Although the United States military has awarded special medals for bravery, notably the Medal of Honor, in the 19th century there was only one medal struck as an award to a body of troops for a particular battle.
This was the highly sought-after 1864 “Colored Troops before Richmond” medal, which is an extraordinary reminder of the Civil War and the bravery of black troops in the Union Army.
The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November 1860 set off alarm bells throughout the South. The President-elect was seen as an abolitionist wanting to free the slaves, which was not quite true. He did not believe in slavery but felt that it had to be gradually abolished to avoid bloodshed between North and South.
Prior to the Inauguration on March 4, 1861, several Southern states had either seceded from the Union or had signaled their intention of doing so. Lincoln had privately sent assurances of his real views to influential Southerners, but they had been ignored.
Actually the question of slavery was not the only issue troubling the South. In 1830, for example, South Carolina had threatened to secede over the tariff laws, but President Andrew Jackson made it plain that he would personally lead a federal army to end any such plans and the secession movement cooled for the time being, only to regain momentum during the late 1850s.
Had cooler heads prevailed in South Carolina the secession of the Southern states might well have gone peacefully despite Lincoln’s wish to preserve the Union. In early 1861, for example, there were mass meetings by ordinary citizens all over the North asking that the South be allowed to depart in peace.
However, Rebel demands that the North evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor proved a sticking point and local troops opened fire on the federal installation April 12, 1861. The small federal force under Major Robert Anderson was soon forced to surrender and the Civil War was a reality. By sheer luck, no one was killed or seriously injured in the bombardment, but that would not be the case for the next four years of brutal conflict.
In the opening weeks of the war both sides thought that an easy victory would soon be theirs and long-term planning was not even considered. For the first major battle, at Bull Run (Manassas), Union sightseers even drove out by carriage to watch the North triumph, but instead the South won an overwhelming victory and the roads to Washington were soon clogged with retreating Union soldiers and civilian families.
Despite the loss at Bull Run, the Lincoln Administration still thought of a short war and the reunification of the Union while the South also believed a limited war was in the cards, with the North letting the South go in peace after it was demonstrated that the South would otherwise fight. Both sides were in for terrible surprises and four long years of carnage was to prove this very well.
Some of the Union victories in 1861 and 1862 resulted in slaves being freed but the Administration was uncertain how to handle this. Some commanders attempted to enroll black soldiers, but were promptly rebuked by Washington. It was not until early 1863 that Lincoln gave the go-ahead to enroll blacks in Union regiments; by war’s end some 179,000 of them had served, with 37,000 losing their lives.
It is little known, but in the death throes of the Confederacy – in early 1865 – Southern military commanders and civilian authorities increasingly used slaves to support the army, some of them even being promised their freedom under special circumstances. The irony of this was not lost on the front lines where the majority of the Southern troops came from families that owned no slaves.
While some black Union regiments served in the West, along the Mississippi line of battle, others were used under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Virginia theatre of operations. It was under these circumstances that the battle of New Market Heights erupted in late September 1864.
The general in charge of the black troops in Virginia during this turbulent period was the flamboyant Benjamin F. Butler, who is better known to historians as “Beast” Butler because of his draconian military rule in New Orleans in 1862. Butler even hanged gambler Lewis Mumford for trying to tear down the United States flag after federal forces had retaken the city. Butler’s rule was perhaps unnecessarily harsh, but citizens were soon able to walk the streets of New Orleans, day or night, without fear of being robbed or killed by local criminals.
At New Orleans Butler had employed ex-slaves as “civil guards,” though they were never enrolled as soldiers in a formal sense. Butler saw their value and suggested that the government raise levies of black troops, but his advice came too early in the war.
During the summer of 1864 Gen.Grant, by now the supreme commander of the Union armies, was slowly driving Gen. Robert E. Lee back towards the Confederate capital at Richmond. It was a bloody fight to the finish and the wily Lee was a master of using his smaller army against the overwhelming Union superiority in men and materiel. Lee’s major advantage was the fact that he was on home ground and defense requires fewer troops than attack.
Grant continually shifted his battle lines in an attempt to force the issue, but Lee was able to move his meager and ill-fed forces in time, inflicting heavy casualties on the North. By the latter part of September, however, a major battle was shaping up a few miles southeast of Richmond, on the New Market Road. Two forts, Harrison and Gilmer, were strongly defended by elite Confederate troops and were important links in Richmond’s slowly crumbling defense perimeter.
Grant ordered that the two forts be taken as soon as possible and Gen. Butler’s black regiments were assigned a critical role in the assault. Skirmishes broke out on Sept. 28, but the real fighting would come the following day.
Early on the 29th the Union 10th and 18th Corps (Army of the Potomac) were first sent against Fort Harrison after a tremendous cannonade that shook the earth for miles around. Harrison was in fact carried by storm, black troops leading the way, while a second charge targeted Gilmer. The latter fort was hotly contested, with even a few feet of advance being thought of as good progress.
In the end even the bravery of Butler’s regiments could not overcome the extraordinary Confederate resistance at Fort Gilmer and the Union forces were slowly forced to fall back. Butler himself blamed faulty planning at the Union headquarters though the Southern military commanders knew that they had to retain Gilmer at all costs in order to maintain the Richmond line of defense.
The Union failure to seize Fort Gilmer proved critical because Lee had the time to stabilize his line. Even so, the victory at Harrison was one of those signal events that was to doom the Confederacy within a few months.
Butler was so impressed with the exceptional bravery of his black regiments that he determined to have a medal struck in honor of those individuals whose performance went well beyond the call of duty. He contacted Mint Director James Pollock in Philadelphia and explained what he wanted done. Pollock agreed to have the medals struck at the Mint using the designs created by Gen. Butler and also to be entirely at the general’s expense.
Pollock engaged a former assistant Mint engraver, Anthony C. Paquet, to prepare the dies. Paquet then dealt directly with Butler, sending him samples of the work as it progressed.
The dies were cut directly into steel, requiring a special and demanding skill, but Paquet used a device not often seen in the 19th century. He hired a skilled artist to model the Butler design in plaster, as a guide when preparing the dies. It slowed down the process a little, but made for a very fine medal in the end.
The dies for the 40mm medal were completed in the spring of 1865 and Butler notified Pollock of how many medals were to be struck. He wanted 197 silver and 11 copper medals, though it is likely that Paquet had a small number made for himself, also in copper, to show prospective clients the quality of his work. Another was presumably laid aside for the Mint cabinet.
As soon as they were struck, the finished medals were sent to the Boston jewelry firm of Bigelow and Kennard, where a ribbon and hanger were attached to each of the silver specimens (The copper pieces were retained by Butler for special purposes, perhaps including presentation to key military or political leaders.) Some of the silver had the recipient’s name engraved on the edge, but most apparently did not. The majority of the silver medals had a red, white and blue ribbon attached but not all did and perhaps there was some symbolism attached to this difference.
Butler not only paid for the medals, he made it a point to award them in person when feasible at specially called formations of the troops. One can only imagine the pride of a soldier receiving such an important reminder of his heroism in front of his comrades in arms.
The obverse of the medal shows two black soldiers charging a bastion with the Latin legend FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET, or “Freedom will come to them by the sword.” In the exergue we find Butler named as the designer and Paquet as the engraver.
The reverse has the simple, yet eloquent, inscription DISTINGUISHED FOR COURAGE, CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND 1864 with a wreath separating parts of the wording.
In 1892 Butler published his autobiography (Butler’s Book) and had the following to say about these special medals: “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, by my own order, 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 … These I gave by my own hand, save where the recipient was in a distant hospital wounded, and by the commander of the colored corps after it was removed from my command, and I record with pride that in that single action there were so many deserving that it called for a presentation of nearly two hundred. 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 and named silver pieces are of the greatest rarity as there is little doubt that such medals, for obvious reasons, have been handed down in families for generations. Some of the copper pieces, which were meant for private distribution by Butler, were not awarded and eventually wound up in numismatic circles.
In the Stack’s Americana sale of January 2009 there was an original silver medal – though the ribbon was perhaps a replacement – which brought a strong hammer price of $34,500. Two additional copper medals in high grade, from among the few such specimens ordered by Gen.Butler, brought strong prices, at $6,900 and $4,900. It may well be a long wait before another such assemblage of this magnitude appears at public auction.
There is an odd postscript to this rather special medal. About 1980 the famed Tiffany firm, for whatever reason, struck a small number of silver replicas. These are also seen on rare occasion and, in fact, one was in the 2009 Americana sale.