When the Civil War began in April 1861 the aim of the Northern government was to restore the Union. Nothing was said about slavery as it was hoped that the South would rejoin the rest of the country without too much trouble. Things did not quite work out as planned, however.
In the early months of the war there were some army commanders who wished to abolish slavery but they received orders to do nothing. The Lincoln Administration encouraged the army to arrest escaping slaves and to use them as workers.
During 1862 consideration was given in Washington to freeing the slaves but the first step was to authorize black army regiments. The first such units were created in early 1863 and by war’s end 179,000 black soldiers had been enrolled, of which 37,000 died.
Most black regiments served in the East, especially in Virginia under Gen.Ulysses S. Grant. The struggle between Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee was especially fierce in the fall of 1864 with the Union army slowly moving towards the Confederate capital at Richmond.
In September 1864, as Grant came closer to Richmond, two key forts barred his way. The resulting Battle of New Market Heights was but one phase of the struggle and involved the use of black troops in a critical manner.
The Union general over the black troops was Benjamin Butler, one of the more colorful commanders. When New Orleans was captured by Adm. Farragut in 1862, Butler was appointed military governor. He ruled with an iron fist, even hanging a local gambler who tore down a U.S. flag. He soon acquired the unenviable nickname of “Beast” Butler.
While military governor in Louisiana, Butler underwent a change in his view of blacks. At first he considered escaped slaves to be contraband, useful only as workers. Within a few months he saw the value of using blacks as a civil guard, thus freeing up regular troops. Butler then formally suggested raising black regiments for military operations but was told not to interfere in policy decisions. In 1864, however, Butler joined Grant’s command.
In the fall of 1864, as Grant forced Lee to retreat toward Richmond, the Confederates contested every inch of ground. Grant found himself unable to force the issue of a final battle because Lee had the defensive advantage.
In early September a confrontation began to shape up east of Richmond on the New Market Road, where Lee had established two forts, Harrison and Gilmer, to block the Union advance. They were well situated and Grant needed to capture both of them.
The assaults on Forts Harrison and Gilmer were soon organized, with black troops in Butler’s command playing a key role. There were skirmishes on Sept. 28, but the main battle came the following day. Troops attacked Fort Harrison first and it was carried by storm; Gilmer was fiercely contested.
In the end Fort Gilmer was not taken because of poor planning by Union officers. The Confederates managed to keep Gilmer and counterattacked against Harrison, but without success. Here again, black troops bore the brunt of the fighting.
Renewed attacks by Union troops failed to dislodge the Confederates at Gilmer and Butler had to admit temporary defeat. Lee had again stabilized his line, yet failed to retake Harrison, which was to prove disastrous in the long run.
Butler was so impressed with the black troops at Gilmer and Harrison that he did something no other Union general had done: he decided to have a special medal struck in their honor. To this end he wrote Mint Director James Pollock.
At Pollock’s suggestion, Butler contacted Anthony Paquet, a former Mint engraver who had resigned to do private commissions. Paquet prepared the dies and the work was approved by Gen.Butler.
In the spring of 1865 the Philadelphia Mint struck 197 silver and 11 copper medals and they were then sent to the Bigelow & Kennard firm in Boston. That company attached a ribbon and hanger to the silver medals; the copper pieces were meant for distribution by Butler but the silver medals, with a few exceptions, had the recipient’s name engraved on the edge.
Whenever possible Butler awarded the medals in person to the living recipient or the family in case of the soldier’s death.
The obverse shows two black soldiers charging a fort with a Latin legend “FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET” (“Freedom will come to them by the sword”) while below is “U.S. Colored Troops.” The reverse has a simple inscription “DISTINGUISHED FOR COURAGE, CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND 1864” within a wreath.
In his memoirs Butler had this to say: “I had the fullest reports made to me of the acts of individual bravery of colored men on that occasion, and I had done for the negro soldiers…what the government has never done for its white soldiers – I had a medal struck of like size, weight, quality, fabrication, and intrinsic value with those which Queen Victoria gave to her distinguished private soldiers of the Crimea…Since the war I have been fully rewarded by seeing the beaming eye of many a colored comrade as he drew his medal from the innermost recesses of its concealment to show me.”
These medals are rarely seen today and named silver pieces are of the greatest rarity. They are in strong demand from serious collectors.
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