The Butler Medal


Butler Medal Recipients


"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.”.–"  -  Benjamin Franklin Butler

Ferro iis libertas perveniet.  Inscribed on every Butler Medal is this quote which means freedom will be theirs by the sword.  The sword carried by courageous soldiers as well as the honor they carried beyond the battlefield has protected the freedom of the United States. 

Sixteen African-American troops received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.  Fourteen of these troops received the Medal of Honor at the battle of New Market Heights.   These troops accounted for the largest amount of African-American troops honored on a single day in American history.

The Battle of New Market Heights took place outside of Richmond, Virginia on September 29 - 30, 1864.  This battle was part of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which lasted from June 1864 until March 1865, and was conducted by the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.  General U.S. Grant ordered for a surprise attack against the Confederate lines.  Major General Benjamin F. Butler took his men on a 12-hour forced march around General Robert E. Lee’s left flank.  Butler’s men covered 17 miles being weighted down with packs, rifles, haversacks, rations, and ammunition.  The early morning fog carried the fate of what was to become that day for the 3rd Division, XVIII Corps, U.S. Colored Troops.  Many knew they would not survive the battle.  The 3rd Division, commanded by Brigadier General Charles Paine, were ordered to charge with only their bayonets.  The Colored Troops fought through the obstacles but without cover fire they were left to the artillery before them.  In the trenches many Colored Troops lost their lives while four of the five regiments awaited orders on the actions to carry out.  As the regiments crossed the creek they were exposed to heavy fire.  Colonel Duncan lost nearly all of his front line and the soldiers in the following ranks picked up the axes of the fallen soldiers and charged ahead.  When the smoke of the exploding shells of fire cleared the troops could not find any officers.  More than half of the men initially engaged in the battle were killed on the battlefield. 

The next morning the Union reunified and planned for a coordinated attack.  The Colored Troops fought off the fire and moved towards the trenches.  The soldiers all had to pass through a narrow point where the Confederates focused their firepower.  However, the Colored Troops fought them off and an hour after battle began on that day it ended with the Confederates retreating.  New Market Heights was now the possession of the Union.  After the Confederate retreated, Butler saw 543 bodies in a distance of 300 yards.  In the hour of battle over one third of the Colored Troops were killed.  Despite making up only twenty percent of Butler’s soldiers, the Colored Troops lost 54 percent of their original amount. 

The Butler Medal, also know as the Army of the James Medal, was created by Butler to be given to African-American troops after their bravery and courage during the Battle of New Market Heights.  Butler was known as a strong opponent of slavery and often recruited African-American troops for battle.  He also arranged for these troops to learn how to read and write.  In his later years as a Congressman he worked to have legislation passed against the Ku Klux Klan, and for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.  Butler was an example of the courage and honor that carried with the medal he gave to his troops.  His dedication to the true values of our nation helped incorporate one of the most significant advances in the war by allowing and recruiting African-American troops.  The courage and honor he carried reflected in his leadership by his troops dedication to duty, commitment to their nation, and uncommon valor on the battlefield.   

The medal given for this battle is the first and only medal in American history specifically designed and manufactured for African-American troops.  The medal was designed by Anthony C. Paquet and manufactured in silver by Tiffany Co. in New York.  Along with the inscription “Ferro iis libertas perveniet” which means “Freedom will be theirs by the sword” is “US Colored Troops.”  The front depicts a bastion fort being charged upon by Negro soldiers.  The reverse of the medal is inscribed with the words “Campaign before Richmond” and “Distinguished for Courage.”  The medal is suspended from a red, white, and blue ribbon, and attached to clothing by a strong pin having in front an oak-leaf with the inscription “Army of the James.” 

There were approximately 200 medals made and given to soldiers, although to who is unknown.  There are 21 known names from the National Archives, 14 of which received the Congressional Medal of Honor.  In June of 1902, in Youngstown, Ohio, it was discovered that Captain Oscar D. Boggess (43rd USCT Co. E – Army of the Potomac) speaks of being given the Butler Medal by Major General Weitzel in Brownsville, Texas in 1865 for his acts of bravery at “The Crater” in Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864.  To confirm his claim, it states in a letter to Butler from General Alonzo Draper on May 28, 1865 “…I have delivered the medals and your messages to Major Gen’l Weitzel.  Measures have already been taken to ascertain the names of enlisted men distinguished for gallantry in any action of the last campaign against Richmond…”  We also know that they may have been given by Butler to friends or could have been bought by men within the army.  As stated in a letter to Goldwin Smith of Oxford, England on May 20, 1865 from Butler  “I venture to send you a copy, the first medal ever struck in honor of the negro soldiers by the white man, as a memento of your visit to the Army of the James.  But one other copy goes to England and that is to Mr. Eyre, and English gentleman who rode with me upon the field on the day which it commemorated, a description of which visit is in the Frazer for April.”  In another letter to Butler from R.D. Mussey, Military Secretary to the President,  “I saw at the Mint the other day some medals ordered by you for colored troops.  I wish very much to procure one of them.  I am not a ‘colored soldier’ nor have I ‘ever shown conspicuous bravery,’ but directly and indirectly with putting arms into the hands of ten thousand colored soldiers.  The Director of the Mint informed me that it was necessary to have your permission to purchase one.” 

Unfortunately, three months after awarding the medals, Butler was relieved of his command of the Army of the James, and African-American soldiers were told they could not display this medal on their uniforms [sited from Chicago Defender, Wednesday, August, 7, 1985].  The medal was also not recognized by the government, which makes knowledge of the medal and who received it nearly impossible to find.  Attempts in 1981 and 1985 to get the government to recognize the Butler Medal were denied.  The Department of Defense stated in 1981, “The Department takes the position that large numbers of unofficial medals were privately issued to members of the Armed Forces of the United States between 1861 and 1865.  The Butler Medal was but one of the many in this category.” 

To this day, the actual names of all recipients of the medal remain unknown.  If you have any information about the Butler Medal, or have a family member you believe received this medal, please contact Paul LaRue.