A Pennsylvania man who purchased a Civil War sword at an auction in Rhode Island has loaned the artifact to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for the Battle of Fredericksburg 150th anniversary commemoration.
It's the first time General Ambrose Burnside's sword is known to be on public display, according to Frank O'Reilly, National Park Service historian and author of "The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock."
"What really makes this an exciting piece of history is the story connected with it," O'Reilly said. The sword is likely the one Burnside had with him at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
A Sword Discarded, Then Discovered
When Alan Genetti of Pennsylvania found the sword at an auction, he was more interested in its Rhode Island background than its connection to Burnside. "I suspect after the General's passing, some kind of decision was made by family who did not recognize the significance of the sword," O'Reilly said. "One person's clutter is another person's treasure."
The sword was unveiled in Fredericksburg on Nov. 10, the exact date of the 150th anniversary of Burnside assuming command of the Union Army of the Potomac, replacing Maj. Gen. George McClellan. It will be on display for precisely 77 days, the length of Burnside's tenure in that command.
"The rareness of having a personal artifact from one of the most critical decision makers of the Civil War, back from when he was making his most momentous and disastrous decisions, is stunning," O'Reilly said.
"Burnside made an indelible mark on the city in 1862," O'Reilly said. Gen. Burnside led Union Troops in a doomed attack on the City of Fredericksburg, in a battle some historians consider the most one-sided of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln accepted Burnside's resignation within weeks.
"For one brief moment the entire world cast its eyes on Fredericksburg," O'Reilly said.
How the Sword Came to Be
In 1861, Burnside led the Rhode Island militia to war. They were the first troops — the Union advance — to fight at the Battle of Manassas [Battle of Bull Run]. Although the battle was a disaster for the Union, Burnside acquitted himself through the leadership of and care for his men. "He became Rhode Island's favorite son," said O'Reilly.
The men of Company F of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry esteemed the General so highly, they collected money, commissioned and engraved a tribute sword in his honor. It was presented to him in Newport in August 1861, just weeks after the battle in Virginia. "The connection with his company is most likely what made the sword his favorite," O'Reilly said.
The inscription on the sheath reads, "To Genl. A. E. Burnside from the friends of Co F of Newport 1st Regt. R.I.D.M. [Rhode Island Detached Militia]."
Burnside would receive other swords during his career, but the one from Rhode Island is considered his favorite because it's the one he's seen wearing or holding in war time images, including photographs, sketches and paintings. "It's quite amazing to me this one was the one he treasured the most," said O'Reilly, looking at it in the visitor center.
The Sword's Unusual Preservation
"It is very rare for a sword to still have its knot," O'Reilly said. The knot hanging from the sword's hilt is largely made of silk and fine spun metal, and its delicacy means it usually frays or becomes separated from the sword over time. "It's the first time I've seen a knot preserved on a sword," O'Reilly said.
The blade is made of steel and the sheath is believed to be a metal alloy, perhaps brass, according to O'Reilly.
O'Reilly said the sword's dents and dings suggest it was often with the general -- rather than in storage -- and that it had been taken from its sheath. He said this, too, indicates the sword was special to Burnside; he took it with him and took care with it.
Upon receiving the sword, Burnside said, "May I never as a soldier or a citizen commit any act that shall disgrace this sword ... I do not feel like sheathing my sword until the integrity of the country is restored."
Swords on Display
O'Reilly said those organizing the exhibit would have liked to include a display of a General Robert E. Lee sword. "But they couldn't get any," he said. A Lee sword -- the one he took to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse -- is a centerpiece display at The Museum of the Confederacy-Appomattox.
Burnside's sword will be on display at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center through Friday, Jan. 25, 2013.
Visit Battle of Fredericksburg 150th for information about and coverage of the week's events by Fredericksburg Patch.
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