When Ann Deluca-Smith was clearing out boxes in her parents' Rochester Township home last year, she could never have guessed the family treasure she would stumble upon.
Tucked away in a storage box in her parents' attic, Ms. Deluca-Smith discovered a trinket reserved for America's most valorous soldiers: a Medal of Honor awarded to her great-great-great uncle Charles Higby during the Appomattox campaign of the Civil War.
The family had been aware of the award, but only vaguely, as they had learned of it through a 2000 newspaper article detailing Beaver County's four Medal of Honor recipients. Other than that, they had little idea of their ancestor's accolade or his life story, explained family spokesman Jay Deluca, of New Brighton.
"My mother was a Higby, and the best we can figure is that it ended up with my grandparents," Mr. Deluca said. "My grandmother was terminally ill and the house was sold and the possessions were just kind of cleaned out of the house, and it was put in boxes that my mother took out and put in our attic; we never even knew what it was."
Now the medal is being kept at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, as the family decided it would loan the large, gold colored medal hung from a small flag resting beneath a golden eagle to the museum for display.
The hall is pleased to have its first Civil War-era Medal of Honor, said curator Michael Kraus. Mr. Higby's award joins one from the Indian Wars. And, with the acquisition of a World War II medal in negotiations, Mr. Kraus hopes the hall will be able to display three of the medals, illustrating the changes in design and inscription on them over time.
The context surrounding Mr. Higby's award, which reads "From the Congress to Charles Higby," is ambiguous. He was given the medal for acts of gallantry between March 20 and April 9, 1865, meaning his act of bravery could have come at any point during that window.
What Mr. Kraus and Mr. Higby's descendents do know is that Charles Higby captured and turned in a Confederate flag, which, by late in the war, had been deemed grounds for receiving one of the medals.
"It was very common to get one if you captured a flag; a lot of times that meant turning in a flag," said Mr. Kraus. "You may not have wrestled a color-bearer to the death; you may have walked on the battlefield where your lines were, and there were any number of them lying on the ground, you pick it up, you turn it in" and get a medal, he said.
After the Civil War, he explained, the Army re-evaluated the grounds for receiving the medal and established the high level of gallantry now required for the award.
As for what happened to Mr. Higby after he received the medal in Washington, D.C., in May of 1865, the family knows very little. Mr. Deluca said a cousin of his is actively researching his story but has turned up scant results.
What little the family does know comes mainly from his military records, which show he was born in Pittsburgh, enlisted in the army in August of 1862, was a private in the First Pennsylvania Cavalry and lived in New Brighton again after the war for a period of time until he moved to Oklahoma, where he died in 1903.
"It looks like he was maybe a frontiersman," Mr. Deluca said.
For now, the medal is being stored in a spare room at Soldiers & Sailors, but with the museum seeking to acquire the WW II medal to round out its collection, the family and Mr. Kraus hope it will soon be a memento for the world.
"The family just wants it to be available for others to see and enjoy, and we can take our friends and family when they come visit us up to Soldiers & Sailors and feel good about it," Mr. Deluca said.