The Medal of Honor, created by Congress during the Civil War as America’s highest military decoration for valor, was never meant for Americans who fought for the South. They were the enemy, after all.
But there’s a Confederate Medal of Honor, little known yet highly prized, that the Sons of Confederate Veterans bestows on those whose bravery in battle can be proven to the private group’s satisfaction.
The silver-and-bronze medal is a 10-pointed star bearing the Great Seal of the Confederate States and the words, “Honor. Duty. Valor. Devotion.”
It has been awarded 50 times since 1977, most recently to Maj. James Breathed, a native Virginian buried in Hancock. He was honored last year for his bravery as an artillery officer in the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in Virginia.
The number of recipients is tiny compared to the 3,487 on the U.S. Medal of Honor roll, including more than 1,500 who fought for the Union in the War Between the States. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans say their medal is given less freely than those the Union awarded during the war.
“The SCV created their own Confederate Medal of Honor simply because there were some incredible acts of valor that had received little or no recognition during and after the war,” said Ben Sewell III, executive director of the 29,000-member group, based in Columbia, Tenn.
The medal has Civil War-era origins. Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a law in 1862 authorizing medals for courage on the battlefield, but none was issued. The U.S. Army Center of Military History says Gen. Robert E. Lee refused to award individual citations for valor, mentioning noteworthy performance in his dispatches instead.
The Confederate Medal of Honor recipients are largely low-to-middle-ranking figures. Perhaps best-known is Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest of Tennessee, who tormented Union commanders with lightning raids, reportedly had black Union soldiers executed after their surrender at Fort Pillow, Tenn., and was for a time a post-war member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The first medal recipient was Pvt. Samuel Davis of Smyrna, Tenn. Davis was captured by Union troops and hanged as a spy in 1863 at age 21. His statue graces the grounds of the state capitol in Nashville, along with those of presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. Other recipients include the eight crew members of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley who perished in 1864 while attacking the federal war sloop USS Housatonic near Charleston, S.C.
Military historian Gregg Clemmer researched Confederate medal recipients for his 1996 book, “Valor in Gray.” He cites Sgt. Richard Kirkland of South Carolina, honored for actions in the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. Kirkland, moved by the cries of dying Union soldiers, reportedly brought them water on the battlefield during a firefight – an account doubted by some historians.
“People don’t know these stories,” Clemmer said. “They need to know these stories.”
Not everyone wants to hear them. Hancock Town Councilman Sinclair Hamilton was dismayed by a procession of Confederate re-enactors down Main Street to Breathed’s grave last October. He says honoring Confederates is tantamount to endorsing slavery.
“He was a traitor and dishonored the United States with his rebellion,” Hamilton said. “He is not a hero, should not be honored and should be a forgotten footnote in history.”
Breathed’s medal was awarded through the efforts of a great-great-nephew, David Bridges, 51, a retired Presbyterian minister and SCV member from Richmond, Va. He said it’s wrong to stereotype individual Confederates as fighting to retain slavery.
“Someone should want to know about James Breathed because he was an extraordinary character,” Bridges said.
Breathed’s citation describes his disregard for his safety in keeping a cannon from falling into enemy hands even as two horses were shot out from under him in battle.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, representing U.S. medal winners, brushed off questions about Confederate medals.
“We don’t really know about this program,” said Carol Cepregi, deputy director of operations. “They’re certainly free to do whatever their little hearts desire, as long as they’re calling it the Confederate Medal of Honor and not our Medal of Honor.”
U.S. medal recipient Thomas G. Kelley, a retired Navy captain from Somerville, Mass., says the Confederate program helps fill a void in the history of brave and noble Americans.
Kelley, honored in 1970 for valor in Vietnam, participated in a 1993 Confederate medal ceremony honoring Pvt. Benjamin Welch Owens, a Marylander who fought for the South.
Despite having a great-grandfather from the Union who died in a Confederate prison, Kelley feels no animosity toward Confederates.
“These men were doing what we all did when we served our county or our cause – looking out for your fellow soldier and trying to bring him home safely,” Kelley said.