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Auction Date: May 1, 2016

Lot 3139: Historic Ball, Thompson & Black Presentation

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Historic Ball, Thompson & Black Presentation Grade Sword with Gilt Silver Figural Hilt and Scabbard Inscribed to William H. Bissell, Colonel in the Mexican-American War, Veteran of the Battle of Buena Vista, and Governor of the State of Illinois
Estimated Price: $18,000 - $25,000
Item Views 176 Bid Activity Average
Serial #Historic Ball, Thompson & Black Presentation ManufacturerNone ModelNone
TypeOther Gauge Catalog Page68
Barrel Finish Grip
Stock ClassOther RatingSee Condition
DescriptionMeasuring 37 3/4 inches in overall length, the gently curved single fuller blade measures 31 1/2 inches, with gold washed etched decorative panels covering three quarters of the sides and the address "BALL/TOMPKINS/& BLACK/247/Broad Way/NEW YORK" on the left ricasso. Overall, the etching is traditional of American martial arms, with arrays of classical weapons and armor, scroll and floral accents, and patriotic themes, though a 7 1/4 inch long scene on the left side featuring a mixed infantry and cavalry force on the march outside a walled city is both noteworthy and impressive, along with a smaller scene of an eagle flanked by lightning attacking a snake near the ricasso that simultaneously invokes the Seal of Mexico, America's national bird, and Zeus' lightning-bearer Aguila of classical myth. The guard is cast separately from the pommel, and bears a stamp from Ball, Thompson & Black along with the hallmarks of the New York silversmithing firm Charters, Cann & Dunn. The grip and pommel are crafted from a single piece of cast and engraved gold washed silver, with the grip section showing raised leaf patterns with punch-dot texturing, and a figural pommel featuring a two-faced bust, with a young woman in the front and an bearded man in the rear, both wearing a head band decorated with oak leaves. This bust may be in reference to the twin Norse deities of Frejya and Freyr, or an interpretation of the Roman god Janus. The scabbard is of similar construction, decorated extensively with floral patterns and checkerboard fields, and fitted with a sculpted drag and suspension rings. On the obverse side between the suspension bands is the following inscription "Presented by the State of Illinois to/Col. William H. Bissell, for services in the/late War of the United States with Mexico,/and specifically for his gallantry at the battle of/Buena Vista.". Born in Yates County, New York on April 25, 1811, William Henry Bissell was originally a doctor and teacher by trade, graduating the Jefferson Medical School of Philadelphia in 1834 and establishing a practice in Monroe County, Illinois. Noted in the community as a skilled orator, Bissell was persuaded to run for the State Legislature for the Democrats, an experience that convinced him to retrain as a lawyer and pursue politics. Establishing a law practice in Belleville, he was elected to the office of prosecutor in 1844. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Bissell joined the 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the Summer of 1846; while originally enlisting as a Private, he was rapidly elected as Captain of Company G and then Colonel of the Regiment, and would be the 2nd's leader for the War. The 2nd spent several months on a hard march down to Mexico, finally engaging the forces of Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista in February of 1847. While the Mexican forces had a significant numerical advantage, superior American artillery and maneuver won the day. The 1st and 2nd Illinois saw heavy fighting, and were forced to make multiple retreats under enemy fire in order to keep from being outflanked or overrun; observers noted that these tactical maneuvers were executed with order and discipline more in line with battle-hardened fighters than the fresh, unbloodied volunteers that the Illinois regiments were made of. At the close of their year of service in 1847, the immediate commander of the Illinois volunteers, Brigadier General John Wool dispatched a letter to the state, lamenting the loss of the men and praising their gallantry and endurance, calling out Colonel Bissell by name. As Wool was himself a veteran of the War of 1812 and would later hold the distinction of being the oldest field commander of the Civil War, his praise and commendation are nothing to take lightly. In 1848, the U.S. Senate would approve the payment of awards and pensions to the veterans, with enlisted men to receive land grants and the regimental Colonels to receive honor swords such as the example here. Returning home, he resumed his law practice and was elected to the Senate, which would bring him into conflict with fellow Senator and Buena Vista veteran Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy. On the floor of the Senate, Davis' actions were hailed by Virginia Senator James Seddon as nothing less than the salvation of the American effort. While history does not dispute the contributions of the Mississippi Rifles on the field, Bissell knew first-hand that several of Seddon's claims were false. Disputing Seddon's statement, he accused the Senator of aggrandizing Davis in order to rob the Northern regiments of their share of the credit. Soon, he was approached by Davis's seconds, told that he had insulted Davis and the Mississippi Rifles, and that a duel was sought. Although dueling was illegal, this was a calculated move by Davis; Northern Senators were well known for refusing duels, with many (Bissell included) having sworn oaths not to engage in them, and when Bissell declined it would be held up as evidence of Davis' honor and bravery. Bissell, still quite furious over the whole matter, shocked everyone by not only accepting the duel, but using his right as the challenged to select the weapons; Army-issue muskets, to be loaded with slug and buckshot, and fired at point-blank range. Several Senators came uninvited to the meetings between the seconds in hopes of talking them out of it, and according to legend the President himself intervened, leading to a peaceful resolution between the two men. Breaking away from the Democrats due to his growing dislike of Southern influence on the party, he was re-elected as an independent in 1852, but decided to end his career and retire, as a mild stroke had left him partially paralyzed and aggravated illnesses acquired during his war service. Someone forgot to tell the newly minted Republican Party, because they unanimously picked him as their candidate for Governor in 1856, where he beat the Democrat candidate by over 4,000 votes. His term was marred by heavy conflict with the Democrat-heavy legislature, who tried to have his election voided for accepting Davis' challenge in violation of his oaths to not engage in dueling. With the support of the Republicans, he successfully made the (legally dubious) argument that since the incident occurred in D.C., it wasn't in Illinois' jurisdiction, but both sides continued to block and oppose each other at all available junctures. On March 18, 1860, during the final year of his term as Governor, William Henry Bissell succumbed to a bout of pneumonia, becoming the first Illinois Governor to die in office. Included with the sword are some research materials supplied by the consignor, including National Archives-supplied copies of several of Bissell's regimental muster rolls, particularly ones noting his appointment as Colonel.

ConditionVery fine overall. The blade shows 85% plus original gilt finish, with sharp etching detail and a small amount of spotting. The hilt and scabbard show a fine antique patina overall, with areas of nearly black silver, over half the original gold, and a few light polishing or handling marks overall. A protective lacquer coating has been applied to most of the surface. A historically noteworthy artifact of the lead-up to the American Civil War, in addition to being a high quality example of the artistry of America's cutlers and silversmiths.
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