CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An act of the West Virginia legislature 152 years ago is still active and in the process of being carried out. Lawmakers in 1866 authorized creation of a medal to be given to all West Virginia soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
The medals were meant to be a token of appreciation from a grateful state. But handing them out proved to be a challenge.
Randy Marcum, a historian at the West Virginia Archives, said many soldiers left the state after the war and as time wore on many died without receiving their medal. State officials did what they could with the technology of the day.
“The state tried to get hold of a lot of them with newspaper ads,” Marcum explained on MetroNews Talkline. “But they just ended up not being able to get a hold of a lot of them.”
Initially the state gave out about 19,000 medals in 1866, but over subsequent years the numbers declined. In 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic became involved and manged to give away several thousand more over the course of 10 years. In 1907, the medals were turned over to the State Archives to continue the distribution.
Marcum said several West Virginia Governors through the years tried to carry the effort, particularly Governor Henry Hatfield in the 1920’s. The effort goes on even today.
“Archives is always advertising we still have these and we’re hoping to work with the families to get these out,” said Marcum.
A total of 3,392 medals remain at the Capitol to be awarded. They are neatly tucked away in individual envelopes in a storage cabinet deep inside the State Archives. There are three different categories of medals. Most of the medals were Honorable Discharge Medals, which included the greatest number of West Virginia soldiers. There is also a category for Killed in Battle and a third category called For Liberty which included soldiers who died of disease, wounds, or other causes during their active military service.
“The medals have different scenes on the face,” Marcum said. “The really nice part is they have the veterans name and unit engraved on the edge of the medal.”
Over the years Marcum says many have been awarded when families are able to prove their lineage with proper documentation. The process and documentation requirements are rigid, but a lot of the necessary documents you may find in the state archive collections. Some of the medals may also be awarded to veterans from other states.
“Some of these soldiers were from Pennsylvania and some were from Ohio,” said Marcum. “Union regiments in those states filled up rather quickly, then when West Virginia started filling up their regiments, those guys who couldn’t get into their own state came over and joined West Virginia’s regiments.”
Any descendant who wants to start the process of obtaining a medal of a departed relative can begin at the website off the West Virginia Culture and History website.