Swords, medals and soldiers

I believe that high level gallantry awards, such as the Victoria Cross & the Medal of Honor, are not rewards for soldier’s actions. Instead, they are items of recognition, a physical representation of society’s gratitude for a serviceman’s sacrifice.

If you look at British society prior to the inauguration of the Victoria Cross in 1856, you find a number of interrelated systems in place, for unofficial ‘communities’ to recognise the actions of its soldiers. One of the most common of these was the presentation of an engraved sword.

On 16th July 1856, The Times reported a ‘presentation of a sword to Colonel Lake,’ writing that ‘on Monday there was a public breakfast at the Music Hall, Ramsgate, the object being to present a sword to Colonel Lake, C.B., in acknowledgement of his gallantry at Kars.’ The article went on to describe the reaction of the crowd stating that ‘the sword was presented amidst vociferous cheering, the whole company standing.’

The banding together of a community to recognise their heroes actions was not uncommon and another typical example is that reported in The Times on the 3rd September 1845. Under the heading ‘Gallantry rewarded’ the reporter comments:

‘We are happy to learn that a sword worth 100 guineas has been presented by the inhabitants of Kirkandy, on the river Nunez, to Lieutenant Cockcraft, R.N., for his gallant conduct in destroying the piratical post of the Naloos, on that river in the month of February, 1844.’

This is part of research that I had carried out a number of years ago. Up until recently I had only considered British 19th century society, until I read this fascinating article at the John David Hoptak’s excellent blog: The 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry.

He talks about an US soldier called James Nagle, who had fought in the Mexican-American War(1846-1848). John writes this about Nagle’s return to his community:

‘Captain Nagle was presented with a beautifully inscribed sword from the citizens of Pottsville in recognition of his service. He carried this sword with him throughout the Civil War as Colonel of the 48th PA and as general of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Army Corps.’

John confirmed that the inscription on the sword reads:

‘Presented to Capt. James Nagle by Whigs of Pottsville for his Gallant Services in Mexico.’

Here are my thoughts:

It appears to me that the words ‘Gallant’ and ‘Service’ are important.

Gallant suggests the following thoughts:

  • It is a stronger word than brave.
  • It has connections with chivalric behaviour.
  • It has an implication of the involvement in combat.
  • The same word is mentioned in connection with Colonel Lake and Lieutenant Cockcraft.

Whilst Services conjures the following thoughts:

  • Nagle is serving the community.
  • The community is recognising the services.
  • An unspoken contract exists between the soldier and his community.
  • The community feels the need to recognise the services, implying they are beyond what was expected.
  • His services are given a location – Mexico. This suggests that the sword is not for ‘Gallant Services’ elsewhere. This may possibly imply that it is only his services in Mexico that are worthy of recognition.

This has started me thinking about the relationship between mid 19th century American and British society. It appears that the two societies may have followed the same models of recognition. In the UK, the Crimean War in (1854-56) demonstrated the need for a system of recognition, which resulted in the introduction of the VC in 1856. In the US the Mexican-American war stimulated a similar concern over awarding soldiers, with the Medal of Honor being introduced in 1862.

2 Responses to “Swords, medals and soldiers”

  1. John Hoptak Says:

    Gary~
    Great post…for all I have studied about General Nagle, I never really took the time to analyze the meaning behind the inscription on his Mexican-American War sword, and the motivations behind those who presented it to him. Thank you for making me think in a different direction. And keep up the good work!

  2. breathinghistory Says:

    Thanks John,

    I am sure this is a topic I will return to as some point in the near future.


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