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October 21, 2016

A Loose Artifact of Jefferson Davis

By Joel R Kolander

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The history and political contributions of Jefferson Davis are well-documented so they will not be recounted here. Instead, attention will be brought to a small object in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2016 December Premiere Collector Firearms Auction. This object is rather unassuming in itself. In fact, close attention must be paid to know that it is anything special at all, but once light is shown on a single special feature, a whole new respect comes for the little collectible with a tremendous history. RIAC is proud to offer the presentation shoulder stock for a Colt 1851 Navy revolver, inscribed to then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Inscription reads, “Presented to Gen. Jefferson Davis, Late U.S. Sec. of War, By the Workmen of Col. Colts Armory, Hartford, CT”

Bearing the serial number “64817” indicates that this stock and the matching 1851 Colt Navy revolver that accompanied it, were presented in 1856. This author is unable to concretely identify why the title “General” is used in the inscription. Is it a reference to his declined promotion to brigadier general in 1847? It couldn’t reference his appointment to the major general of the Army of the Mississippi because that posting would not take place until January 23, 1861. Is it a brevet rank or honorary title? Cursory research is inconclusive. In any case, the 1856 manufacture date of the revolver coincides nicely with the conclusion of his service as U.S. Secretary of War on March 4, 1857.

Note the flecks of case-hardened color.

Jefferson Davis was the man largely responsible for building up the U.S. military in the early 19th century (and then having to fight his own creation during the Civil War). He is also credited by Colt himself for suggesting the idea of placing a canteen within the shoulder stocks used on medium and large frame Colt revolvers, giving the soldiers who used them one less item to carry. Davis also gave the revolvers a favorable review in October 1857, and Colt representative J. D. Alden reported as such,

“When I showed the Secretary the belt pistols with the attached stock, the Secretary said that it was the best arm in the world for its weight.”

Were the revolver and the canteen stock presented to Davis for his help in developing the canteen stock? Did Davis have a hand in procuring an order of Colt 1851 Navy revolvers for the U.S. Army, thus making it the second most popular Colt percussion collector firearm ever manufactured? Was this a “retirement” gift for a friend of Col. Colt’s Armory? As with most questions in history, the truth likely lies in some combination of the proposed answers.

Knowing now about the engraved, presentation stock with its attractive wood, a very reasonable follow-up question is, “What happened to the revolver?” That Colt 1851 Navy, with the serial number that matches this stock’s currently resides in The American Civil War Museum (ACWM). It is documented as “taken from Jefferson Davis upon his capture by the 4th Michigan Cavalry in Georgia in 1865. Taken from Davis by Colonel R. H. G. Minty of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, May 4, 1865.”

Rock Island Auction Company’s previous experience with Davis’ flight from Richmond, was when we sold the Kerr revolver presented by Davis to a member of his guard as he fled the capitol city. That inscribed Kerr revolver was promptly loaned to the NRA Collector Firearms Museum.

The left side of the yoke is inscribed “Davis Detachable/Pistol Carbine Breech.” In period Colt advertisements a revolver stock like this one was referred to as “attachable carbine breech.”

Calls to the ACWM have not been returned as of this writing, to verify whether or not the stock accompanied the revolver at the time of its capture. Was the stock with Davis and the revolver when he absconded from Richmond? If so, how were the stock and revolver separated? Were they split among the soldiers who captured Davis? Did Davis leave the stock behind because its inscription might be used to identify him? Was the abandoned stock taken from Richmond by a opportunistic Union solider?

The answers may be lost to history, but one thing can be said for certain, the winning bidder of this tremendous stock, will truly be in possession of a loose artifact that is fresh to the gun collecting public. It has evaded museum life in a much more successful fashion than Davis’ attempts to escape Union troops.


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