Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Sword of McClellan

Sword and scabbard presented to Major General George
McClellan by the citizens of Boston on Feburary 5,
1863. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E.
Behring Center. Image Source:
We tend to view swords as military objects, and with good reason. Swords have a tremendous amount of symbolic importance to military affairs. Outside of cavalry sabers of course, swords did not constitute a weapon of choice during the Civil War, but they served as a physical representation of leadership and respect. Swords were wielded by officers in battle to direct troop movements. Often, soldiers and citizens collected funds to commission special swords and present them to officers as a sign of respect and gratitude. This sword presented to Major General George B. McClellan, which resides in the collection of the National Museum of American History, can also be seen as an electioneering artifact.

The entry for this sword in the Smithsonian's digital collections page explains that citizens of Boston, Massachusetts presented it to McClellan on February 5, 1863. The inscription on the scabbard reads:
TO / Major General George B. McClellan. / from many / Citizens of / BOSTON / February / 5th 1863. / Pro rege saepe, pro patria semper.
The Latin translates: "For king often, for country always." I found some things about this sword presentation worth further inquiry - Lincoln of course had sacked McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac several months before this presentation, and Boston seemed to me an odd location for a sword presentation to a well known Democrat. And so, I went to the newspapers.

I found a full description of the sword presentation in the February 13, 1863 edition of Dawson's Daily Times and Union, a Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper:
Presentation to Him of a Splendid Sword.
(From the Boston Post, Feb. 6)
Not the least interesting event of yesterday--and we are not sure that it was not the most so--was the presentation at 7 o'clock, at the Tremont House, of a sword, belt and sash, to Gen. McCellan. This ceremony took place in the ladies' parlor, and in the presence of some fifty citizens. The testimonial was the offering of citizens from dollar subscriptions, and, as its cost was about $900, the number of donors, it is easy to see, was very great, and the honor of the gift all the more emphatic. It was presented through the hands of a committee of liberal-minded and appreciative citizens. Hon. Geo. Lunt, was delegated to transmit the testimonial. In doing so he said the occasion was not intended to be formal, and that, therefore, he should proceed at once to read a letter which had been prepared. The following is the letter as read:
Boston, Feb. 5, 1863.
Maj.-Gen. Geo. B. McClellan:
DEAR SIR--The undersigned, in behalf of many hundred of the people of Boston, beg leave respectfully to ask your acceptance of the sword which we now proffer, in testimony of their sense of your eminent military servies, and of those qualities which best become a soldier, a citizen, and a man....
The article goes on to cover McClellan's acceptance of the sword, and noted that he gave a brief patriotic speech that attendees received very well. It then describes in great detail the magnificent sword:
The sword is probably the finest that has ever been made in the country. The handle represents a mass laurel leaves, girt a round with three rows of fine pearls. The guard is in the shape of a shell, richly chased and raised. From the guard a bunch of laurel starts, which is set with pearls and unites it to the top. The latter is surmounted by a large diamond of first water, weighing three carats, and valued at $400. The scabbard is very massive, and has three richly chased tips. The upper one represents two recording angels with the scroll of fame. The centre has cherubs with wreath of flowers, American shield, munitions of war, &c. The lower tip represents the Goddess of Liberty. All these mountings are in high relief, richly chased, and are very artistic. The blade is very fine, and is etched with gold. It is so nice a temper that it can be sprung from point to hilt. Accompanying the sword is an elegant Major-General's sash and a rich embroidered belt....
The article also notes Mrs. McClellan's reaction:
At the conclusion of the presentation ceremonies the gift was inspected with great satisfaction by all present. Mrs. McClellan was accompanied to the apartment by the General, and manifested unutterable delight. The diamond at the hilt of the sword in an especial manner capitivated her eye, and she playfully remarked that she should be uneasy until she got it from its setting for her own use. The look which the General gave at this envious remark might have been translated, "My dear, I fancy you picking off that magnificent diamond. When you do, please let me know."
I note from the Smithsonian's description of the sword: "A large stone or gem is missing from the pommel."

Why then, was McClellan in Boston in February of 1863 to receive this sword? On February 19th, 1863, the Indiana Democrat noted that the general had returned home after a two week tour of New England. "This journey," the paper reported, "originally undertaken as a private journey of pleasure to visit personal friends, was changed by the enthusiasm of the New England people into a great demonstration of admiration and respect for the soldier and patriot." Continuing its report, the Democrat noted that the public receptions during the tour were a "spontaneous action of the people without any partisan political leaders." While noting the enthusiasm of many Republicans, the Democrat singled out another group, by noticing that 'the abolitionists, as a body, with perfect unanimity, refused in the public ovations to a brave soldier and a hearty patriot, and they alone of all the people in New England."

Others doubted the notion that the outpouring of enthusiasm for McClellan was "spontaneous." On February 13th, the Burlington, Iowa's Daily Hawk Eye had a different take on McClellan's "private journey":
Out Electioneering.

We observe that McClellan is traveling through the Eastern States on an electioneering tour. He is preceded at the various railroad stations by a cloud of claquers, who fire off canon to herald his approach, and cheer lustily when he arrives. George evidently imagines himself to be the Copperhead candidate for President in 1864, and is now making his preliminary tour of observation and handshaking. His friends think he is a most acceptable candidate to the rebels that can be started on the track, as he never did anything to hurt them, and never intended to exasperate them, as one of his aids (Major Key) explained, who said the game was not to win decisive victories over the rebels, but to procrastinate the war until both sides both sides became worn out, and then compromise on terms satisfactory to the rebels.
Today - we can readily appreciate the military symbolism inherent in this sword. Dig down a little deeper, and we discover that this ornate artifact also has political significance as well. I also note that, for all our public lamentation about the increasing length of modern political campaigns, we can find evidence that the 1864 campaign for President was underway a full 22 months before election day.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, I found this post just now when I Googled "people wouldn't stop giving swords to McClellan". I got to that point through an odd route. I'm researching the Reconstruction politics of 1868, and I read a newspaper article from February of that year making an oblique reference to soldiers attempting to raise money for a presentation sword for McClellan. Digging into newspaper archives, I found at *least* four instances of cities and/or groups of people trying to give a sword to McClellan. It's comical, and the political--not to say spiteful--nature of the events offers a fascinating view of the culture of that time. If you like, I can send further information.