An Introduction to Collecting Civil War Medals - Military Trader/Vehicles

A small, but important area of collecting

The only federally sponsored and issued medal of the Civil War period was the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The only federally sponsored and issued medal of the Civil War period was the Congressional Medal of Honor established by order of Abraham Lincoln and signed into law July 12, 1862. The Army Medal of Honor was attached to its ribbon by an American Eagle perched atop crossed cannons and cannon balls, while the Navy version was identical but attached to ribbon by an anchor.

Many military medal collectors might devote themselves to officially authorized examples and often claim extensive collections in their area of interest. While there are many who have amassed large collections of numbered U.S. campaign medals, British medals named to specific units, Third Reich medals, or USSR medals, the collector who indicates that they have a complete U.S. Civil War collection might have only two medals. How come?

The only federally sponsored and issued medal of the Civil War period was the Congressional Medal of Honor established by order of Abraham Lincoln and signed into law July 12, 1862. All enlisted personnel were eligible. A Navy Medal of Honor was first authorized December 21, 1861 and the Army Medal of Honor was authorized July 14, 1862 and was presented in the name of Congress to such non-commissioned officers and privates who distinguished themselves by their gallantry in action.

At this point, we are talking about medals worn during the actual Civil War period. But what about the Civil War Campaign Medal?

The Civil War Campaign Medal was not authorized until 1907. It used a grey and blue ribbon representing both the Union and Confederacy. Variations in design were used to represent service in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.

The Civil War Campaign Medal was not authorized until 1907. It used a grey and blue ribbon representing both the Union and Confederacy. Variations in design were used to represent service in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.

The Civil War Campaign Medal was authorized only upon publication of the War Department General Order 12 in 1907.It was to be issued for service between April 15, 1861, and April 9, 1865, or service in Texas through August 20, 1866. It was authorized for both Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War.

Not a federally issued medal but rather a privately purchased campaign or unit badge (sometimes referred to as "Custer’s Divisional Badge"). Dan Underhill, a cavalry soldier serving under George Armstrong Custer most likely purchased it in June 1865 according to the original documents that accompanies it.

Not a federally issued medal but rather a privately purchased campaign or unit badge (sometimes referred to as "Custer’s Divisional Badge"). Dan Underhill, a cavalry soldier in the 2nd New York Cavalry serving under George Armstrong Custer, most likely purchased it in June 1865 according to the original documents that accompanies it. It may have been a token that was customized into a sort of unit badge. The reverse of the 36mm planchet reads, "THE HISTORY OF THIS WAR WHEN TRUTHFULLY WRITTEN, WILL CONTAIN NO BRIGHTER PAGE THAN THAT UPON WHICH IS RECORDED, THE CHIVALROUS DEEDS, THE GLORIOUS TRIUMPHS OF THE SOLDIERS OF THE THIRD DIVISION CEDAR CREEK 19 OCT. 1864. G.A. CUSTER."

An advertisement in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly advertised the unofficial medal for sale.

An advertisement in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly advertised the unofficial medal for sale. 

The Confederacy awarded only one medal during the Civil War: the Davis Guard Medal. This rare medal was awarded to the Davis Guards, a militia company organized in Houston, Texas. This unit was awarded the medal in gratitude for participation in the Battle of Sabine Pass on September 1, 1863, where 47 men held back a Union force in the thousands. This medal was issued by the residents of Sabine Pass but sanctioned by the Confederacy.

The Davis Guard medal was a locally produced and issued Confederate medal of the Civil War. It was fashioned from a Mexican silver peso, each side smoothed off and engraved. The reverse is inscribed in three lines, “Sabine Pass / Sept 8th / 1863.”

The Davis Guard medal was a locally produced and issued Confederate medal of the Civil War. It was fashioned from a Mexican silver peso, each side smoothed off and engraved. The reverse is inscribed in three lines, “Sabine Pass / Sept 8th / 1863.”

The Southern Crosses of Honor were only issued and first awarded in April 26, 1900, by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And while rare, the New Market Cross of Honor given to the 294 members of the Cadet Battalion from the Virginia Military Institute who marched into combat at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, was actually issued only in 1904 by the State of Virginia.

So, a Civil War medal collector might have only one or two medals worn by soldiers of the actual Civil War period 1861-1865. While some may say they have seen photos of Civil War soldiers or veterans wearing medals, most of these depict medals of local military units, marksman medals, or, most frequently, veteran medals of common organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). After the war, a variety of military societies and veteran groups offered membership medals. So, while a Civil War buff might find US or Confederate medal offerings in short supply, there seems to be no shortage of a variety of veteran organizations and local paramilitary units.

The New Market Medal was presented at Virginia Military Institute in 1904 to all living members of the Corps of Cadets in addition to the families of 10 cadets killed action at the Battle of New Market as well as to those who died since the war.

The New Market Medal was presented at Virginia Military Institute in 1904 to all living members of the Corps of Cadets in addition to the families of 10 cadets killed action at the Battle of New Market as well as to those who died since the war.

THE SOCIETY OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC

One such veterans’ organization was the Society of the Army of the Potomac, formed in 1869. Membership required honorable service during the Civil War in the Army of the Potomac, or aboard a naval vessel in support of the Army. Its first President and founder was Major-General George B. McClellan. He was followed by Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan. Successive Presidents of the Society included Generals Hooker, Burnside, McDowell, and Hancock to name just a few. The Society held annual reunions in line with the Society’s mission to collect and preserve the record of great achievements of the numerous campaigns, marches, and skirmishes of the Army of the Potomac. In 1899, the memberships was at 1,800, but by 1927, the last reunion of the Society was held.

Original early issues of the membership medals were made by Bailey, Banks, and Biddle. The delicate gold and enamel work makes the medal a pleasure to hold and examine.

The delicate gold medal of the Society was decorated with the insignia of the different corps badges of the Army of the Potomac.

The delicate gold medal of the Society was decorated with the insignia of the different corps badges of the Army of the Potomac.

The gold Society of the Army of the Potomac medal was usually was numbered on the reverse of the top arm. Any named Society medal is extremely rare.

The gold Society of the Army of the Potomac medal was usually was numbered on the reverse of the top arm. Any named Society medal is extremely rare.

Crossed swords represent Calvary and crossed cannon suspension represents Artillery. The symbols on each arm represent the various Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They are starting at the 12o’clock position we find a symbol of the 2nd Corps (trefoil), 1st Corps (circle), 9th Corps (shield with crossed cannon and fouled anchor), 5th Corps (Maltese cross),6th Corps (cross), with the 11th Corps represented by a crescent, and the 12th Corps by a star in the center with the initials “AP.” At the 11 o’clock position, the 3rd Corps’ diamond finishes the symbols.

No active records were kept of membership names nor any number lists of the membership medals. Because of this, it is particularly difficult to attribute a Society of the Army of the Potomac Medal to a particular veteran. This is what makes the following Society of the Potomac grouping particularly interesting.

James Nelson Coe Medal Group 

Our feature grouping is unusual in it is numbered #589 and named to Captain James N. Coe, Co. H, Second Regiment Connecticut Volunteers Heavy Artillery. Coe’s membership medal is a six arm gold Maltese cross with red enameled obverse and measures 75mm from its crossed swords to the bottom of the Maltese cross.

The Society of the Army Potomac’s Membership medal over the life of the Society had different makers with minor variation in size as well as number location.

The Society of the Army Potomac’s Membership medal over the life of the Society had different makers with minor variation in size as well as number location.

James Nelson Coe was born October 20, 1836, in Winchester, Connecticut, and died on June 19, 1910, in New Haven Connecticut. He enlisted on April 23, 1861, in Co. I, 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and was made a sergeant. By September 11, 1862, he had been commissioned as a Lieutenant in Co. I, 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. He received a promotion to Captain of Co. H, 2nd Conn. Heavy Artillery on February 19, 1865, and was mustered out on August 18, 1865, at Fort Ethan Allen, Washington, D.C. After the war, James served as the superintendent of Fitch’s Home for Soldiers at Norton Heights, Connecticut.

Coe’s grouping includes a commemorative medal issued to guests of the 15 Annual Reunion by the City of Brooklyn.

Coe’s grouping includes a commemorative medal issued to guests of the 15 Annual Reunion by the City of Brooklyn.

Coe’s grouping also contains a second Society of the Army of the Potomac membership medal numbered 85. It is suspended from crossed cannons. It is a slightly larger 37mm Maltese cross compared to Coe’s engraved 35mm cross. There is also a slight difference in the crossed cannon and method of suspension. Neither medal displays a Bailey, Banks & Biddle hallmark, but all early Society medals were of high quality typical of the firm.

The celebration of the Society’s 15th Annual Reunion yielded additional mementos for Captain James N. Coe.

The celebration of the Society’s 15th Annual Reunion yielded additional mementos for Captain James N. Coe.

The grouping also contains a souvenir medal noting the Brooklyn location of the 15th Annual Reunion held at the Oriental Hotel in Manhattan Beach on June 12, 1884. A menu for the reunion was produced by Tiffany & Co. and showcases a raised Army of the Potomac membership medal.It also featured a list of the all toasts by guest speakers including the President of the United Sates. Additional Society banners complement the grouping.

So, Coe’s medal grouping demonstrates to us that there are, indeed, some rare military medals associated with the Civil War. While uncommon, finding a named medal will lead a collector to uncovering additional interesting information. For example, in doing a Google search for James Nelson Coe, it was discovered that Captain Coe wrote a detailed history of actions of the Second Regiment Connecticut Volunteers Heavy Artillery from the beginning to the end of the war. Captain Coe was truly a military historian and his medals serve as a reminder of his service and commitment to preserving the Union and its military heritage.

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