A Man and His Medal: Isaac Shelby of Kentucky

Kentucky Historical Society, founded 1836 

Museum Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.

Admission: Adults $8.00, Youths $6.00, Veterans $6.00

100 West Broadway, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601


The medal is small, but it meant a great deal to the recipient. In 1824, the United States Congress issued it to Isaac Shelby, a war hero and two-time governor of Kentucky. Human beings have always cared about material objects, but Shelby cared more than many people. Born in Maryland, the son of a Welsh immigrant, he commanded troops in combat in both the Revolution and the War of 1812. He settled in Kentucky in the 1780s where he prospered as a planter and miller. Tall and robust, blessed with extraordinary powers of endurance, he was a talented writer, and in his politics, ardent in his loves and hates. He exulted in the American military triumphs over the British in both conflicts, and he collected artifacts from battlefields, taking a British musket after the Battle of King’s Mountain, where he served in 1780. All of his life, he believed that objects conveyed information in ways equal or superior to anything on paper. Citizens in Kentucky and elsewhere shared this folk belief in the early national era, and they started to preserve historic objects before museums or historical societies began to do so. They revered material objects as a profound method to communicate historical knowledge.

Isaac Shelby was an enthusiastic adherent of this vernacular culture, and he collected war-related artifacts for over thirty years, including a spyglass, a saddle, and quite a few guns. Some of his relics were not traditional military objects but rendered valuable, he thought, because soldiers used them in wartime, such as a razor case and a walking cane. With this collection, he could simultaneously celebrate American independence, illustrate his involvement in great events, and teach the next generation about history. He kept his artifacts in his home in the Bluegrass region, Traveler’s Rest, which was in some ways his own private museum. The house contained a fluid, ever-changing collection. He gave some war artifacts to relatives and good friends, which they carefully preserved, and he solicited relics, requesting governments to create objects that commemorated key chapters in American history. He insisted that the North Carolina state government fulfill its longstanding promise to give him a decorative sword for his Revolutionary service, which came just in time for him to wear it during the War of 1812. His friend and kinsman, politician Henry Clay, wrote a glowing letter to accompany its arrival. Yet Shelby did not hesitate to reject artifacts he found inferior, such as a Congressional medal he received in 1822 for his service at the Battle of the Thames nine years before. He described it as a mere “bauble,” tacky and unworthy, and he returned it with a curt note to a government official, asking him to inform President James Monroe, whom Shelby had known since the Revolution. Shelby didn’t like the box it came in, either. No images of the medal or box have survived, but they failed to meet his expectations. A Congressional medal was not enough in and of itself—it had to be the right kind of medal, presented properly. The war was important, according to Shelby, so the object should reflect that in its design, craftsmanship, and visual appeal.

Traveler’s Rest
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kentucky Historical Society

The replacement medal arrived in 1824. Isaac Shelby’s friends Henry Clay or James Monroe may have persuaded the U.S. Congress to make this second, better medal. In any case, this one is made of gold, which adds an extra element of glamour, and it is engraved on both sides, with Shelby’s profile and name on the obverse and a battle scene with cavalry and foot soldiers on the reverse, the name and date of the battle inscribed underneath. The object is small enough to fit in someone’s hand, a little over two and a half inches wide, but the engraving is very fine and fully detailed. The likeness of Shelby is excellent—so good that it actually resembles him. Two highly-skilled artists were involved: the painter Thomas Sully drew the battle scene, and Moritz Furst, a Hungarian immigrant, did the engraving on both sides, possibly working from a sketch of the governor’s profile. Isaac Shelby found this iteration of the medal entirely acceptable. The War Department mailed it to Traveler’s Rest, presumably with a polite cover letter and a nice box. A special award ceremony was held there, since he had been partially disabled from a stroke in 1820. His mind was still clear, however, and he must have received the medal with much satisfaction. In 1826, he died.

Shelby's medal
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kentucky Historical Society

Isaac Shelby succeeded in his longtime attempt to educate his relatives about the value of artifacts, for the medal retained its symbolism among his descendants. In 1833, his widow Susannah Hart Shelby bequeathed it to their son Isaac, Jr., who donated it decades later to the Kentucky Historical Society. Governor Shelby’s message about the value of this particular object lasted beyond the next generation, well into the twentieth century. His great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth Magoffin Garnett, married an Irish lord but still felt connected to her Kentucky roots. In the 1930s, she had a duplicate struck and donated this, too, to the Kentucky Historical Society. This medal replicates the fine work of the 1824 replacement medal but is made of bronze in a somewhat darker hue. Since 1824, the federal government has done its part to contribute to the nation’s material culture. The U.S. Mint has struck dozens of duplicates of the Shelby medal, which were sold to individuals, museums, and historical societies. His medal was especially popular in the U.S. during the Civil War, probably for his exuberant nationalism; the last one was struck in the 1980s. His medal, his other things, and the family’s reverence for them demonstrate how human beings can communicate ideas about history in tangible form, as well as the lasting power of objects whether they remain in private hands or the custody of public institutions.

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Joan Cashin

Joan E. Cashin is a history professor at Ohio State University, and she is the editor of WAR MATTERS: MATERIAL CULTURE IN THE CIVIL WAR ERA (2018).