GOLD PRESENTATION MILITIA MEDAL FOR MARKSMANSHIP 1841: ALONZO COY, MILITIA OFFICER, GOLD RUSH, VIGILANCE COMMITTEE, CIVIL WAR OFFICER

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Item Code: 30-2227

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This beautiful gold badge is in the shape of a small framed testimonial. The tooled raised border imitates a carved wood frame with floral designs and a recessed central panel is inscribed in script: “Presented by the Washington Light Guard to the Best Average Shot May 24, 1841.” The reverse has the base of a T-bar pin and catch, now missing, and is inscribed, also in script, with the recipient’s name: “Alonzo Coy.” Coy had a long involvement with the Massachusetts militia, joined the California Gold Rush and in San Francisco was a member of a militia company and the Committee of Vigilance. He returned to Massachusetts and at the beginning of the Civil War he joined the 11th Massachusetts and tragically took his own life in 1862.

Born in New Hampshire in 1815, Coy ran a trucking company in Massachusetts with H.C. Coy until 1843, when they sold it, to another Coy, but he apparently pursued the same line of work, listing himself as a teamster in a “trucking service” in Orleans, Mass., in the 1850 census. He had more than a passing interest in the militia, joining at least two volunteer militia companies before the Mexican War. In 1841 he was elected 4th Lieutenant in the Washington Light Guard, likely a new organization since their first public appearance in a parade was seems only to have been in 1842. He was elected Captain of the company in 1844 and joined the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company the same year, an elite organization whose enlisted ranks might include men like Coy who were simultaneously officers in other companies. In 1845 he given the honor of portraying George Washington in the “Cornwallis Sham Fight” at Roxbury, an activity held in number of small towns on the anniversary of Cornwallis’s surrender, but suffered the indignity of being wounded in the face with small shot fired by a participant who apparently forgot his gun was still loaded from a hunting foray.

He attempted to recruit a company for service in the Mexican War, but was unsuccessful in taking the field. (He is not listed in Heitman and appears in Boston ceremony in February 1848.) Sometime around 1849, however, he headed for California in the Gold Rush, and is picked up in the newspapers as being elected captain in 1852 of the newly formed “Eureka Light Horse Guard” in San Francisco, from which he resigned in October 1853, perhaps to return to Massachusetts. A newspaper account lists him among those mistreated by some lawless elements in California, which may explain his early membership in the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, formed in 1851.

Upon his return to Massachusetts he seems to have taken up another line of work, perhaps inspired by the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. In 1860 we find him in Boston, listing himself as a liquor dealer in the census, apparently operating a family-run bar or eatery of some sort: one of his five sons was listed as a bar tender and the other four as waiters. In 1861 he listed his occupation as “caterer,” perhaps a more socially acceptable job description, when he enlisted in the 11th Massachusetts. He was commissioned and mustered 1st Lieutenant of Co. C on 13 June 1861. He was appointed acting Quartermaster of the regiment at some point, perhaps after the resignation of QM Lakin in December 1861, which would put him in the line of battle when the regiment saw action at First Bull Run, losing 88 men.

Coy suffered the loss of his wife in mid-April 1862, just as the army was departing for the Peninsular Campaign. Muster rolls indicate no leaves of absence, so he probably did not see her before she died or attend the funeral. On the Peninsula they further action, but gave their most impressive performance in August 1862 as part of Grover’s brigade which over-ran two Confederate lines in a bayonet charge against the railroad embankment at Second Bull Run.

Coy was appointed acting brigade quartermaster by Grover on September 13, 1862. Massachusetts records state that just a week later, September 20, he died “of disease.” The truth is more complicated. (NY Times, 26 September 1862.)

“First Lieutenant Alonzo Coy shot himself through the brain at these headquarters on September 20, 1862. A few days since his business led him to Washington, DC, where, while riding upon one of the street cars he had stolen from his pocket, promissory notes to the amount of nearly $1,000. Since which time, he had appeared unusually depressed. Yesterday he was quite ill, and his illness, together with his loss, doubtless overruled his customary firmness, and to some degree unsettled his mind. About noon, Major Tripp of the Eleventh Massachusetts passed the door of his tent and entered a house standing near, the deceased saluting and speaking in a cheerful tone as he passed. Immediately afterward Major Tripp heard the report of a pistol, the major rushed into the tent and found his friend lying with the blood flowing from both temples. The pistol, a heavy revolver, lay upon the floor, having fallen from his grasp. He was, probably, one of the most efficient quartermasters in the army, and his death has cast a gloom upon the spirits of all who knew him.”

Since the article says “his business led him to Washington, D.C.” the stolen notes were likely connected with his new post. In addition to the embarrassment and official inquiries, he might have risked being held personally liable. The event seems to have compounded depression from his wife’s death. One obituary attributes his suicide to a, “temporary fit of insanity.” Another, perhaps more accurate, says he had been, “laboring under depression of spirits, caused by domestic affliction.” His body was returned to Massachusetts and buried beside his wife, Emeline.

This is a very elegant medal that displays nicely and has an interesting, if ultimately tragic, history connected with it. We are aware of another marksmanship award given to Coy a year later by the same company. Given his interest in the militia, it is sadly ironic that actual military service turned out to be so devastating in such unexpected ways.  [sr]

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