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Digging deep into Civil War medals

Navigating an interesting — and complicated — era for collectors, Civil War medals.
This Women’s Relief Corps collection exhibits a rainbow of ribbon colors and unique brooches.

This Women’s Relief Corps collection exhibits a rainbow of ribbon colors and unique brooches.

The Civil War period is one of the most favored periods of military history and collecting interest. This is evidenced by the large number of Civil War re-enactors showcasing military uniforms and weapons.

 Other collectors might devote themselves to collecting the medals of the Civil War, but soon find that the only federally authorized medal of the Civil War was the Congressional Medal of Honor established by order of President Lincoln and signed into law July 12, 1862. Collectors will also find the Civil War Campaign Medal, but even this was only authorized by the War Department in 1907.
Yet many medal examples associated with the Civil War can be found with a few state examples and multiple Civil War veteran organizations. A closer look at the medal history of the Civil War actually shows it is quite extensive.

West Virginia Civil War Medal

One such state issued medal is the West Virginia Civil War Medal authorized in 1866 and resulting in over 26,000 medals minted for Union veterans of the state’s military units. Made by A. Demarest of New York City, they arrived in small cardboard boxes for distribution. The name, company and unit can be found on the edge.

The West Virginia Civil War Medal was the most often awarded version of the medal made by A. Demarest of New York.

The West Virginia Civil War Medal was the most often awarded version of the medal made by A. Demarest of New York.

These tokens of respect came in three versions. The greatest number of medals struck Class I – are titled “Honorably Discharged” The large obverse shows a figure of Liberty about to place a wreath upon the head of a soldier with a scroll in her left hand to be presented to the soldier. An eagle is the right, and wheat to the left and the prominent date dates 1861 -1865. A second and rarest version, considered class II – “Killed in Battle” , shows a battle scene with a mounted officer with sword drawn leading a charge of United States Soldiers with fixed bayonets and flags flying. The obverse also shows a dismounted cannon and dead bodies and fleeing soldiers. A Class III medal is titled “For Liberty” and was issued to those officers and soldier who had died of disease or wounds received in battle. The obverse shows a catafalque with the words “died in the defense of his country” A figure of Liberty is at the right holding a drum and a soldier with his left arm in a sling. All three medals contain the same 1861-1865 dates and state seal.

The Killed in Battle version of the West Virginia is the hardest version for a collector to find and therefore the most expensive to acquire.

The Killed in Battle version of the West Virginia is the hardest version for a collector to find and therefore the most expensive to acquire.

The “For Liberty” version of the West Virginia Civil War Medal was awarded for soldiers who died as a result of wounds or disease while in service.

The “For Liberty” version of the West Virginia Civil War Medal was awarded for soldiers who died as a result of wounds or disease while in service.

The reverse of all three medals contain a wreath of laurel with the inscription “Presented by the State of West Virginia” and the name of the maker “A Demarest, N.Y.” All three medals are suspended from a bronze pin with scroll and the Letters WV. Note the back drape is a red, white, and blue ribbon about 4 inches long. The soldier’s name, rank, company, and unit are milled into the edge. It is interesting to note that thousands of these medals still can be claimed by descendants of Union Soldiers following submission of the any claim to the Archives and History Library, Department of Culture and History, The Cultural Center, Charleston, WV 25305.

All three versions of the West Virginia Civil War medal had identical reverses and the maker hallmark A. Demarest, N.Y. below the tie in the wreath. W.V. medal images from the Robert Wilson collection

All three versions of the West Virginia Civil War medal had identical reverses and the maker hallmark A. Demarest, N.Y. below the tie in the wreath. W.V. medal images from the Robert Wilson collection

Ohio Civil War Medal

On April 13, 1865 Ohio actually was the first state to produce an Ohio Civil War Medal when it authorized Tiffany & Company to provide 20,000 medals to recognize those soldiers from Ohio who re-enlisted from the state under War Department General Order No. 191. These “veteran volunteers” completed their tour of duty and then signed up for further duty.

The Ohio Civil War Medal was issued slightly before the West Virginia version and strongly influenced its design.

The Ohio Civil War Medal was issued slightly before the West Virginia version and strongly influenced its design.

The Ohio Civil War medals were distributed in the summer of 1866 and were engraved with the name and unit. The large bronze circular obverse shows a figure of Liberty placing a wreath on the head of an Ohio soldier holding a rifle in the left hand and his cap in his right hand. The wheat bundle and eagle on each side of Liberty are very similar to the West Virginia Civil War Medal that followed. The 1861-1865 date is identical to that of the West Virginia Civil War medal. The medal has a “US” suspension from a floral designed brooch and a red, white and blue drape. The obverse of the medal in dark bronze has a thin raised edge with a laurel wreath open at top and is inscribed “The State of Ohio to Veteran Ohio Volunteer”.

Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS)

Most Civil War medals on the collector market are actually those of the primary veteran groups associated with those who served on both sides of the conflict. One of the very first organized veteran groups was that of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) which was first organized April 15, 1865. A somewhat harder veteran organization to collect since the original membership was composed of officers of the Army, Navy and Marine Corp of the United States Army. Membership required service in the Civil War as a commissioned officer.

The blue center stripe of the Mollus medal indicates a first issue medal to an officer of the Union Army.

The blue center stripe of the Mollus medal indicates a first issue medal to an officer of the Union Army.

The red center striped ribbon on the Mollus Medal was first issued to hereditary members with this medal numbered #21635.

The red center striped ribbon on the Mollus Medal was first issued to hereditary members with this medal numbered #21635.

Founded by three officers who were pall bearers for Abraham Lincoln, MOLLUS is currently active since membership is open to those with direct collateral descent from a Union commissioned officer in the Civil War. The type 1 of the medal has a beautiful design in the four arm double pointed cross in blue and white enamel edged in gold with three sets of separated rays between each arm. Although somewhat smaller than GAR Civil War medals, the scarcity and quality make up for its smaller size. The red enamel center contains a gold eagle with the original type 1 showing a blue center stripe. A later type 2 medal was identical but contained a red center stripe and was first issued to hereditary members. Both the type 1 and 2 carry the same reverse showing crossed swords behind a fasces with an eagle at the top and the inscription “m-o-loyal legion-U.S. –MDCCCLXV”. A small gold strap between the ribbon and planchet carries the membership number. The Order is currently active and latest estimates show about 1,000 members.

The reverse of the Mollus medal shows its slot brooch and ring suspension.

The reverse of the Mollus medal shows its slot brooch and ring suspension.

Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) medals

The most common veteran medal is that of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Founded shortly after Mollus in 1866 to become the largest society, military or civil, that had ever before existed in the United States. By 1890, the GAR membership peaked at over 400,000 members.

The standard GAR membership medal is one of the most commonly seen veteran Civil War medals.

The standard GAR membership medal is one of the most commonly seen veteran Civil War medals.

The light blue ribbon color on this GAR medal indicates the holder was an officer in a local post.

The light blue ribbon color on this GAR medal indicates the holder was an officer in a local post.

The major prerequisite for membership in the GAR was honorable service in the Union forces during the Civil War. The standard membership Medal is a bronze 45mm x 40mm five-arm cross with vertical United States Flag ribbon. The ornate brooch consists of crossed cannon surmounted by an eagle with outspread wings. An earlier version came under criticism since the top eagle made the medal appear to be a copy of the United States Medal of Honor. This settled version modified the eagle and collectors will find many versions of the GAR medal varying in ribbon color for national and state officers as well as a variety of rank straps with these organizations.

This artistically designed GAR post card clearly shows one of the GAR’s stated objectives.

This artistically designed GAR post card clearly shows one of the GAR’s stated objectives.

The GAR was a major influence with its large membership on the political scene since even legislation at the national level could not be passed if opposed by the GAR. Its legions became a major part of every parade over the next two generations. When the GAR had its annual meetings (encampments), the number of GAR members strained the accommodation of the largest cities in the country. An example of its influence is seen even in period post cards featuring the organization, with one example clearly showing the design of the membership medal.

Women’s Relief Corps medals

The true auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic was the Women’s Relief Corps. The only requirement for a woman to join was simply that of patriotism. The organization was designed to assist the GAR and provide post-war relief to Union veterans. Among the WRC tenets is to perpetuate the memory of the Grand Army of the Republic. The WRC is the GAR’s only legally recognized auxiliary and was organized at the request of the GAR in 1883. The WRC Membership Medal is a 29mm x 29mm four arm cross with flat ends. The medal’s standard ribbon is red, white and blue with a “FCL” brooch. The letters stand for “Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty”.

The center of the WRC medal shows the Goddess of Liberty, soldier, boy, and woman with child.

The center of the WRC medal shows the Goddess of Liberty, soldier, boy, and woman with child.

A period post card shows a WRC member in full uniform wearing her membership medal.

A period post card shows a WRC member in full uniform wearing her membership medal.

Collectors should be aware that the FCL brooch variations can be found on other Women Civil War Groups, including the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Daughters of Union Veterans. The membership reverse is plain with only a patent date and is rarely found attributed. The collector can find a variety of WRC medals with varying ribbon colors and brooches indicating positions within the organization such as musician, aid, color bearer, chaplain, etc.

While the WRC began as an auxiliary to the GAR, as the GAR declined since its members had to be members of the Union Army, no such problem was felt by the WRC and by 1896 had over 138,000 members and is still active today with some 12,000 members.

Two variations of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic membership medal.

Two variations of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic membership medal.

Other Civil War era awards

Collectors should be aware of another Civil War woman’s society called the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic. Formed in 1885, its membership was more exclusive than the WCR. Membership required marriage of blood relationship to the Union veteran who had performed honorable service in the Union forces during the Civil War. Civil War nurses could also be considered. The standard membership can be found in several configurations often seen with the “FCL” brooch similar to the WRC. (Still active through hereditary provisions, this group did not follow the GAR into extinction.

The Union Veterans Union membership unique design and ribbon colors make it easy for collectors to identify.

The Union Veterans Union membership unique design and ribbon colors make it easy for collectors to identify.

An interesting and rare medal is associated with one of the more obscure Civil War Veteran groups. The organization is called the Union Veterans Union formed as an association of Civil War veterans established in 1886. Formed by a M.A. Dillon who believed that common Civil War soldier veterans were not being well served by the much larger GAR organization he sought to address the needs of the individual soldier. The organization’s stated purpose was to act as a “brotherhood for mutual protection and assistance”. It was open to U.S. Soldiers, as well as to the sons and grandsons of Civil War Veterans. The membership medal is a striking 37mm cog wheel shaped bronze medal with crossed rifles and crossed cannon in the center. An anchor is at the top with the inscription “Union Veterans Union”. An ornate bronze brooch with crossed saber and five-point star with UVU. The medals are easily identified by their red, gold, blue ribbons. The UVU worked to help unemployed members find work, paying out pensions and lobbying for increased benefits. As with the GAR UVU units carried out fraternal and patriotic rituals around Memorial Day and death of members. Like the GAR the UVU also had a Woman’s Veteran Relief Union organization. The group’s membership medal is a dark bronze wreathed circular medal using the same five-point star as the UVU in the center.

The woman’s auxiliary of the UVU membership medal has a plain reverse with no maker mark.

The woman’s auxiliary of the UVU membership medal has a plain reverse with no maker mark.

Another Union Army award was the membership medal of the Society of the Army of the Potomac. Formed in 1869, it required honorable service in the Civil War in the Army of the Potomac, or on board a naval vessel serving in support of the Army. The membership medal was a high-quality award struck by Bailey, Banks, and Biddle and usually found in gold. The six-arm, double-pointed cross with red enamel arms is suspended from a pair of crossed gold cannon attached to a blue and white ribbon with crossed saber brooch. The accompanying examples here show two slight variations in suspensions as well as size. The reverses also show one with naming directly on the back of the medal, with the second showing an engraved membership number of a small rectangular suspension. With limited hereditary provision in the form of a second-class membership, the Society failed to survive WWII.

The woman’s auxiliary of the UVU membership medal has a plain reverse with no maker mark.

The woman’s auxiliary of the UVU membership medal has a plain reverse with no maker mark.

So far all of our examples are medals awarded to living members of the Union Army. One may ask, what about the awards of the Confederacy? Unlike the Union (Federal) forces, no Confederate medals were issued to its troops. Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed into law a bill authorizing medals for courage on the battlefield, but none were issued.

One medal was issued to members of the Confederacy during the Civil War called the Davis Guard Medal. The Davis Guard was organized in Houston, Texas and fought in the Battle of Sabine Pass on Sept. 1, 1863. In this encounter 47 men held back a Union force in the thousands. The medal was issued by the residents of Sabine Pass and sanctioned by the Confederacy. It was only by 1900 that the United Daughters of the Confederacy issued Southern Crosses of Honor to living members of the Confederacy.

Two examples of the Society of the Army of the Potomac membership medal show slight variations in size as well as suspension.

Two examples of the Society of the Army of the Potomac membership medal show slight variations in size as well as suspension.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894 and this women’s society required direct or collateral descent from an ancestor who served in the armed or civil service of the Confederate States of America. The UDC’s Southern Cross of Honor was adopted in 1899 and then awarded to Confederate veterans, or to the widow or eldest descendant of the deceased veteran. Only the veteran was allowed to wear the cross.

Production of the medal would continue until 1912, by which time over 78,000 crosses had been awarded. The crosses were known to have been awarded as late as 1951, but by 1938 could only be awarded to the actual veteran.

The Army of the Potomac medal on the left is engraved Capt. J.N. Coe #589 U.S.A. and the medal on the right is numbered #58 on the suspension.

The Army of the Potomac medal on the left is engraved Capt. J.N. Coe #589 U.S.A. and the medal on the right is numbered #58 on the suspension.

The UDC continues to preserve the memory of those who fought during the Civil War and has issued in modern times UDC Crosses for military service in WWI, WWII , Korea, Vietnam and the war on terror in the Middle East for those who were direct lineal descendants of a Confederate soldier. While many other Civil War veteran groups (both Union and Confederate) exist, the scope of this article is to acquaint collectors of the items of medallic interest actually worn by those who participated in the Civil War. Many additional examples are probably known to avid collectors, but it is hoped this article is a good starting point for anyone interested in the medals of the Civil War. 

An example of a Southern Cross of Honor awarded to a Thomas C. McBryde who was part of the surrender at Appomattox.

An example of a Southern Cross of Honor awarded to a Thomas C. McBryde who was part of the surrender at Appomattox.

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