Sword belonging to commander of black Civil War unit found
BOSTON — The sword that belonged to the commanding officer of the first all-black regiment raised in the North during the U.S. Civil War has been recovered after being lost to history for more than 150 years.
The British-made sword carried into battle by Col. Robert Gould Shaw was stolen after he was killed during the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry’s doomed attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863, a battle portrayed in the 1989 Oscar-winning movie “Glory.”
It was found recently in the home of one of Shaw’s distant relatives and is scheduled to go on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Tuesday, the anniversary of his death.
“I got goosebumps when I saw it,” said Anne Bentley, the organization’s curator of arts and artifacts.
Society President Dennis Fiori called it the “holy grail of Civil War swords.”
The weapon’s whereabouts was one of the war’s great mysteries.
After Shaw — who, like all officers in black units, was white — was killed, his body was stripped of clothing and belongings by Confederate soldiers.
The sword was recovered about two years later from a Confederate officer shortly after the war ended and returned to his parents in Boston. Shaw — played by actor Matthew Broderick in the movie that also starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman — had no children of his own, so the sword ended up in the hands of his sister, Susanna Minturn.
That’s where the trail ended.
It is believed Minturn gave it to her grandson when he was a teen.
The sword was found in the attic of a home north of Boston by the sister’s great-grandchildren late last year as they were cleaning out the house following the death of their mother.
The family gave the sword to the historical society earlier this year. The family had previously donated a different sword that Shaw carried when he served in the 2nd Massachusetts regiment before he was given command of the 54th.
Bentley, and Brenda Lawson, the society’s vice president for collections, were pretty sure they had the Fort Wagner sword because it was inscribed with the initials RGS.
“I looked at it and said, ‘Brenda this is it,’” Bentley said.
But in their field, gut feelings are not enough.
So they did a little sleuthing and found that the sword’s serial number matched the records of English swordsmith Henry Wilkinson.
The weapon is tarnished and has some rust on the blade. There’s also some wear on the handle even though Shaw acquired it only about a month before his death and used it in battle just twice. That’s because it likely got used by a Confederate officer for the remainder of the war.
“You can imagine what a prize that would be for a Confederate soldier,” Bentley said. “It was a far superior sword than you could get in the Confederacy at that time.”
The sword will be on display in an exhibit with several other Shaw artifacts until September.
Lawson is just glad that Minturn’s descendants wanted to make the sword a public resource and not sell it.
“Patriotism runs deep in this family,” she said.