Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Look at Some Swords in our Collection

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

Our new software for archiving our collection of over 26,000 papers and artifacts has given us the opportunity as a staff to see some of the items that we’ve not seen in a few years and to do some further research into their history. When my friend Becca Brown inquired if there were any volunteer tasks she could perform while on break from William and Mary, I put her in touch with Karen Butler-Clary, our registrar. It is Karen’s job in part to photograph our collection and enter the pertinent information in the data base. Karen put Becca to work on swords since Becca loves to fence. And the rest, as they say, is history.

When I began researching this blog post on swords, I truly didn’t think there would be much material to share with you. A sword is simply a sharp instrument designed to defend oneself and spruce up a dress uniform if you’re in the military. At least that was what I thought. But the history of swords is massive and there is no way that we can cover everything there is to know about swords in this post. So I’ll just give you some highlights along with the photos and you can research away on your particular interest.

One of the first swords that Karen and Becca showed me is from the Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary War era sword

“During the era of George Washington, a gentlemen would no more leave his quarters without his sword then without his pants! Today, we cannot appreciate the personal bond a man had with his sword. To the civilian it was the symbol of his standing in a highly systemized Society. To a military officer it was an emblem of his rank and often a reward for gallantry, having been presented to him. To the common soldier or sailor it was the weapon of ‘last resort’. Swords that had family connections, having been borne in battle by other family members, held very significant emotional ties.” So said Donald N. Noran, in an article in the June/July 2004 edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter.

We all know the story of Gen. Washington presenting swords to others as a reward for bravery or in thanks for some other act. “As you can read in the article Revolutionary War Presentation Swords, it wasn’t until 1786, three years after the war, that Congress was able to fulfill its promise to present 10 of the 15 dress swords they had awarded during the war. We believe that many of these swords had been captured from British or Hessian officers. It was a common practice for officers to have both a ceremonial sword and a ‘fighting or war’ sword. Therefore, a generous victor would permit a captured Officer to retain his sword - - which would have been his dress or ceremonial sword, quite often with the blade engraved with his name. The fighting sword was another matter. Another major contributing factor was that the colonies were not capable of producing quantities of high quality swords - - they were manufactured in Europe.”

The very end of the hilt...or button.

Swords are part of the ritual of the English coronation service and in Great Britain are stored in the tower of London along with the crown jewels. 
The engraving on this sword contains the word "Prince".

Naval sword's scabbard
Naval swords have a history all their own. “First cousin to the longer, lighter cavalry saber, the naval cutlass was designed for sea-fighting as the saber was adapted to land-battles. Because boarding actions were fought on the crowded decks of small vessels amid tangles of shrouds and splintered spars and struggling shipmates and foemen, Jack Tar's blade had to be short for easy control, and heavy enough to provide its own momentum in slashing. (Unlike the cavalry trooper's trusty saber, Jack's cutlass did not have the weight of a galloping horse behind it!) The cutlass had a straight or slightly-curved blade designed both for cutting and thrusting. A large, enclosed guard shielded the swordsman's hand.”

(Source: The Cutlass Carved its Niche in Our Navy's Annals by Richard Meckel, JO2, USNR, US Naval Air Station, Olathe, Kansas)

“The United States has never developed a series of military and naval swords truly national in design and manufacture. The swords of the colonial and Revolutionary War period were, with few exceptions, European in manufacture. Later, certain firms began to make swords on US government contracts. Most of these swords were designed along European lines.

The button on the Naval sword
Closeup of the chape...the tip of the scabbard

“There are a few distinctive characteristics of early American swords. One is the pommel which offered an excellent base for an eagle-head design. Many bore distinctive designs on the shield attached to the obverse side of the blade at the quillons. In some cases this shield bore designs of a mythological character relating to the art of war; in others it was decorated with a female figure representing America, surrounded by various emblems connected with American arms. These shields also bore the arms of America in a stereotyped form. The designs on the blades indicate that while many of the hilts were produced in America, most of the blades were of European manufacture. Many of these blades bear small floral and trophy designs of typical French or German origin, others have similar designs with the American shield as a center piece; and still others bear the complete arms of the United States in ornate style. These three types of blades are all contemporary with the use of the eagle's head on the pommel. This description is true of American swords up to about 1830. After that date American swords, in most cases, became more stereotyped and consequently lack much of their former artistic interest. About 1850 the Navy adopted the sword design which was continued with very little change down to the end of its use as a regular part of the dress uniform.”

(Source: United States. Chief of Naval Operations. Memo to Chief of Information, dated 1 October 1952. [copy located in the Navy Department Library's "Swords" vertical file])

Hilt of the Naval sword
One of the more ornate swords that we own is from RCU Knights of St John. The organization of the Knights of St. George, the Knights of St. Paul, the Knights of St. Louis and the Knights of St. John met in 1879 in Baltimore, Maryland and formed the Roman Catholic Union of the Knights of St. John. The order officially incorporated in New York State on May 6, 1886. The purpose of the order is to care for the spiritual, social and physical needs of members and neighbors.

Sword and scabbard from the RCU Knights of St.  John
Hilt of the sword

Swords owned by members usually have their name etched on the opposite side of the swords blade that is engraved with "RCU Knights of St John" in script. 

There is a name etched on the sword.

1 comment:

  1. How much is a RCU Knight's of St. John sword worth?