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November 27, 2019

A Tiffany & Co. Sword To Celebrate the First Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

By Seth Isaacson

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“I accept this beautiful sword with solemn determination to wear it in the cause of the freedom till every slave in this land is as free as you are today.”

–General Rufus Saxton

This beautiful Civil War officer’s sword from Tiffany & Co. of New York was presented by former slaves to Brigadier General Rufus Saxton in Beaufort, South Carolina, on January 1st of 1864: the first anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The inscription on the gilt scabbard reads: "To Brig. Genl. R. Saxton/MILITARY GOVERNOR./as a testimonial of the gratitude of the Freedmen/of the Dept. of the South, for his sacrifices and/labors to secure their liberty, protection, and elevation/Beaufort. S.C. Jany 1st. 1864." General Rufus Saxton (1824-1908) was then military governor of the Department of the South, and he was certainly a fitting recipient on that important day.

The presentation of the sword and the surrounding Emancipation Day festivities are discussed in detail in "The New South" on January 9, 1864, in the article "First of January Celebration" which states:

According to previous announcements the new year has been ushered in here by a grand demonstration under the auspices of the freedmen, in honor of the president's memorable proclamation a year ago today. . . The Proclamation of Emancipation was read by Mr. G. Pillsbury; and a happily worded “New Year's Greetings,” from Gen. Saxton to the freedmen by R. Tomlinson, chief superintendent of the Government plantations on St. Helena Island. Then came a sword presentation to General Saxton, made by the Rev. Mr. Lynch, an educated colored minister from Baltimore, and now a missionary to the freedmen in this Department. In the course of his truly eloquent presentation address, he said. “Our race here have no pledge to make action; put the nation's uniform upon them--they will never disgrace it. They are ready to repeat Port Hudson, Milliken's Bend, and Wagner. Over seventy-five well attended schools flourish in this Department. The people are rapidly improving, and are self-sustaining.” General Saxton replied briefly, saying among other things, “I accept this beautiful sword with solemn determination to wear it in the cause of the freedom till every slave in this land is as free as you are to-day.” . . .The sword presented is a very fine one, with a richly wrought scabbard on which are engraved the words: “To Brigadier-General Saxton, Military Governor, as a testimonial of the gratitude of the Freedmen of the Department of the South for his endeavors and labors to procure their liberty, protection and elevation. Beaufort, Jan, 1864” on the hilt are the Latin words: “Deo Patriae Tibi. (To thee for God and our country.)

Lot 1139: Documented, Spectacular, and Historic Tiffany & Co. Eagle Pommel Gold and Silver Officer's Sword with Gilt Scabbard Presentation Inscribed for Medal of Honor Recipient Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton from Freedmen on the First Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Avaliable this December.

He entered the Army through West Point and graduated 18th in the Class of 1849. Fellow Massachusetts abolitionist Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the leader of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored) raised by Saxton, wrote that the general "had been almost the only cadet in his time at West Point who was strong in anti-slavery feeling, and who thus began with antagonisms which lasted into actual service." Another sword was presented on that momentous day to Higginson as well.  Saxton followed his father, Jonathan Ashley Saxton (1795-1874), a radical Unitarian and transcendentalist and an outspoken abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. His father was no doubt deeply proud of his son and his dedication to uplifting others.

While many think that anti-slavery and abolitionist sentiment was widespread in the North by 1860, only 255,000 men and women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds are estimated to have been directly involved in the abolition movement in the United States out a population of around 31 million, including 4 million African-American men, women, and children held in bondage. While many more no doubt held abolitionist beliefs or abhorred aspects of the “peculiar institution," those that were outspoken about slavery were by far in the minority and those advocating for equal rights even rarer.

Saxton served as an officer in 3rd U.S. Artillery during the Seminole Wars in 1849-1850 and then served on General George B. McClellan’s staff in the Rocky Mountains during the Northern Pacific Railroad survey. From 1855 to 1859, he served at posts in the Coastal Survey in the East, and for one year as an artillery tactics instructor at West Point starting in 1859. When the war broke out, he was in command of the artillery at the St. Louis Arsenal in Missouri and then held various positions within the Union armies, including as quartermaster under Major General George B. McClellan during the Port Royal Expedition in South Carolina which resulted in the Union capturing the region and many slaveholders abandoning their slaves as they fled to the interior. Saxton was promoted to Brigadier General on April 15, 1862. He received the Medal of Honor in 1893 in recognition for his defense of Harpers Ferry from May 26 to 30, 1862, against Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's forces and was also wounded during that action. He also helped supply “contraband” colonies of runaway slaves at Port Royal and Edisto Island while serving as quartermaster of the South Carolina Expeditionary Corps before he was assigned to serve as military governor of the Department of the South.

Starting in July 1862, he was assigned to the Department of the South. The most important role within that department, and the most relevant to this sword, was as independent military governor of the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia. South Carolina had approximately 402,406 slaves when the war broke out, the fifth largest slave population in the country.  From his influential position, Saxton advocated that land abandoned by slaveholders should be given to freed slaves to ensure their independence. His "experiment" is clearly discussed by Reverend Lynch in the article about the Emancipation Day celebrations and the aforementioned sword presentation. Known as the Port Royal Experiment, it has been covered in detail in various articles and books. He oversaw various programs aimed at giving former slaves the opportunity to improve their situations, run their own farms, earn their own living, and get formal education.

Saxton’s efforts followed naturally from transcendentalist ideals of self-sufficiency and independence. Under General Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, he supervised the settlement of former slaves on coastal lands previously held by some of their masters. Though it proved former slaves could thrive given initial access to land and resources, it was mocked by others, and President Andrew Johnson returned the land to former slave owners after the war. While serving as military governor, the historic first orders from the War Department authorizing the recruitment and organization of up to 5,000 African-American (then officially designated “colored”) soldiers came out. Saxton was a natural leader for this effort and helped raise one of the first units: the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Saxton’s dedication to uplifting former bondsmen and helping them be involved in their destinies was scorned by many, but it also clearly earned him the mutual respect of the freedmen. He sent a company of the 1st Carolina Infantry to raid along the coast of Georgia and Florida and in doing so helped to prove the ability of African-American soldiers on the battlefield. The 1st became the very first full-strength official African-American regiment in the Union Army and became the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment in 1864.

The 1st South Carolina Volunteers following the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Illustration: Library of Congress.

New Year’s Day 1864 was actually the second time General Saxton hosted an Emancipation Day celebration in South Carolina and addressed a mixed audience of former slaves, soldiers, and others. Thousands of former slaves gathered for the celebration. Together they celebrated both the New Year and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Coincidentally, January 1, 1808, was also the day the United States officially exited the international slave trade. The tradition of celebrating Emancipation Day continued on through Reconstruction in commemoration of that momentous occasion and in defiance of continued racist policies. At the first event, Saxton danced with his future wife, fellow abolitionist Mathilda Thompson, "the belle of Port Royal."  

1st South Carolina Infantry

At the end the war, Saxton was transferred to the Freedmen's Bureau as assistant commissioner in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and continued to lobby on behalf of former slaves. He fought to provide them true economic freedom but was undercut in his efforts when he was removed from office by President Andrew Johnson in January 1866. He remained with the army until he retired on October 10, 1888. He died in Washington, D.C., and rests in Arlington National Cemetery. Just under two years after this sword was presented, on December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment finally ended legal slavery in all of the United States. General Saxton fulfilled his promise to keep this sword until slavery was ended within the U.S. and clearly valued this sword tremendously given he was photographed with it later in life.

General Saxton with his sword, obviously a cherished reminder of his Civil War service, as shown in “The Washington Herald” of Washington, D.C., on December 9, 1906.

This sword is certainly one of the most fascinating Civil War artifacts we have brought to auction. As shown above, it is one of the few presentation swords for which we have a detailed period account describing both the presentation and the surrounding events, and this wasn’t some relatively commonplace presentation from a group of wealthy businessman to local officer. It was presented by freed slaves to a Union officer within the South. A man dedicated to their freedom and the freedom of millions of others held in bondage, and it was fittingly presented on the first anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The fact that its recipient also won the Medal of Honor certainly adds to its desirability as does the fact that it is a beautiful example of a 19th century officer’s sword by one of the most famous of all American companies.

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