April 2nd, 2009
On October 11, 1864, General Benjamin Butler announced the commission of a medal he wished to award to the African American soldiers deemed to have exhibited exceptional courage while serving under his command during fighting at Ft. Harrison and Ft. Gilmer during the Battle of Chaffin’s Heights in Henrico County, VA a few weeks prior. Butler had intended to use his troops, both white and black, to gain access to the city of Richmond. This is also the battle in which fourteen African American soldiers received the official Medal of Honor. Anthony C. Paquet designed what would come to be known as both the Butler Medal and The Army of the James Medal, and Tiffany’s of New York manufactured the awards before their presentation. The silver medals read “Ferro lis Libertas Perveniet” on the front, which translates to “Liberty Came to them by the Sword.” The reverse bears the phrase “Distinguished Courage Campaign Before Richmond, 1864.”
The Butler Medals became the first and only US military awards created specifically for African American soldiers, though the government has never recognized it as an official military honor. Around two hundred men received the award, and General Butler made it a point to present as many as possible in person. But because the army never recognized the award, the names and origins of all but about twenty-one of the recipients have been lost to history. It is therefore unknown whether these men were free blacks or escaped slaves. What is known, sadly, is that at war’s end the government forbid the recipients’ wearing of their medals with their uniforms. Today one of the medals is owned by the National Museum of American History. A request for clarification as to how the medal ended up in the museum went unanswered by the staff.
Congress officially permitted the employment of black soldiers with the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. It is interesting that General Butler, nicknamed “The Beast,” would be the one to initiate the medal in honor of African American soldiers as he originally opposed the use of black soldiers in the war. His skepticism faded somewhat in the battle for New Orleans when he declared that a desperate need for reinforcements could persuade him to “call upon Africa to interfere and I do not think I shall call in vain.” After capturing the city of New Orleans, Butler helped to bring the formerly Confederate African American unit known as the Louisiana Native Guard under Union leadership. These 3,000 soldiers became some of the first black troops in the Union. Butler also coined the term contraband to describe escaped slaves who joined Union lines.
Butler’s thoughts on the medal in his own words:
“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.”