The medal pictured above is made of bronze and measures 39mm in diameter. It was issued in 1860, following the annual 4th of July parade in downtown Charleston, for which the Washington Light Infantry (W.L.I.) turned out 144 men, divided into two companies - A and B. This was a first for the premier militia unit of the city, and was duly recognized by the issuance of this finely-made bronze medal.
The obverse of the medal features an excellent engraving of the W.L.I.'s crest - an angel (or winged Victory) with horn flying above the clouds. The unit's motto "Virtue and Valor" appears above the angel, with the initials "W.L.I." below. Immediately under the clouds in very small letters are the diesinker's initials "R.L." - Robert Lovett - and his address "Phila." - Philadelphia.
The reverse of the medal features a rendition of the state seal of South Carolina above the following inscription: W.L.I., Capt. Simonton, 144 Men, 4th July, 1860. Around this inscription is a long ribbon with the date 22d. Feb, 1807 and the following names: Lowndes, Cross, Crafts, Simons, Miller, Gilchrist, Ravenel, Lee, Jervey, Porter, Walker, and Hatch. The information presented are the names of the first twelve commanders of the W.L.I. and the date of the W.L.I.'s founding.
The crest of the Washington Light Infantry.
As with many other militia groups formed in the early 1800s, the Washington Light Infantry was founded in response to a perceived threat from abroad. In June of 1807, the British ship H.M.S. Leopard fired upon the U.S.S. Chesapeake. There are differing accounts of the number of casualties incurred by the Americans. Some sources report 21 wounded or killed. Others say 6 American sailors were killed and 29 wounded. Men from the Leopard then boarded the Chesapeake and captured four sailors who they claimed were British deserters who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In point of fact only one, Jason Ratford, was actually a British deserter. And one of the four was an African-American named David Martin from Massachusetts. A public outcry was heard across America against such heavy-handed tactics on the high seas, resulting in the formation of many local militia groups. In July, with American indignance still running high, several young men of Charleston met at Robinson's Hotel and formed the Washington Light Infantry. (An astute observer will note that the founding date on the reverse of the medal does not coincide with the date of the July meetings above. This is because the W.L.I. "backdated" their "official" founding date so that it would fall on the birthdate of their namesake - George Washington.)
Over the ensuing years the W.L.I. became Charleston's premier militia group, its members performing many civic duties, as well as military ones. Among the latter was service in the Seminole Indian Wars in Florida.
In the summer of 1860 (when the above medal was issued), anti-abolitionist sentiment ran deep in the streets of Charleston. The Democratic National Convention had been held in the "Holy City" in April and May, and had failed to nominate a candidate due to the abolitionist platform of the leading candidate, Stephen Douglas. Abraham Lincoln had just been nominated by the Republican Party, which had prompted Robert B. Rhett's Mercury to print blistering editorials against abolition, warning of dire consequences if Lincoln were elected.
Echoing the patriotic fervor of the state's citizenry, the W.L.I. stepped up its recruiting efforts throughout the year. One of the primary means by which the W.L.I. kept its presence in the mind of the public was the annual 4th of July parade. And especially during the summer of 1860, the W.L.I. wanted to put its best foot forward for the citizens of Charleston. Captain Charles H. Simonton, the group's commander strove to muster as many men as possible for the parade. And he was successful, as the W.L.I. paraded 144 Rifles, divided for the first time into two companies - A and B. Simonton and the officers of the W.L.I. must have been pleased, as they had medals struck and presented to all who paraded.
Good times were short-lived, however, as the dark and gruesome aspects of war soon overcame the pleasantries of parading. Companies A and B were mustered into active service in February of 1862 as the "Eutaw Battalion" of the 25th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. They saw action mainly in the Charleston area - at Secessionville, James Island, Battery Wagner, and Fort Sumter. But during the waning days of the war, the 25th was called to Virginia for the defense of Petersburg and Fort Fisher.
A photo of Lt. Col. Charles Simonton and members of the Washington Light Infantry, probably taken on James Island early in the war.
Some 60 members of the W.L.I. answered then-Colonel Wade Hampton's May 1861 call for men, enlisting as Company A of Hampton's Legion. These brave soldiers saw action almost immediately in First Manassas - the first major battle of the war - and proudly led the charge at Second Manassas. Members of the W.L.I. also saw action in other conflicts - most notably as Company B, 2nd Infantry in World War I.
Captain Charles Simonton, who is named on the above medal served as 13th Commander of the W.L.I. - from May 1857 to April 1862. In 1862, he was promoted to Colonel of the 25thInfantry, detached from the W.L.I. and placed in command of James Island. Later, he was again detached and placed in command of Fort Caswell and Oak Island, NC. He was captured at Town Creek, NC in February of 1865. Later in life, he served as a United States District Judge.
The Washington Light Infantry is still in existence. Its armory, housing a relic room and meeting hall, is located at 287 Meeting Street.
Copyright 1999 by Tony Chibbaro.
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