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Medals honor War of 1812 leaders

The War of 1812, which began in June of that year, was to produce several gold medals honoring victorious leaders of that conflict.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of that conflict and the medal under discussion here was awarded to Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby for his critical role in the resounding victory at the Battle of the Thames in Canada. It was perhaps this battle, more than any other, which preserved the hold of the United States on the Old Northwest.

Isaac Shelby was born in December 1750 near the small town of Hagerstown, Maryland. At the age of 23 he accompanied his father, Evan Shelby, on a raid by the British army against hostile Indian tribes. The Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, which resulted in a major defeat of the Indians, marked a turning point in Isaac Shelby’s career as he felt that he was destined to find glory on the field of battle.

During 1775 Shelby, now a practicing surveyor in both Virginia and Maryland, watched the political scene with great care as relations between Colonial leaders and the British government escalated toward open rebellion. The fighting at Lexington and Concord stiffened Shelby’s resolve and in 1776 he enlisted in the American army.

Shelby saw active service in the patriot army and rose quickly to become a trusted officer. His service proved outstanding at the famous Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, a key victory for the rebel cause. Because of this victory, British commander Lord Cornwallis was forced to abandon his plans for a full-scale invasion of the Carolinas. (Kings Mountain was in South Carolina, just below the North Carolina border.)

After the war’s end in 1783 Shelby moved to Kentucky and entered politics as a hero of the Revolution. It was not all that long before he became a leader in political affairs and was in fact elected the first governor of that state in 1792. His administration of state affairs gained him a strong measure of public acclaim for the adroit handling of numerous problems. After his term ended, he returned to private life.

When it was apparent in the early days of 1812 that war with England was but a matter of time, at the age of 61 Shelby came out of his semi-retirement to run again for the post of governor. He won the election and set out to make Kentucky one of the linchpins of defense against the British in the West. By the fall of 1812 he had persuaded more than 4,000 Kentuckians to enlist in the struggle.

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At an early stage of the war the British, under Colonel Henry Proctor, had seized Detroit. That city was theoretically well defended by American forces but in a surprise move the American commander abruptly surrendered. Proctor’s command included the usual Indian allies, and his failure to keep them under control led to brutal massacres of American soldiers that had been captured at Detroit.

The Kentucky forces under Shelby moved north to meet William Henry Harrison, the commander of American forces in the West. They were soon joined by well-trained cavalrymen under Colonel Richard Johnson, who later became vice president under President Martin Van Buren.

The first order of business for the combined forces was to drive Proctor out of northwestern Ohio, which he had invaded after capturing Detroit. In a series of flanking movements, as well as the failure of the combined British and Indian forces to capture key forts, Harrison and Shelby forced Proctor back toward his Canadian base of operations.

With the British cleared out of Ohio and the northeastern part of the Indiana Territory, the way was clear to recapture Detroit, which was soon accomplished. Harrison regrouped his forces at Detroit and then prepared to invade Canada. Key roles were assigned to both Shelby and Colonel Johnson in these plans.

In the late summer of 1813 Harrison crossed into Canada to attack forces under Proctor’s command. Because the American forces used as a rallying cry the massacres that occurred early in the war, Proctor knew that the psychological advantage rested with the Americans. As a result, Proctor refused open battle and retreated deep into Canada, hoping that the American supply trains could not keep up with their advance. (Perry’s famous victory on Lake Erie had effectively destroyed British defenses by water, thus allowing Harrison a relatively easy progress in his invasion of Canada.)

Despite the retreat there came a time when Proctor had little choice except to stand and fight. His Indian allies, especially those being led by the famed Tecumseh, threatened to desert the British unless something could be done to stop the American advance. The decision to fight came at a site near the Moravian settlements on the Thames River. The date was Oct. 5, 1813.

The ferocious onslaught of the American infantry, accompanied by the brilliant cavalry attacks under Colonel Johnson, led to an overwhelming victory. The British and Indian units retreated in near chaos, abandoning the field of battle in great haste. Proctor himself barely escaped capture and did not stop his headlong flight until he was far from the scene. He left so quickly that even his personal possessions, such as letters from his wife, were soon spoils of war.

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The battle also marked the end of Tecumseh as an effective leader against the American presence in the Indiana Territory. Sensing possible defeat early in the battle, Tecumseh had personally led a contingent of his bravest warriors against the Americans in an attempt to change the course of events. In the ensuing firefight Tecumseh was killed. Colonel Johnson later claimed that he had personally slain the Indian leader in close combat, but there was never any way to prove this point one way or the other.

With the enemy forces shattered at the Battle of the Thames the American army continued mop-up operations, but in due course returned to Detroit. There was virtually no chance of a resurgent British army threatening the American West in the foreseeable future.

The war ended in 1815; the treaty of peace had been signed in late 1814 at Ghent in Belgium, but word did not reach America in time to prevent the Battle of New Orleans early in the new year. Most of the gold medals for the army were voted by Congress in late 1814, but those for the Battle of the Thames (Harrison and Shelby) were not acted upon until April 1818 because of political considerations. Harrison and Shelby were apparently victims of Eastern prejudice against victories in the West; armies in the East had been far less successful.

After the war Shelby remained a popular figure and in 1817 President James Madison asked him to became Secretary of War. Because of his advanced age (66) for the time, Shelby declined the honor, although he did accompany General Andrew Jackson in his negotiations with the Chickasaw Indians. The discussions went well because of Jackson’s reputation as a ferocious opponent if fighting happened to result.

There were two series of gold medals, those for the Army and those for the Navy. Judge Joseph Hopkinson of Philadelphia was chosen by the War Department to superintend those for the Army but he proved a bit slow to begin his task and the Navy was able to secure the services of Morris Furst, considered the only artist in this country capable of executing the necessary dies.

(Mint assistant engraver John Reich was actually the first choice but his eyesight failed, leaving Furst as the only skilled artist available for such work. Furst worked for more than a decade on these medals, earning him a sizeable income in the process.)

Once Hopkinson was fully aware of the situation, he arranged for the necessary artwork to be prepared well in advance. It was not until 1821, however, that Furst was finished with the Naval dies and able to sign the necessary contracts for the Army medals.

Much of the design work for reverses of the Army medals was done by famed artist Thomas Sully. (Sully later prepared the Seated Liberty motif for American silver coins, which first appeared on the superb Gobrecht dollar of 1836.) The obverses were more-or-less fixed, with Furst engraving the portraits in steel after the miniatures prepared by various artists.

Although Harrison had been the overall commander at the Battle of the Thames, and the victories leading up to the invasion of Canada, he got short shrift when it came to his gold medal. Hopkinson had the final say in who got what kind of design and it was Shelby who obtained the coveted battle scene. Harrison got the lesser allegorical view.
One matter that favored Shelby was the fact that Colonel Johnson was in Philadelphia and worked closely with Hopkinson and Sully in preparing the reverse battle scene for the Thames victory. Johnson was particularly interested in showing the body of Tecumseh on the ground between the two armies and was at some pains to delineate the position of the troops at this exact point in time.

The decision to include the figure of Tecumseh was also a political decision on the part of the War Department. The symbolism of the key Indian resistance leader being killed in battle was something that could be pointed out to Indian leaders thinking of following in Tecumseh’s footsteps.

Furst charged $600 for the Harrison allegorical reverse die but $1,800 for Shelby’s battle scene reverse; the obverse dies were ticketed at $1,000 each, regardless of the officer involved. Harrison, to put it mildly, was highly irritated by the whole affair but his strong protests to the War Department got him little except pious platitudes.

Due to Shelby’s advanced age in 1821 Hopkinson ordered that his dies be prepared first. Despite the urgency Furst did not finish both dies until May 1822 when they were sent to Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt at the Philadelphia Mint. The chief coiner was personally responsible for hardening the dies so that the medals could be properly struck. Due to an excess of caution, however, Eckfeldt did not successfully harden the dies until March 1824; the Shelby medal was then struck soon after. The Harrison medal was also struck at about the same time.

Once the dies were ready for use in the medal press Eckfeldt asked the War Department for funds to strike the gold Army medals voted by Congress, since the roughly $150 worth of gold that each contained amounted to a considerable sum of money. Eckfeldt let himself be persuaded by the Treasury that he ought to provide the gold out of his own pocket and then bill the government for the costs involved.

The chief coiner agreed to the arrangement and then billed the government for the next 14 years. It was not until 1838, and a special act of Congress, that he finally received the funds due him, without interest, for medals struck in 1824.

The medal was mailed by the War Department to Kentucky and it was awarded to Shelby in a special ceremony held at his home. It was a fitting memorial to a man who had served his country well. He was able to enjoy the medal for only two years, however, his death coming in 1826.

After 1824 occasional medals were struck from the Shelby dies but it is doubtful that more than 15 or 20 pieces were produced prior to 1860. In 1861 a newly-constituted medal department at the Philadelphia Mint began selling the Shelby medal, as well as many others of a national character, to the collecting public.

Because the Battle of the Thames was somewhat obscure, and Shelby not well known outside of Kentucky, the number of Shelby medals sold by the Mint was not all that great. It is likely the original dies were used until at least 1900; at some unknown point replacement dies were made.

The Shelby medals struck for collectors after 1860 are termed copper-bronzed as they were struck in copper and then artificially bronzed in a special process. These are quite popular with medal collectors because of their fine mahogany proof-like finish. In 1901 the Mint switched to real bronze (called “late bronze” by present-day numismatists) for the medals, sand-blasting the finish before they were sold; these modern medals are much less popular with collectors.

In 1980s the Mint began to stop striking many of the 19th century medals that had long been available. The Shelby medal was included on the list of those no longer to be struck and today it can be obtained only on the secondary market.

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