Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Butler Medal - The Only Medal Awarded to Black Soldiers in the Civil War

The Butler Medal - Medal of the James

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Recently I had  a conversation with a colleague about Civil War and the medals awarded during the war.  I was surprised  that so few people had heard about the Butler Medal, and it's history.  This was a medal awarded to black soldiers who fought in the Battle of New Market Heights.  Many men in that battle also received the Medal of Honor.

But the Medal of the James has its own history as well. Several years ago, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see one of the few (less than five) known Butler Medals.  A good friend, mentor and colleague, Dr. Agnes K. Callum allowed me to see this medal that she has, which was given to one of the soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle. The grandson of the soldier wanted his grandfather's legacy to
be remembered.

The medal has an interesting history. After distinguishing themselves in the Battle of New Market Heights, General Benjamin Butler commissioned a medal to be made to give to the black men who fought so hard in that battle. This silver medal was struck at Tiffany's, and the medal is inscribed with the words "Distinguished Courage Campaign Before Richmond 1864" Approximately 200 medals were made, only the names of 16 recipients of the Butler Medal are known to this day. Some had their names inscribed along the edge of the medal.

Several weeks after the men received their medals, General Butler was relieved of his command and the black soldiers were forbidden to wear the medal. The government refused to honor the medal as "official". After more than a century after the war ended, two attempts were made to have the medal recognized officially, but they were still denied. 

I decided to share the fact that this medal exists and that there is an interesting history attached to it.

General Benjamin F. Butler had the Medal of the James created

"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 with her own hand to her distinguished private soldiers of the Crimea…These I gave with 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.”.–"  -  Benjamin Franklin Butler

In 2001, Historian Agnes Callum of Baltimore Maryland,  was photographed with the Civil War Medal The medal belonged to Gilbert Harris a former slave from Edgecombe County North Carolina. He escaped and joined the 2nd US Colored Cavalry. His medal is the only medal known with the name of the soldier engraved on the side.  In 2001 Mrs. Callum was photographed by the Baltimore Sun and discussed the history of the men who fought and also the history of the soldier to whom the medal was awarded.

Historian Agnes K. Callum holding Butler Medal Given to Gilbert Harris
Source: Baltimore Sun, August 2, 2001, Section E, page 1
Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor, Sun Staff

Page from  Service Record of Sgt. Gilbert Harris. Sept 1864
Three weeks after this was collected he was in the battle of New Market Heights
Source:  NARA Publication M1817  Service Record
Footnote Image:|261449152

I recently learned that replicas of the Butler Medal have been made. I hope that the history of this medal will be explored by more civil war enthusiasts.

Replica of the Butler Medal

Although never recognized as official, the medal has its place in history, and hopefully others will become aware of story behind the medal, as more strive to tell the history of the US Colored Troops.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Remembering Ft. Wagner on This Day

54th Massachusetts Colored at Ft. Wagner
Image: Library of Congress

Today is a special day. It is the anniversary of the assault on Ft. Wagner. Much has been written on the Assault of Ft. Wagner and the valor shown by the men of the 54th US Colored, on this day. For many years the mass grave of the soldiers were ignored. Today they are thankfully remembered for the brave men that  they were. These men who served in the regular US Army have a history as noble as that of the 178,000 men of the US Colored Troops, who served as volunteers in the Civil War.  
Today is also special for another reason as well---the official ribbon cutting of the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial took place as well. How fitting that the new home of this Civil War museum would officially open to the public on the anniversary of Ft. Wagner.

The historic significance of this day cannot be ignored.  For the men of the 54th, it was their "Baptism of Glory".  Though a day after the western victory at Honey Springs, I honor the men of the 54th for their courage and conviction to Freedom!!

This video posted by a Civil War enthusiast called 55th Massachusetts, tells the story eloquently of the 54th Massachusetts and their bravery.

Friday, July 15, 2011

July 1863--Honey Springs: A Victory for the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry

Image from Harper's Weekly depicting the Battle of Honey Springs - July 17,  1864

In mid July of 1863,  a critical battle occurred in the western theater of the Civil War. And in a few days, many Civil War enthusiasts will be commemorating the assault on Ft. Wagner, however, attention should be given to a major battle that occurred in the west---the day before. I am referring to the Battle of Honey Springs.

In Indian Territory in the heart of the Creek Nation, the 1st Kansas Colored comprised of former slaves from Arkansas, Indian Territory, and Missouri, engaged the enemy at Honey Springs. This battle is significant, because these black soldiers found themselves in an historic situation---they were in open confrontation with American Indian Confederate Units. Some of these soldiers had been slaves in the same tribe---their parents haven been taken west on the Trail of Tears.

Black soldiers in this battle were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, in addition to black soldiers of the Indian Home Guards.

The actions of the 1st Kansas Colored helped to secure Ft. Gibson as a Union fort and to drive confederate forces, including many of their former Indian slave holders farther south.

In the 1930s a former slave, Lucinda Davis described her memories of the Battle. She was a slave in the Creek Nation not far from the battle field. Many of the male slaves had already left for Kansas to join the Union Army. She was a mere child, tending to one of the children. She described how she saw Indian warriors riding quickly to the battlefield, with their gray uniforms and the "cris-cross" on their flag:

    I never forgit de day dat battle of de Civil War happen at Honey Springs! Old Master jest had de green corn all in, and us had been having a time gitting it in, too. Jest de women was all dat was left, 'cause de men slaves had all slipped off and left out. 
   My uncle Abe done got up a bunch and gone to de North wid dem to fight, but I didn't know den whar he went. He was in dat same battle, and after de War dey called him Abe Colonel. Most all de slaves 'round dat place done gone off a long time before dat wid dey masters when dey go wid old man Gouge and a man named McDaniel.
  We had a big tree in de yard, and a grape vine swing in it for de little baby "Istidji", and I was swinging him real early in de morning befo' de sun up..... I was swinging de baby, and all at once I seen somebody riding dis way 'cross dat prairie ___ jest coming a_kiting and a_laying flat out on his hoss. When he see de house he begin to give de war whoop. "Eya_a_a_a_he_ah!" When he git close to de house he holler to git out de way 'cause dey gwine be a big fight, and old Master start rapping wid his cane and yelling to git some grub and blankets in de wagon right now!
    ....Den jest as we starting to leave here come something across dat little prairie sho' nuff! We know dey is Indians de way dey is riding, and de way dey is all strung out. Dey had a flag, and it was all red and had a big criss_cross on it dat look lak a saw horse. De man carry it and rear back on it when de wind whip it, but it flap all 'round de horse's head and de horse pitch and rear lak he know something going happen, sho!

   After the Indian soldiers came, later came white confederate soldiers as well. She saw light and heavy artillery roll by.

   'Bout dat time it turn kind of dark and begin to rain a little, and we git out to de big road and de rain come down hard. It rain so hard for a little while dat we jest have to stop de wagon and set dar, and den long come more soldiers dan I ever see befo'. Dey all white men, I think, and dey have on dat brown clothes dyed wid walnut and butternut, and old Master say dey de Confederate soldiers. Dey dragging some big guns on wheels and most de men slopping 'long in de rain on foot.

When the old master orders them to take refuge they go into the country side as their home was not far fro Honey Springs. She then describes the retreat and the Union army in pursuit:

     We git in a big cave in dat cliff, and spend de whole day and dat night in dar, and listen to de battle going on. Dat place was about half_a_mile from de wagon depot at Honey Springs, and a little east of it. 
     We can hear de guns going all day, and along in de evening here come de South side making for a getaway. Dey come riding and running by whar we is, and it don't make no difference how much de head men hollers at 'em dey can't make dat bunch slow up and stop.
     After while here come de Yankees, right after 'em, and dey goes on into Honey Springs and pretty soon we see de blaze whar dey is burning de wagon depot and de houses.
     ......Den long come lots of de Yankee soldiers going back to de North, and dey looks purty wore out, but dey is laughing and joshing and going on.
 She goes on to describe how she and other slaves were taken farther south farther away from Union lines.  Her testimony is included here, because it is one of the very few (if not the only) account of a battle from the perspective of a civilian. In her case---from the perspective of a young black girl, held in bondage by Creek Indians.  She was an eye witness to some of these events because the lived on the Texas road---the main road to Honey Springs.  (She was interviewed in the 1937s as part of the WPA Slave Narratives. )

Thanks to Lucinda Davis, and her memories of life as a slave in the Creek Nation, this witness to a critical Civil War battle and her memories of it having lived so close by, this small portion of what became a major Union victory is known.

Lucinda Davis, Creek Freedwoman
Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society

More on the Battle of Honey Springs can be found at Civil War Today.