Freedom will be theirs by the sword

14th September 2020

A rare 19th century Civil War medal that was a milestone on the way to the abolition of slavery in America is expected to make up to £12,000 at auction.

The Butler Medal is a solid silver gallantry and service medal which was awarded to fewer than 200 African-American soldiers in 1864 following the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and Newmarket Heights near Richmond, Virginia, where terrible casualties were suffered.

“Major General Benjamin Butler was among the first to refuse to return escaped slaves to their owners when they crossed Union lines and to recognise that many of these men were willing and able to fight for their own freedom and that of those still enslaved” explained Ned Cowell, Militaria specialist. “The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 permanently freed all slaves who escaped Confederate government control and allowed them to sign up to the Union Army, thereby increasing its strength by some 178,000 men.”

Butler spoke highly of their skill and bravery. “Better soldiers never shouldered a musket,” he said. “They learned to handle arms and to march more easily than intelligent white men.”

The fortitude of the African American regiments in Butler’s Army of the James was put to the test at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and Newmarket Heights in late September 1864 as the 3rd Division of the United States Colored Infantry joined other regiments to attack fortifications guarding the Confederate capital. Their bravery was such that no fewer than 13 were awarded the Medal of Honour – America’s highest military decoration.

Following the battle, Butler decided to further honour the African-American soldiers with a medal inspired by that “which Queen Victoria gave with her own hand to her distinguished private soldiers of the Crimea”. A total of 197 were struck, paid for and (where possible) given to the recipient by Butler himself.

“This medal is a tangible symbol of the early stages of the ongoing quest for racial equality in the United States,” said Cowell. “African-Americans had not been allowed to fight in the early stages of the Civil War, but the Latin inscription on this medal translates to ‘Freedom will be theirs by the sword’, suggesting that Butler believed they had the right to take arms against the Confederate Army and fight for their emancipation.”

The medal, privately consigned, is believed to be the first sold at auction in the UK for many years, with only a couple of examples being sold in American auctions in the last 15 years. It will appear in our Medals and Coins, Arms and Armour, and Militaria sale on 23rd September.

“This rare item will of course appeal to medal collectors and those with an interest in the American Civil War, but it has a far broader significance.,” continued Cowell. “The social historical implications of this medal run very deep and its symbolism is as potent today as it ever was, as the fight for racial equality continues across the world.”

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