Civil War Medals Claimed 150 Years Later

I am extremely proud to say that my Virginian lineage transcends the Revolutionary War where my fifth great-grandfathers, on both my paternal and maternal sides, served with General George Washington in that cold winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge.  The patriotic feeling among my family and service in the armed forces continues today and during the Civil War the sentiments were no different with over fifty of my ancestors enlisting to fight. In 2016, 151 years since the ending of the Civil War, I was able to submit the required documentation and proof to reclaim eleven Civil War medals (Union) belonging to my West Virginia ancestry. Like most of the men who served in the 60th Virginia Regiment many of my ancestors came from West Virginia as well. Two of my ancestors from Virginia served int the Sixtieth (Confederate), but my ancestors from West Virginia served mostly in union regiments as they migrated from Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. All of these ancestors were Virginians until the state split in 1863 when the majority of these were now in the new State of West Virginia.

West Virginia was one of three states admitted to the Union during the Civil War, and had the unique distinction of being the only state formed from another state that had a division in geographic area and ideological differences. Shortly after Virginia’s secession in 1861 a convention was held in Wheeling to discuss the future of Northwestern Virginia, where many were opposed to secession. On June 19, 1861 an Ordinance for the reorganization of the State Government was adopted, and on June 20, 1863, West Virginia was admitted as the 35th State in the Union. The state began supplying union soldiers to the war effort shortly after the First Wheeling Convention in May, 1861. Although, West Virginia was not entirely northern, of the 38,000 soldiers who enlisted, almost half, or 18,000, were confederates. Ironically, their homes at the beginning of the war were in Virginia, a southern state, and by 1863, their homes were behind federal lines. The participants on both sides were courageous in their effort to succeed in a region of disjointed communities, culminating into acts of barbarism and guerilla warfare among the families on the Homefront. One side was fighting to establish a new nation, and the other to preserve one.

In 1866, West Virginia minted 26,090 medals to present to the men who served their new state in the late war. West Virginia’s Governor Arthur Boreman explained the intent of the medal in an 1867 letter to a Civil War veteran, "as a slight testimonial of the high appreciation, by the State, of your Devotion, Patriotism and Services, in the suppression of the late rebellion."

Most veterans graciously accepted their medals, although numerous soldiers could not be located and never received one. The state campaigned to find these veterans, but to this day there are still 3,459 medals sitting on a shelf at the West Virginia Archives. One hundred and sixty-eight of these unclaimed medals are African Americans belonging to the 45th US Colored Infantry; many of these soldiers were escaped slaves fighting for their freedom. These medals are merely waiting to be claimed by the families of these heroic soldiers and more than 1,700 have been claimed since 1984.

My quest began in 2010 when I identified my 3rd Great-grandfather, Oscar Kelley, on the Civil War unclaimed medals list. Oscar was a private in the 10th West Virginia Infantry and was present when General Robert E. Lee’s Army surrendered at Appomattox. Ironically, Oscar didn’t transfer to the 10th West Virginia until June 17, 1865. A mere 12 days before his discharge. He served from 1862 to 1865 in the 11th West Virginia, a regiment that fought against the Sixtieth for most of the valley campaign in 1864. Many times being directly across from them in battle. This was truly a war of brother against brother as I had ancestors on both sides of the battlefield.

The disappointing part of Oscar’s story is that the unclaimed medal listing I was looking at was an old copy and the medal had already been claimed by another descendant. The Archives was nice enough to contact the descendant so that I could obtain a photo of the medal. Through conversation, that person was actually interested in parting with it and sold it to me for a modest price. You can’t put a value on heritage. This medal piqued my interest and thus I researched the other names on the unclaimed listing to see if my family had any other unclaimed medals and low and behold, I had several, ten more to be exact. After 150 years of sitting on a dusty shelf at the West Virginia Archives in Charleston, West Virginia, and three generations later, the family heirlooms have made it to their intended destination, the Civil War veteran’s family. Eleven to be exact! I only wish my forefathers were able to receive them initially for their service in restoring the Union and their influential role in the formation of the State of West Virginia, although two of these young men would not be afforded the opportunity as they gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.