Research Project: Tracing a Campaign Medal to a British Born U.S. Soldier.

Researching early United States campaign or service medals can be problematic at best and sometimes impossible. To put the subject of this specific medal into proper context, it might serve well to briefly outline the history of early U.S. issued campaign or service medals.

John Osborne Powell PI Medal Front

Above: The Philippine Insurrection Service Medal (Army type) No. 7239, issued to British-born First Sergeant John Osborne Powell of A Troop, 14th U.S. Cavalry.

As early as the American Civil War (1861-1865) there had been some parties in the U.S military who sought to establish the issuing of medals along the lines of European campaign awards. This idea met with stiff opposition from the military establishment who thought the whole idea reeked of European elitism, and possibly more to the point of the matter was a Congress which opposed the cost that might be entailed in creating and issuing such medals in large numbers.

During the war, the Medal of Honor was the only medal or decoration of any type issued by official sanction although at least one Union general – Benjamin Butler – took matters into his own hands and at his own expense created the so-called Butler Medal. The Butler Medal was an award for valor issued only to the African American troops serving under his command and not a campaign medal in the common sense. Interestingly Butler wrote that the British Crimean War Medal was the inspiration for his design. Lacking anything to commemorate their long, hard service during the war, other Union veterans took to wearing their Grand Army of the Republic (a private organization of Union veterans) membership badges to signify their veteran status. The badge did nothing to denote how extensive or short a veteran’s service in uniform might have been.

This issue languished until 1905 when on the 40th anniversary of the war’s end a Civil War Campaign medal was finally authorized. Still, Congress refused the needed funds and the War Department took it upon itself to create the medal in 1907. The medal was issued in two styles, one for the army and one for the navy and although called a campaign medal it was more, in fact, a service medal since the only criteria for presentation was to have served in uniform between required dates of 1861 and 1865. Additionally, the medal was only issued to veterans still alive on are after 1907.

One also runs into a problem tracing the recipients of American campaign and service medals. Unlike their British counterparts which were generally engraved with the recipient’s service number, rank, name, and unit, usually on the planchette’s rim, American medals were sometimes impressed with a serial number only.   The Civil War Medal only had the first 554 issued with a serial number and only these can be traced as to the original recipient. Unless an unnumbered medal has an unbroken line of provenance there is no way to determine to whom the medal was issued too.

Later medals, such as this Philippine Insurrection Service Medal (also first authorized in 1905) were all issued with serial numbers although only some of these can be traced to specific soldiers or sailors. Three types of serial numbers were used. Some medals used a simple serial number, other had the number preceded by a prefix of either “No.” or “M No.”. Only the Philippine Medals with the “No.” prefix can be traced. Another problem lies in the erratic nature of the medal rolls themselves.

Unlike British medal rolls which list the same service information engraved on the specific medal’s rim and which were prepared and maintained by the recipient’s regiment, American “rolls”, or possibly more correctly indexes,  are simply a numerical list of serial numbers cross-referenced to a man’s name. Sometimes the man’s rank and unit are also listed, sometimes only his branch of service. Sometimes nothing more than his hometown and sometimes just a name and nothing else.

Eventually, all pretense as to keeping track of to whom a campaign medal was issued to, was scrapped and by the time of World War One the numbering system was abandoned.

Luckily for us, this particular Philippine Insurrection Medal was impressed with a serial number preceded by a “No.” prefix – No. 7236 – which can be traced to a specific soldier, and his story is perfectly suited to the “Great Game” section of Often called the Philippine Campaign Medal. this medal was issued to U.S. military personnel who took part in suppressing local rebellions on the islands after the close of the Spanish-American War. Qualification dates were between 1899 and 1913.

John Osborne Powell PI Medal No

Above: The prefixed serial number impressed on the bottom rim of Powell’s medal.

The recipient of this medal was First Sergeant John Osborne Powell of A Troop, 14th U.S. Cavalry. Powell’s story is an interesting one. A British subject by birth, he was born on 13 December 1872 at the British Consulate in Baghdad, in what was then Turkish Arabia, to Commander Walter John Powell of the Royal Indian Marine (basically the Anglo-Indian Navy but in general practice more like an Anglo-Indian Coast Guard) and Nicocris Susan Holland. At the time of his birth, the younger Powell’s father seems to have been serving in some as yet undetermined detached duty at Baghdad. Interestingly the Commander had his master’s certificate issued to him in Baghdad in 1871.

The 1881 Census for Westbury-on-Trym, Gloucestershire, lists Powell with his mother, brother, sister, cousin and two servants. Powell’s mother, Nicocris is listed as the family head and rather curiously their address is given as Baghdad. One assumes that Westbury-on-Trym was the family’s hometown and they were enumerated in absentia. Why John Walter Powell was not enumerated or listed as the head of household is unknown.

On 1 July 1889, 17-year-old John Osborne Powell arrived at New York on board the SS Adriatic. The ship’s manifest listed him as a student but no other clues can be gleaned at why he chose to visit the United States. What he did and where he went after arrival is unknown but on 24 August 1893, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at Vancouver Barracks in Washington State as was assigned to E Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry. At the time of his enlistment, he gave his occupation as a farmer. One wonders what prompted Powell to choose a military career as an enlisted man in the U.S. He was not yet a citizen (he would become one in 1904) and one would have thought that with his father being an officer in Her Majesty’s service that certain advantages may have been available to him had he decided to pursue a military career in Great Britain.

In any event, he was discharged after his first term of enlistment on 31 July 1898 at Honolulu, Hawaii Territory with the rank of sergeant. His character was listed as “excellent”. He almost immediately reenlisted on September 17, 1898, at the Presidio in San Francisco, California with H Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry for a one year term of service being discharged at Honolulu, Hawaii Territory on February 23, 1899, with the rank of corporal. Again his character was listed as “excellent”. Powell had clearly decided on a career in the U.S. Army by this time.

The U.S. Army’s enlistment registers may not be complete since Powell’s next enlistment is dated March 24, 1902, at New York with F Troop, 7th U.S. Cavalry and was discharged as a sergeant on February 25, 1905, at Boise Barracks, Idaho. His character being “very good”.

Powell would continue reenlisting on the following dates and locations: October 30, 1906, Vancouver Barracks, Washington State (G Troop, 14th Cavalry), 14 December 1907, Vancouver Barracks, Washington State, (F Troop. 8th U.S. Cavalry) and being promoted 1st Sergeant during this enlistment. December 14, 1910, at Fort Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands (14th U.S. Cavalry). Interestingly, Powell’s discharge from this enlistment took part onboard the United States Army Transport “Thomas” during the vessel’s transit from the Philippines to California. His rank at this time was that of ordnance sergeant.

Powell seems to disappear from the Register of Enlistments after this last entry but his career can be picked up in the U.S. Army’s Returns from Military Posts. He apparently returned to the Philippines before 1914 as an ordnance sergeant after spending some time at the Presidio at Monterey, California. Back in the Philippines, seemingly now with the Ordnance Department, he was stationed at Camp Keithley on the southern island of Mindanao. The Returns show him at Camp Keithley until March 1915 when the Return for Camp Keithley states that Powell was: “Relieved fr [sic] duty at Camp Keithley. P.I., per SO 50, HPD., dated March 5, 1915. Left post on March 25/15.” “SO 59” appears to involve leave – possibly extended – being granted to a soldier.

Powell continued to serve as an ordnance sergeant and later master sergeant with the Ordnance Department through World War One, retiring from service as a master sergeant on November 8, 1921. At some time prior to September 1, 1919, he had been promoted 1st lieutenant in the Ordnance Reserve Corps. As of now, I have been unable to determine where and it what capacity Powell served during the U.S. participation in World War One. The 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri which destroyed 80% of the enlisted service records for the World War One era may preclude finding out more regarding Powell’s wartime service, although I do intend to submit an inquiry.

Powell had married Miss Mary Bowen Hooper at Baltimore, Maryland on January 18, 1919. The couple does not appear to have had any children.

Powell applied for a passport in 1921 to visit England, Belgium, and France with his recent bride. Powell’s mother, Nicocris was still alive so the couple no doubt spent time visiting her. Powell’s father had died in 1913. There is no evidence at this point that Powell served with the American Expeditionary Force during the war, but if he did perhaps he was taking his wife to see the localities involved with his wartime service.

John Osborne Powell Passport Photo

Above: A uniformed John Osborne Powell in a photograph taken from his 1921 U.S. passport application. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration. 

In the rather voluminous correspondence involved with his passport application, Powell relates his active service in the Philippines, on the Mexican Border, and during World War One. His service in the Philippines is confirmed by this medal and its corresponding mention in the Philippine Insurrection Medal index. Additionally, the index for the Spanish War Campaign Medal lists Powell as being entitled to that medal (No.7630) and mentions him being stationed at Savanna Proving Grounds in Illinois when the medal was issued (September 19, 1919).  Powell was also entitled to the World War One Victory Medal although due to the lack of records it is not known what if any battle of service clasps to his Victory Medal Powell may have been authorized to wear on the medal’s ribbon. The current whereabouts of these last two medals are not known.

After retirement from the army Powell and his wife took up residence in Maryland where in the 1940 Census he is listed as a farmer by way of occupation. Sometime prior to 1948 the Powells’ moved to La Jolla, California, not far from San Diego.

John Osborne Powell died on March 30, 1960, at La Jolla, California and was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

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