United States of America: Colored Troops Medal 1864, also known as the Butler Medal, silver, 40 mm, two African American soldiers of the Union Army attacking a masonry parapet, a cannon opposing them through an embrasure, a banner above 'FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET', ex. 'U.S. COLOURED TROOPS', rev. an oak wreath, 'DISTINGUISHED FOR COURAGE/ CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND 1864', claw suspension, original ribbon with suspension brooch in the form of an oak leaf inscribed 'ARMY OF THE JAMES', un-named, in original case, ball element missing from suspension, otherwise extremely fine and rare, and attractively toned; together with a small note card "this medal I designed and caused to be struck in memory of the valiant charge of the Coloured Troops at "New Market Heights" and "Chaffins Farm" on that day......Please accept this as the First and only Medal ever struck to commemorate the bravery of Negro Soldiers by the white man.... You know how well deserved." The question of slavery was central to the bitter and devastating conflict that raged between the United and the Confederate States of America between 1861 and 1865. The citizens and leaders of the Union were far from united in opposition to racial prejudice, though a tradition of ethically motivated abolitionism exercised considerable influence. The Union, under President Abraham Lincoln, was reluctant at first to make the emancipation of slaves a military objective, but there was a long standing Northern tradition of sheltering fugitive slaves (often in defiance of Federal law), and Union General Benjamin Butler was the first senior figure to honour this tradition in a military context. In May 1861 three slaves escaped to his lines in Virginia. The slaveholder, a Confederate officer, approached under a flag of truce, expecting Butler to relinquish the men under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (a major source of contention between North and South). Butler rebuffed this officer and found a pragmatic way of resolving the uncertain status of the former slaves by designating them as 'Contraband of War'. His government gave retrospective sanction to this act, and in the months before the final promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, many more 'Contrabands' made it across the lines to Union held territory. As the war progressed, and the realisation that a comprehensive defeat of the Confederate forces was the only way to end it, the part-pragmatic and part-ideological practice of recruiting freed African Americans as soldiers to defeat their former masters became ever more firmly established. This in turn lead to a growing realisation of their courage and fighting abilities. The notion of a link between military service and civil rights had been articulated by former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in 1861 when he said "Who would be free must himself strike the blow" The medal's Latin inscription, which translates as "Freedom will be theirs by the sword", confirms that - in Butler's view at least - the recipients had been fighting for the rights of African-Americans, and not merely for the interests of one white faction against another. The Battle of Chaffin's Farm and Newmarket Heights, September 29th and 30th 1864, was part of a broad strategic effort to overwhelm the extensive fortifications that protected the Confederate Capital of Richmond, Virginia. Like many battles of this war it involved infantrymen assaulting fixed defences and suffering terrible casualties to massed rifle and artillery fire. In the face of this horror the African American battalions under Butler's command acquitted themselves so valiantly that thirteen of their number won the Medal of Honour, and Butler - who read the battlefield reports with great care - was moved to commission this medal to honour an estimated 197 selected men. Struck at the Philadelphia Mint and mounted by Bigelow & Kennard of Boston, this medal is not only a rarity in absolute terms; it was in its day a radical innovation. Butler's memoirs indicate that he intended his medal to be partly based on the British Crimea Medal, although of course the Butler medal is a hybrid of campaign and gallantry award. Ref. 'Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benj F. Butler: Butler's Book'; James M. McPherson, 'Battle Cry of Freedom. The Civil War Era'.
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