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  • Jake Wynn

Medal returned to its proper owner 40 years after it was lost at the Battle of Antietam

William H. Warren thought occasionally about the small medal he lost during the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It was the same battle where the veteran of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost his right arm at the shoulder.

A painting showing the carnage at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. (LOC)

But seemingly out of the blue, Warren received a letter in March 1902 from a resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, asking if he was William W. Warren of Company H, 20th Massachusetts. The author of that letter was Finley I. Thomas of Harrisburg's Grand Army of the Republic Post #58. Thomas wrote to Warren to inquire whether he was missing a medal from his time in the Civil War.

Warren's long-lost medal had been located, almost 40 years after he lost it on the battlefields of Maryland. It was found among the personal effects from those treated in one of Harrisburg's Civil War hospitals.

Harrisburg's "Old Cotton Factory" became one of the city's makeshift military hospitals after the Battle of Gettysburg. (LOC)

The remarkable story was told by the Harrisburg Telegraph on April 9, 1902:


Fin. I. Thomas Discovers the Owner of a Medal Found on Antietam’s Bloody Field.

During the Civil War the patriotic people of Harrisburg tendered the Government the use of the old cotton factory, at North and Second streets, and several of the school houses for hospital purposes. After the Battle of Gettysburg, in July 1863, these buildings were occupied by both Union and Confederate sick and wounded.

One of our citizens, whose name has been forgotten, was interested in the welfare of these unfortunates, and took care of mementos that were either given him or which may have been found upon the dead before burial. Many of them were returned to the owners or their friends, but some were not identified and remained in his possession for many years. About twenty years ago this same gentleman, in looking over these keepsakes, found a silver half - dollar bearing the date of 1861, the reverse side having been polished and this inscription engraven upon it: "To William W. Warren. Co. H. 20th Regt., Mass. Vols. By His Friends."

The gentleman sent the medal to Post 58, G. A. R., of this city, with the request that the owner or some of his friends be found if possible. It was placed in the custody of the quartermaster, Fin. I. Thomas, who had a notice published in the national orders of the G. A. R., but no response came. He then put a notice in the National Tribune, with a like result. He then communicated with the adjutant general of the G. A. R. of Massachusetts. Still no reply, after which he gave up all search but was always on the alert to see if he could find any of the Twentieth Massachusetts, but not until the issue of the National Tribune of March 6th did he get any clue or information, and it occurred in this way.

In the column, "Chat of the Corridors" this item appeared: "Justice Gray, of the United States Supreme Court, is suffering with a stroke of paralysis and should he decide to retire the President would undoubtedly select someone from the New England States, and among those spoken of was the name of Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. He is a son of the late Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet, and served with great credit, three years as captain in the Twentieth Massachusetts, and was severely wounded at Antietam."

Quartermaster Thomas wrote at once to Chief Justice Holmes to inquire if he knew of the whereabouts of William W. Warren, company H, Twentieth Massachusetts, and in a few days he received this reply:

"Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Supreme Judicial Court, Court House, Boston. March 13th, 1902 Dear Sir: I am informed that William W. Warren's address is 66 Leverett street, Boston.

Yours truly, 0. W. Holmes."

Quartermaster Thomas then wrote to William W. Warren to find out if he was the long - lost comrade, and in a few days a reply came stating that he was pleased to say that he was the long-lost and much-sought for William W. Warren, of company H, Twentieth Massachusetts volunteer infantry. He further stated that "the medal in your possession" once belonged to him. It was presented to him at Camp Burton, near Poolesville, Md., a short time after the Battle of Ball's Bluff, but how it ever got to Harrisburg he did not know, as he was never there. He was wounded at Antietam September 17th, 1862, and lost his right arm at the shoulder in consequence, he was a prisoner until 4 o'clock of the 18th, when he was retaken by our cavalry near Shepherdstown. He said when he was struck the medal was hanging upon his breast and when he was recaptured it was not there.

He said: "I have always thought that some 'Johnny Reb' made love to it when I was inside their lines." In speaking - of the medal, he says: “Most of the friends of those days have passed over and answered the roll call to their Commander above." He mentioned Quartermaster Folsum, who is still living, and asked him about the medal less than two years ago. Quartermaster Thomas forwarded the long-lost medal and it is now in possession of the rightful owner, who appreciated the efforts of his comrade. Mr. Warren said when the medal comes to Harrisburg again he will come along.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1902 (Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances of the story suggest that Warren's medal was likely taken by a Confederate soldier after his wounding and capture at Antietam. What happened to that Confederate soldier or whomever took that medal is not known; however, because it was found in a former hospital in Harrisburg used after the Battle of Gettysburg suggests that they met their demise there.

Warren's medal made a remarkable journey, helped along by luck and a future Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

1 comment



Good story

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