At the end of the Civil War, Major General Benjamin Butler of the Union Army did an unusual thing. Impressed by the fortitude and courage of the black men who fought under his command during the war, he decided to honor them with a particularly ornate medal: it featured a design by well-known sculptor Anthony Paquet, and hung around the neck from a red, white, and blue ribbon. The medals were struck by the Tiffany Company in New York. The inscription on the obverse of the medal reads, “Ferro iis libertas perveniet,” which translates, approximately, to “Liberty will be theirs by the sword.” The reverse bears inscriptions reading “Distinguished for Courage”and “Campaign Before Richmond 1864.”
Butler himself wrote, after the war, “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.” Butler paid for the medal out of his personal funds.
Most of the extant medals provide no clues about which soldier they might have belonged to, but a few are known. According to CoinBooks, this medal belonged one Abraham Armstead. “He was a slave in eastern NC until he got to Union lines and signed up at age 43. Six weeks later, he was the sergeant of his company. Imagine Morgan Freeman in Glory, but real…Every other one of these I’ve seen is in nearly perfect condition, laid in a drawer one day in 1865 and forgotten about. It looks like Sergeant Armstead wore this one day in and day out for years. Nobody knows the trouble it’s seen.”
Shortly after the medals were awarded, Butler was relieved of his command by General Grant, and replaced by General Edward Ord. The soldiers who were awarded the Butler medal were informed that they could not display the medal on their uniforms. The Butler medal was the only medal ever struck solely for black soldiers, and is considered an unofficial unit-specific decoration, though several attempts have been made to have it officially recognized by the Army. Fewer than five original medals are known to exist today, though replicas have been made.