Unclaimed West Virginia Civil War Medals
By Fredrick H. Armstrong
The following list of approximately fifty-two hundred names represents the number of Civil War soldiers' medals remaining in the possession of the state of West Virginia. These medals were among the twenty-six thousand and ninety-nine minted by authority of the state for Union veterans of West Virginia military units. Authorized by the West Virginia legislature by Joint Resolution No. 11 in 1866, many of the medals minted for West Virginia troops failed to be claimed because of the state's inability to establish contact with the veterans, many of whom originated from adjacent states or left the region following the war.
The almost fifty-two hundred medals remaining are stored in the Department of Culture and History's Archives and History Library, and are the object of a major media campaign to distribute them to descendants of these Civil War veterans, whose military service helped to establish the state. The medals are stored in the small cardboard boxes in which they arrived from A. Demarest of New York City following the 1866 commissioning by Governor A. I. Boreman based upon the contract arranged by Adjutant General George W. Brown of Preston County. Anyone who can establish a line of descent, supplemented by documents or copies, from one of the men on this list may submit a claim for the medal. The claim must be submitted in writing and the Union veteran's name, company, regiment and branch of service should be stated plainly, as should the line of descent from the Union veteran to the claimant. Supporting documentation can be military, census, birth, death, marriage and similar types of records.
These medals of honor for West Virginia Union soldiers were "tokens of respect" designed on the Ohio veteran and Crimean War medal patterns. The finely bronze medals of copper were struck in three categories at a cost not to exceed one dollar each.
The greatest number of medals struck were Class I -- "Honorably Discharged" -- which have the figure of Liberty, scantily draped, to the right, with both arms extended. In the right-hand is a laurel wreath which she is about to place upon the head of a soldier, who is stepping forward to be crowned; and in the left- hand she is holding a scroll which the soldier is receiving. Behind Liberty is the American eagle and behind the soldier is a box of growing cereals. In addition to the legend, motto and figure from the state's seal are the dates 1861 and 1865 and the name of J. Sigel, one of the artists responsible for the medal's design (this being the same for all three medals).
The Class II -- "Killed in Battle" -- medals show a battle scene with a mounted officer with sword drawn leading a charge of United States soldiers with fixed bayonets and flag flying. Also on the field is a dismounted cannon, and dead bodies and fleeing troops.
Class III -- "For Liberty" -- medals issued for those officers and soldiers who had died of disease and wounds received in battle, have a catafalque on which are the words "Died in the Defence of his Country." To the right of this is the properly draped figure of Liberty holding a drum and to the left a soldier with his right arm in a sling.
The reverse of all three medals has a wreath of laurel inscribed within, with the words "Presented by the State of West Virginia," and the name "A Demarest, N.Y." All three medals are suspended from a bronzed pin, a scroll, on which the words of the classification of the medal are inscribed and to which is attached the letters WV, interlaced, and a red, white and blue ribbon one-eighth inches wide by four inches long. In sunken letters in the milling edge of each medal is the soldier's name, rank, company, and regiment. The list which follows is based upon the names milled in the edge of the remaining medals.
The state has conducted several campaigns to distribute the medals. Originally the responsibility of the Adjutant General's Office, approximately fifteen thousand were given out during the first year and an additional twenty-five hundred in 1868. In this campaign newspaper advertisements were used soliciting soldiers' addresses and some medals were transferred to regimental or company commanders for distribution. Franking privileges were obtained through the state's congressional delegation to eliminate the cost of mailing the medals to the Union veterans. Distribution of the remaining medals was very slow because of the state's inability to reach veterans and their heirs.
In 1891 the Grand Army of the Republic published part of the list of medals remaining in the custody of the Adjutant General's Office. This report also referred to the loss of some of the medals during the several transfers of the state capitol between Wheeling and Charleston through "carelessness or negligence." Almost twenty years later Virgil A. Lewis, the first state historian and archivist, in writing to Governor William M. O. Dawson to solicit his support in having the medals transferred to the Department of Archives and History for distribution, stated that about seven thousand remained in 1870 and this number had been reduced by only two to three thousand in the intervening thirty-nine years. Another state historian and archivist, James L. Hupp, over fifty years later during the Civil War and state centennials implemented a program to transfer the medals from state possession to the proper heirs. As the following list of almost fifty-two hundred names indicates, the combined efforts of over one hundred years have distributed approximately eighty percent of the soldiers' medals. Today, the Department of Culture and History, through the Archives and History Library, is attempting to complete the task begun in 1866 by awarding the medals to the veterans' heirs who submit documented claims establishing a line of descent from the veteran to themselves. Persons documenting the most direct line of descent from one of the Union soldiers on this list will receive the medal at the end of a six-month period following submission of the claim to the Archives and History Library, Department of Culture and History, The Cultural Center, Charleston, WV 25305.
The medals were struck, as Governor Boreman wrote to a veteran in 1867, "as a slight testimonial of the high appreciation, by the State, of your Devotion, Patriotism and Services, in the suppression of the late rebellion." The Department of Culture and History plans to continue the efforts begun in 1866, until April 12, 1985, to place these medals in the hands of the rightful heirs of these Union veterans, who served as West Virginia troops. The medals represent an important part of the state's history but more importantly they are part of the heritage of the heirs of the West Virginia troops represented in this list of Union veterans' names.
Visit the Civil War Medals home page for more information.
West Virginia History Journal
West Virginia History Center