1861 Pennsylvania First Defenders Medal of Honor - obverse struck on 1861 $20 Gold Liberty, PCGS MS63


1861 Liberty Gold 5pc Denomination Set with this 1861 $20 Medal (6pcs total) is priced collectively at $87,500.

(If sold separately it would be $90,750).

"1861" (1891State of Pennsylvania First Defenders Medal of Honor Obverse Struck on an 1861 Liberty Head Double Eagle. 34.9 mm. 33.4 grams.

On April 15, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln put out a request for volunteer soldiers to participate in the battle against the Southern secessionists. Thousands quickly responded to this request, but the first group to reach Washington was composed of some 500 Pennsylvanians of the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, the Logan Rifles of Lewistown, the Allen Infantry of Allentown, and the National Light Infantry and Washington, both of Pottsville, all of whom arrived in Washington - not without difficulties - three days later during the evening of April 18, 1861. Celebrated at the time for their quick response, these volunteers were to continue to receive accolades long after the Civil War had ended. 

Thirty years later, on May 26, 1891, the Pennsylvania State Legislature proposed another honor for the First Defenders, and an appropriation for "Medals of Honor" for the First Defenders be made. As quoted from the proposition, "Be it Enacted, That the sum of one thousand five hundred dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby specifically appropriated for the purpose of procuring a suitable medal with commemorative devices, for each of the surviving members or their heirs, of the National Light Infantry of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; the Washington Artillerists of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; the Reading [Ringgold] Artillery, of Reading, Pennsylvania; the Allen Infantry, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; and the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the event of the said five companies being the first to respond to the call for troops by President Lincoln, of date April 15th, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, mustered in at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the 18th day of April one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and reached Washington, District of Columbia, and were stationed in the Capitol building for its defense on the 18th day of April, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one." 

Quickly approved by the State Legislature, the medals were soon designed and struck. The original medals were a complicated affair composed of a 24 mm bronze medal inserted into a 38 mm radiant Greek cross. The cross was suspended by a loop at the top from a red, white, and blue silk ribbon - which in turn was attached to a bronze pin-back hanger embellished with the Pennsylvania State Seal and the words FIRST / DEFENDER to the left and right. Long regarded as one of the most desirable of Civil War medals, this original award is rarely seen today. 

The present piece is a regular issue 1861 Liberty Head double eagle with the obverse of the central medallion of the First Defenders cross stamped onto its face. It features a view of the United States Capitol Building (as it appeared in the late 1800's) with the inscription FIRST IN DEFENCE (sic) OF THE CAPITOL above, and APRIL 18, 1861 below. Many times rarer than the original medal - of which it is thought that only 127 of the possible 475 First Defenders (or their heirs) actually received - this piece is very likely a one-of-a-kind example. The stamping is nicely centered, with the 1861 date of the original coin quite clear, and a shadowy image of the original Liberty Head still detectable in the fields. The reverse of the original coin is completely visible, although flattened a bit in the center, opposite the medal stamping. The host coin is nearly a full millimeter larger than a normal Liberty $20, a result of the stamping of the medal design.

Of interest is that at least one source suggests that the legislation was written and the medals were struck (with gold central medallions) as early as 1889 by "the Mint", inferring the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Perhaps they were, but none are known in gold, and there is no record in Robert W. Julian's encyclopedic reference Medals of the United States - The First Century of any medals, in any metal, being struck by the Philadelphia Mint for the First Defenders. However, there were other private mints in Philadelphia at the time, that were certainly capable of producing the First Defenders medals as well.

It is thought that this and the following two pieces were initially the property of Robert A. Gray (1834-1906), in whose family it passed down through before settling into the Hennessy Family Collection, where is has since resided for several generations. Robert A. Gray was a volunteer Civil War soldier born in Philadelphia who, as a Sergeant in 21st Connecticut Infantry Regiment, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic rescue, in the face of heavy enemy fire, of a wounded officer from his company. This action occurred at Drewry's Bluff, Virginia on May 16, 1864, but his medal was not presented until July 13, 1897. The present piece and the two that follow are now being brought to market for the first time as part of the Hennessy Family Collection, a Philadelphia-area cabinet it has belonged to since at least the past 50 years.

Provenance: From the Hennessey Family Collection. Likely ex Robert A. Gray (1834-1906).

More Information
PCGS # 681794
Grading Service PCGS
Denomination Type Liberty Head $20
Numeric Denomination $20 Liberty
Grade MS63
Mint Location Philadelphia
Designation NONE
Circulated/UnCirculated Uncirculated
Strike Type Business
Holder Variety (c.1891) Pennsylvania First Defenders Medal of Honor - obverse struck on 1861 $20 Gold
Grade Add On NONE
Holder Type N/A
You're reviewing:1861 Pennsylvania First Defenders Medal of Honor - obverse struck on 1861 $20 Gold Liberty, PCGS MS63