Image From Library of Congress

Much like the Battle of New Market Heights is often forgotten among the Antietams, Gettysburgs, and Vicksburgs of the Civil War, the Butler Medal is little known as well. Commissioned by the commander of the Army of the James, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, in the wake of the New Market Heights assaults, Butler’s medal was given to the courageous black Union soldiers who braved the leaden storm.

In his 1892 autobiography, simply titled Butler’s Book, the general explained why he had the medal struck:

“My white regiments were always nervous when standing in line flanked by colored troops, lest the colored regiments should give way and they (the white) be flanked. This fear was a deep-seated one and spread far and wide, and the negro had no sufficient opportunity to demonstrate his valor and his staying qualities of a soldier. And the further cry was that the negro never struck a good blow for their own freedom. Therefore, I determined to put them in position, to demonstrate the fact of the value of the negro as a soldier coute qui coute [cost what it may] and that the experiment should be one of which no man should doubt, if it attained success. Hence the attack by the negro column on Newmarket Heights.

After that in the Army of the James a negro regiment was looked upon as the safest flanking regiment that could be put in line.

I had the fullest reports made to me of the acts of individual bravery of colored men on the occasion, and I had it 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 in the Crimea. I have caused an engraving of that medal to be printed in this book in honor of the colored soldiers and of myself.”

“Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword”