independence from Mexico in 1836. Mexico also refused to negotiate the purchase of California and New Mexico with the U.S., so our growing nation decided to take by force what it couldn’t achieve by diplomacy.

During that war, Gerber distinguished himself in many ways, especially during the Battle for Mexico City, when he saved the life of Army Lt. George B. McClellan, who went on to become a battlefield general for the Union during the Civil War. When Mexico City was surrendered to the U.S., Gerber sounded the surrender call.

During the Civil War, Gerber, a first sergeant at the time, was sent to Portland, Maine, where he was put in charge of training volunteers into soldiers who could help build and repair bridges and roads, as well as clear mines.

Gerber with the Medal of Honor

In 1864, Gerber was promoted to sergeant major and became the first to hold the senior noncommissioned officer position in the engineering battalion. Three years later, the Army Corps of Engineers’ commander named Gerber as the battalion’s permanent sergeant major and adjutant.

Gerber took great pride in this role and was reportedly offered a commission several times, but he never accepted it.

“Practical and punctilious in all duties, he considered that to be the ranking noncommissioned officer in the Army was a greater honor than to hold a commission,” wrote Gilbert Thompson, a soldier who served with Gerber.

The sergeant major retired in 1871. His prize for his cumulative 25 years of service: the Medal of Honor. He was the first Army engineer to earn the coveted award, and one of only two to ever get it “in recognition of long, faithful, and meritorious services.” The only other man to earn the Medal of Honor for a career of service was Army Signal Corps Lt. Adolphus Greely in 1935.

Gerber died in 1875 and was buried alongside several other Medal of Honor recipients in Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. For his many years of service, we salute him!

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