Valor Friday

| September 22, 2023

Jefferson Coates

I’m finally watching the 1993 epic war drama Gettysburg. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen it. I was probably discouraged by the more than four hour run time. It is an excellent movie though, and it’s filled with terrific actors. It got me thinking about the men of the battle, most that we’ve never heard of.

During the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign of the Civil War, 74 Union men earned the Medal of Honor. Sixty-four of these were for the Battle of Gettysburg, with the remainder in the nearby battles. You might be surprised that only five of the Medals of Honor awarded for Gettysburg were posthumous.

Perhaps even more surprising, only one of those actually died in the action for which he was honored. The other four, Color Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Falls (Co A, 19th Massachusetts Infantry), Captain Morris Brown Jr (Co A, 126th New York Infantry), Private Elijah Bacon (14th Connecticut Infantry), and Private James Richmond (Co F, 8th Ohio Infantry) all survived the Battle of Gettysburg, but fell in battle in 1864.

Only Lieutenant (Brevet Major) Alonzo Cushing, 22 years old, received the Medal of Honor after being killed in action at Gettysburg. While he received a posthumous brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel, his valiant last stand during Pickett’s Charge wouldn’t be properly recognized until more than 150 years after his death. President Obama awarded the medal posthumously to him in 2014.

As with most Medals of Honor for the Civil War, most of the awards made for Gettysburg were made well after the war’s end. On 1 December 1864, 17 men were given the first contemporaneous awards (two posthumously). Five more awards were made within the next year and a half. All 22 of these awards were made for gallantry in action either as their unit’s color bearer or for the capture of the enemy’s colors. The vast remainder of the awards were made in the coming decades.

One of the final contemporaneous awards, in 1866, was made to Sergeant Jefferson Coates (Co H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry). His citation doesn’t note that he too was a color bearer, but does highlight why his actions might have risen to such a high standard to receive the country’s highest honor;

“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Francis Jefferson Coates, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 1 July 1863, while serving with Company H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for unsurpassed courage in battle, where he had both eyes shot out.”

“Unsurpassed courage” is not something you see written often in even Medal of Honor citations. For his heroism in battle that day, Jefferson Coates, as he was known, was also given a brevet promotion to captain. This is another high and rare honor. While brevet promotions for officers were somewhat common, for an enlisted man to be breveted to commissioned ranks rarely occurred. Just what happened to Mr. Coates that earned such high praise?

From Grant County in the far southwest corner of Wisconsin, Coates was just days past his 18th birthday when he enlisted into the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861. This was in the early days of the Civil War, when many men were answering Lincoln’s call to arms.

The 7th Wisconsin became one of the five regiments from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan that formed the famed Iron Brigade of the West. They saw extensive action throughout the war. Before Gettysburg, they first were pressed into battle at the Second Bull Run. During the Maryland Campaign just after that they suffered more than 300 casualties.

Coates was first wounded in action at the Battle of South Mountain (part of the Maryland Campaign) in Maryland 14 September 1862.

By the first of July 1863, when Lee and Meade would meet in the largest battle of the war at Gettysburg, the 7th Wisconsin hadn’t seen action for nine months. Despite the reprieve, they only numbered 370 effective men. Two days later, at the conclusion of the bloody battle, 194 men of the 7th Wisconsin remained forever in Pennsylvania.

Very nearly among the dead at Gettysburg was Jefferson Coates. As a sergeant with Company H, Coates’ job was to bear the colors. In the Civil War (and all previous conflicts dating back to the Roman Empire), a unit’s colors were the most important thing they had. Along with the bugler, the colors were how commanders directed their men.

In the din of battle, men could always look towards their unit’s flags. They could rally there, or see if they were behind or in front of the line. The colors were the commander’s way in which they indicated the flow of battle. If the colors were to drop, that vital line of communication would be severed.

So it was to the color bearer that the critical job of keeping the colors in the right spot would fall. Since the colors were so important, for communication and unit cohesion, the enemy would specifically target the color bearer. Just like the enemy in later conflicts would target the dispatch runner or the radio telegraph operator, so too in those days were the lines of enemy communication subject to severing.

It was for all of this that so many men earned fame and glory for either vociferously defending their own colors or capturing the enemy’s colors. The loss of one’s own flag could see your men falter and break. The seizure of the enemy’s could similarly turn the tide of battle in your favor.

Sergeant Coates, on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, was holding his company’s colors. About 0700 on 1 July 1863, the 7th Wisconsin was near the fore of the first shots fired in the battle. There they would push Confederate General James Archer’s brigade off Macpherson Hill.

Coates is credited with sparking the effort that pushed Archer’s men off the hill, as he refused to stop fighting. As the largest battle in American history to that point saw tens of thousands of men fight, Macpherson’s Hill saw the men of the North and the South fighting hand-to-hand. Bayoneted in the side by a rebel, Coates refused to back down. An inspiration to his men, they soon rallied.

During the height of the battle, Coates became the target of Confederate fire. As with many color bearers, he fell in battle. He took an enemy rifle shot to the face. It entered just behind his right eye and exited behind his left, severing the optic nerve for both eyes.

Instantly blind, I can only imagine the terror he would feel in that moment. He could now only listen to the fighting and dying, as the Confederates under Lee sought to wipe out the Union Army and end the war here at Gettysburg.

Coates was helped to a position where he could sit at a tree. Ironically, he was helped by a Confederate officer. Perhaps the officer had seen how bravely the 19 year old sergeant had fought, or perhaps it was just a moment of civility and honor among warriors.

Repulsing the enemy, the victorious Union soldiers found Coates propped up against the tree. His grievous wounds had yet to prove fatal. They brought him to a field hospital, and he was eventually evacuated to Philadelphia. He recovered, and was mustered out of federal service in 1864 due to his combat injuries.

The 7th Wisconsin after Macpherson’s Hill would be moved to Culp’s Hill, where they would entrench. Battered and beaten, the 7th Wisconsin saw comparatively little further action during the next two days of the battle.

By war’s end, the 7th Wisconsin, which had mustered into federal service with more than 900 men, enlisted another 369, had lost 281 killed in action (or from wounds sustained in action) and another 143 died from disease. Of the 1,342 men who marched under the colors of the 7th Wisconsin, 424 never came home. The ones who did were marked in one way or another by their ordeals.

Coates was one of four men of the 7th Wisconsin to receive the Medal of Honor.

Post-war, Coates learned to read braille, and took up the trade of broom making. In 1867, he married Rachel Sarah Drew, moved to Nebraska, fathered five children, and started a land trading business. It looks like at least three of his kids survived to adulthood. We tend to think of the Civil War as being a long time ago, but one of his children lived until 1965.

Coates’ youngest child was only about six months old when Coates came down with pneumonia. The disease ultimately did what all of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, killing him when he was just 36 years old in 1880. His wife Rachel appears to have remarried at some point later in the 19th Century, and it looks like was widowed again by 1900. She remained in Nebraska until she passed away in 1933.

Their grandchild, Mercer M Coates, followed in Jefferson’s footsteps. He served in the US Navy at some point before his untimely passing in 1936 at age 37. Another grandchild, in 1966, Gordon Coates donated 167 acres of land and $200,000 toward the creation of the Jefferson Coates Campus of the Missouri School of the Blind. The Missouri School of the Blind is still in operation, but I can’t find if the namesake property was ever developed as envisioned.


Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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If you liked the movie, you have to go to Gettysburg. I lived in Frederick, MD for quite a few years and Antietam, South Mountain, Monocacy, and Gettysburg were all within a 45 minute drive.

I used to go to Gettysburg and just visit the Union left flank at Little Round Top. I would stand at the 20th Maine line and just imagine what it must have been like to be at one of the most important small unit actions of the entire war, maybe in American history. It was like being in a cathedral.


Been there several times myself, MC and hiked the entire line from one end to the other, from both sides. Hallowed and haunted ground where uncommon valor was a common virtue on both sides. The most tragic period of our shared history where politicians could not work together for the common good, industrialists got filthy rich, the central federal grubermint consolidated their power over We, The People, and people died needlessly. We are seeing history repeat itself, in real time, with wifi and memes. ” ‘ lest we forget.”

Thanks, Mason.


We also made the trip several times to Gettysburg.

My Great-Great Grandfather, a Confederate Soldier, was wounded at Gettysburg on 1 July 1863 and taken Prisoner.

He served with Company H, 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment (Moore County, NC.) On July 1, 1863, his unit became engaged in the Battle of Gettysburg, fighting at McPherson’s Ridge. The Regiment suffered heavy casualties during a fight with the “Iron Brigade”‘s 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

I am proud of my Great-Great Grandfather and my Confederate Heritage. He was a Farmer and was too poor to own slaves.


We do believe our very own rgr769 was in this movie.



I was. There were a great many Civil War reenactors that made this movie possible. There were several thousand infantry reenactors who did the Pickett’s charge scenes. I was one of the 76 Union Cavalry reenactors who portrayed General John Buford’s cavalry. After two days to train together, we became a fully functioning cavalry squadron. We even had a bugler who was a professional musician. Every event of the day’s duty was done to bugle calls: Reville, stable call, breakfast call, boots and saddles, and stand-to-horse. I was amazed at what an effective means of communication it was.

A year later, when I participated in the Brandy Station battle reenactment, I was surprised that Sam Eliott remembered me. He wanted to know why I was riding for the “other side,” as I was platoon leader for the Confederate cavalry squadron. Eliott showed up in his unform and reprised his role as General Buford for the reenactment. Great guy who was very approachable. I watched him on the talk shows promoting the movie. He always said that the making of the movie would have been impossible without the reenactors, who showed up with all the correct uniforms, equipment and weapons. He was particularly struck with how this group of horsemen from all over the country formed into a functioning military unit on horseback in a couple of days.


Sergeant Jefferson Coates’ cool glasses.

Had to do a double take on the picture, cuz we swore he looks like THIS guy…


Thank You, Mason, for sharing this very interesting story.


I thought he looked like John Lennon.

And yes, a very interesting story indeed.

As for the confederate officer, I’m sure it was an act of compassion and most likely ordered that the man sitting by the tree was off limits.

It would be interesting to find out what happened to the land gifted to the Missouri school of the blind.


I tried looking up missouri school for the blind and couldn’t get past the homepage. Kept getting a time out error.

I could see when school year started and ended plus holidays but not much else to speak of.

It is a website so you probably need to be on the pre approved list to access, Or a state emplyee.


My oldest brother, who died of Leukemia, was named Drew. My daughter is…Sarah Rachel.


If you look closely during Pickett’s charge, you will see tufts of grass in carefully mowed strips. The grass is covering gravestones, of the men who actually made the charge. Also, you will not see the modern paved road crossing the field, as it too was covered with loose straw to make it look more “dirty”.

You will also see the oddly shaped tree, or newly piled rocks in many scenes. These camouflage monuments to the units, or persons, that obviously would not be there during the battle. Except, seen on the directors cut, the large monument to General Warren, easily noticed in the background when the Chamberlain brothers are talking…and the car that drives by it 🙂

Oh, and nearly three tons of blackpowder was burned for the multiple takes of the battle. Cannons used a near double charge to simulate actual firing a ball or shot (you can see some guns roll back under recoil, even from the blank charges). The first “fly by” RC helicopter takes were destroyed when the RC helo was shot down by the percussion and blast debris of the cannon it got too close to…