Charles Cushing Wright and His Medals

A look at the iconic 19th-century medals of Charles Cushing Wright.

Charles Cushing Wright (1796-1854) was an important American artist and engraver. Often called “The First American Medalist,” Wright’s work is highly regarded for its quality and attention to detail. Many of his most beloved medals were produced in recognition of generals in the Mexican-American War, which took place from 1846-1848. This war occurred as the United States pushed further and further west under the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” espoused by President James K. Polk.

This is one of the earliest examples of Wright’s work struck at the US Mint, the 1838 New Haven Bicentennial Medal. Julian-CM-37. Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.

When the battles ended, the United States claimed victory from a disorganized Mexico and gained nearly a third of Mexico’s territory. These lands included nearly all of present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Two of the most respected generals in American history were involved in the conflict: Major General Winfield Scott and Major General Zachary Taylor. In fact, just nine months after the end of the war Taylor would be elected president.

At the request of Congress, Wright designed a medal in honor of Major General Zachary Taylor, who would be elected president just nine months after the end of the war. It is designated MI-24 by R.W. Julian in Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century, 1792-1892.

There had already been two medals struck in honor of Taylor in 1847, but the quality was not very high and the medals were attacked in national newspapers. As a result, the Mint looked outside its staff to find an engraver for this new medal. They would not be disappointed with Wright’s work, which was completed on June 15, 1849. The first medal was struck in pure California gold on July 4th of that year.

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Wright’s Zachary Taylor medals measure an astonishing 90mm across, and the engraving work is extremely detailed and intricate. The obverse features a well-executed bust of Zachary Taylor facing right, with oak branches and laurel below. The reverse is clearly the highlight of this medal, however.

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It features an incredibly ornate battle scene encircled with two intertwining snakes. The engraving is intricately detailed with literally hundreds of soldiers, each individually sculpted and many holding long guns with bayonets. Even the tiny American flags are complete with stars and stripes. Others can be seen riding horses and trumpeting, as well as numerous cannons with smoke billowing from their bores. Wright was paid the handsome sum of $1,600 for his work on this medal in 1849, the equivalent of around $46,000 today. Julian calls the price “a bargain in view of the high quality of the work.”

Only a month after Taylor’s medal was struck, Wright finished the work on a medal to honor Major General Winfield Scott. This medal is designated MI-26 by Julian.

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The obverse features an attractive bust of Scott facing left, with MAJOR GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT on a scroll above. Thirty stars representing the number of states in the Union are artfully arranged in the left and right fields. Once again, the reverse is far more interesting than the obverse. It features not one but six different battle scenes from the Mexican-American War: the battles at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, San Antonio & Churubusco, Molino Del Rey and Chapultepec. These scenes surround a vignette of the capture of Mexico City by Scott on September 14, 1847. While the overall look of the reverse is perhaps a bit too “busy,” there is no doubt that Wright was clearly a master engraver.

Wright’s numismatic work was not limited to medals, however, and he designed some of the earliest coins struck during the California Gold Rush. At the time, California faced an extreme shortage of coinage due to the arrival of thousands of Forty-Niners.

Gold dust and nuggets were initially used in commerce, but this was inaccurate and slow. Private mints soon began operations but these were not completely above board and the value or quality stated on their coins was not always correct.

It was quite literally the “Wild West” until Congress finally authorized a private mint, Moffat & Company, to strike legal tender gold coinage. This program was put under the direction of the official Assayer of the United States, Augustus Humbert.

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The Humbert pieces were struck in a multitude of different denominations starting in 1849 and with gold of differing fineness, resulting in a number of interesting varieties. The stunning obverse of these pieces was designed and engraved by none other than Charles Cushing Wright under a subcontract from the Philadelphia Mint. These “ingots,” as they were called, feature a defiant eagle holding a banner which proclaims LIBERTY in its mouth. The eagle is clutching a shield and a bundle of arrows, representing the strength of the country. At the bottom of the coin is a spot for the denomination: in this particular case, $50.

This sampling of some of Charles Cushing Wright’s most impressive work shows that he truly did leave his mark on American numismatics. Not only did he create a large multitude of beautiful medals throughout his career, but he also helped create one of the most recognizable and desired territorial gold pieces as well. Unfortunately, Wright died just three years after his work on the Humbert gold pieces, at the age of 58.


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