U.S. Colored Troops honored with medal

As someone who buys and sells historic objects all day, every day, it’s easy to get jaded. But, every once in a while, something comes along to help you snap out of it.

Benjamin Franklin Butler
Benjamin Franklin Butler

In 1865, Union Major General Benjamin Butler paid out of his own pocket for a medal to be struck to honor the courage of the men of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought under him on the way to Richmond.

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.

One hundred ninety-seven medals were struck in silver; most awarded to those men who fought.

The pictured medal actually bears the recipient’s name on the edge, “Abraham Armstead.” Armstead was a slave in eastern North Carolina until he got to Union lines and signed up at age 43. Six weeks later he was the sergeant of his company. (Imagine the actor Morgan Freeman in the film Glory, but real.)

us-colored-troops-metal-oThe obverse of the medal is inscribed in Latin “FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET” or “Liberty will be theirs by the sword.”

Every other one of these medals I’ve seen are in nearly perfect condition having been laid in a drawer one day in 1865 and forgotten about. It looks like Sergeant Armstead wore this medal day in and day out for years. Like the old spirtual song, “nobody knows the trouble ‘it’s’ seen.”

us-colored-troops-metal-rThe medal is about the size of a silver dollar and it was struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Despite being struck by the government, the Army would not permit these medals to be worn while the men were in uniform because they were privately commissioned unofficial medals. Something tells me that Sergeant Armstead practiced a little civil disobedience and wore his medal every day in uniform and out. Who could really blame him?

General Butler actually said in his memoirs that this medal was inspired by the Crimea medal.

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.

John Kraljevich is a leading expert on early numismatic Americana. To learn more, visit John Kraljevich Americana.

Image: “Benjamin Franklin Butler Brady-Handy” by Brady-Handy – Library of Congress. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.

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