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West Virginia Is Looking for the Descendants of Civil War Veterans Who Never Claimed Their Medals

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

This week holds two major Civil War anniversaries: America’s deadliest war started on April 12, 1861, when Southerners who seceded from the Union fired shots at the federal government’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, and came to an unofficial end on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to future president Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Va. But, though more than 150 years have passed since those days, the war’s story continues to play out.

The unprecedented violence of the Civil War spurred new precedents for recognizing military service. The Medal of Honor , the first medal that enlisted military service members could be nominated to receive, started being awarded after 1862. The Civil War Campaign Medal was conceived in the early 1900s, around the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. Even Memorial Day was founded with the Civil War in mind.

States gave out their own medals too. In fact, West Virginia is still giving them out.

In 1866, the West Virginia legislature passed a resolution authorizing the distribution of medals for officers and soldiers who were honorably discharged, killed in battle or who had died of causes related to battle wounds. The medals were “a slight testimonial of the high appreciation, by the State, of your Devotion, Patriotism and Services,” as West Virginia’s first Governor, Arthur Boreman, wrote in a letter to a veteran in 1867. And the war was particularly important to West Virginians, as it only became a state in 1863, after a two-year effort launched by Virginians who wanted to stay in the Union.

The state authorized the minting of 26,000 medals to honor the men who fought in its regiments. But, of that number, there are 3,392 that haven’t been claimed yet.

Now, with the help of new technology, the state is making an effort to see that those medals get to the descendants of those who served. People who believe they have ancestors who served in West Virginia can search the list of names of medal recipients on the website for the state’s archives and apply to prove that they are related.

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West Virginia wasn’t the only state in the Union to authorize these medals, but it was among the earliest and its process of distributing medals is unique. The same year West Virginia authorized its medals, Ohio ordered medals from Tiffany & Co. for Buckeyes who had signed up to fight and re-enlisted. Around the 40th anniversary of the Civil War, the New Jersey legislature signed off on three medals. And similar to West Virginia, Massachusetts — which authorized medals in 1906 — has a collection of more than 800 unclaimed “Minutemen” medals, but no plans to distribute them. (Brigadier General Leonid Kondratiuk, Director of Historical Services for the Massachusetts National Guard, cites lack of resources, and says he has seen only a few cases of descendants coming forward in his last 20 years in the job.) Representatives of the Ohio, New York and New Jersey historical military records divisions told TIME that they don’t have a stash of unclaimed medals.

“I’ve never seen any other state [besides West Virginia] have a notice out saying ‘we have medals still,'” says Robert J. Wolz, historian for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Most of them were issued when the veterans were alive.”

By his count, there were about 409,000 Union veterans alive in the 1890s, just under 250,000 by around 1900 and about 34,000 in the 1920s.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which was the preeminent organization of Union veterans, advertised the medals. But the more veterans that passed away, the more likely it became that knowledge of these medals has been forgotten in families. In the case of the West Virginia medals, there was an uptick in interest in 1963, around the 100th anniversary of statehood — but generally, the claims have come in dribs and drabs, according to Randolph Marcum, who carries out the medals program at the West Virginia State Archives and is a veteran himself.

But as genealogy websites have grown in popularity, so too has awareness of these unclaimed medals.

Jerry Holley, 49, discovered his great-great-grandfather Andrew J. Halley’s name on the list of West Virginia medal recipients through MyHeritage.com in 2017. (The spelling of their surname name changed in the intervening years.) The Israel-based genealogy and DNA-testing service helped Holley, who lives in Thornville, Ohio, polish his family tree and track down U.S. Census documents he needed to prove the medal belonged to his family. Halley even discovered that his great-great-grandfather had fought against one of his other great-great-great grandfathers, Anderson J. Bradley, who was on the side of Confederate Virginia — not so surprising a phenomenon, given the history of the separation of the two states.

Making a claim can be a long process. Birth, death and marriage records can be searched on the West Virginia State Archives website, but only up to a point. When West Virginia was part of Virginia, the counties weren’t required to keep records of births and deaths until 1853, so the research is hard when it comes to tracing people who were born prior to the split — which was the case for the men who served in the Civil War. In addition, U.S. Census records before 1850 just listed the head of household by name, and use tick marks to count off other members of the family. That means people making a claim may have to dig for other types of verification, such as records of a will, land ownership, marriage announcements in newspapers or obituaries that list family members who survive the deceased. Many medal recipients also scattered and moved out West after the war, making them harder to trace.

As for Holley, he filed his claim last spring. In January 2019, the medal recognizing his ancestor’s honorable discharge arrived in the mail. The process was worth the effort, Holley says, to retrieve something that honors his great-great-grandfather’s hard work.

“He never opened it, never got to put it on his uniform,” he says. “He earned it. He just never went back to get it.”

Someday, he plans to bury the medal with his great-great-grandfather at his grave in Green Bottom, W.Va., on the West Virginia-Ohio border.

After all, he doesn’t need to have the medal in his hands to pass down the intangible pride that this tangible medal represents to his family — a family that also includes veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and the two World Wars. “My son is in the Army. He wears the uniform, took an oath,” he says with pride, “and is making the same sacrifice.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com