April 15, 2016
By Joel R Kolander
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With all the incredible swords in this auction, writing an article to highlight them all is almost a fallacy in itself. Multiple swords discussed below would have easily earned their own article were time not an issue. Alas, with the auction a mere two weeks away, brevity becomes one’s ally. That said, let’s get down to business and inspect some of these historic and fabulously ornate swords.
Even as recently as our 2015 December Premiere Auction we’ve seen some amazing swords here at RIAC. However, a sword with diamonds mounted on the scabbard certainly sets a new benchmark in elaborate craftsmanship. This jaw-dropping sword will grab your eye from across the room and not let go until you take a closer look. Fittingly placed in an elegant case lined with navy velvet, the sword comes with two scabbards. One is a brown, “everyday” scabbard with a body of brown lacquered steel, finely crafted gilt brass upper and lower hooks, and a wonderfully engraved tip protector and throat, both also of gilt brass. It is a supremely handsome piece.
The other scabbard is undoubtedly for formal occasions or ceremonies. All furniture on the scabbard is elaborately sculpted and the whole of its body is gilt brass. Most notable is the center suspension band featuring a large sculpted wreath with “US” at its center, the letters of which are accentuated with 27 diamonds. With the copious engraving and sculpted figures, one could write an article on the embellishments of the scabbard and sword alone! Speaking of the sword, let’s not give it short shrift. As one can see in the first photo of this article, the guard is incredibly elaborate gilt bronze web of figures, bands, sculpted “US” letters, and accented gems. The grips are a scale-carved mother of pearl with golden star accents.
The sword was purchased by one Henry B. Humphrey, allegedly from Tiffany & Co., for $270. Little is known of Humphrey other than he was a Maine militia officer and there are records of him being assigned by the president as the American Consul in Alexandira, Egypt in 1846. Some deeper investigation awaits the lucky collector who adds this to their collection. The name of the article may be “Swords with A Story,” but this blade’s tale has yet to be fully revealed. However, as you read on to see the finely adorned swords and learn of the brave, intelligent, and successful men they were created for, think of this: if those incredible men earned those swords for their heroic deeds, what must have Humphrey accomplished to receive this piece, arguably the most lavish of the sale. I urge you all to view the item listing for this magnificent sword, it truly proves that a picture is worth a thousand words.
Our next sword is another beauty, but thankfully more history is known about its origins than the previous lot. This Ball, Tompkins & Black blade is a Civil War era treasure and was presented by Governor of Illinois Rich Yates to General John Cook. Cook is the son of Daniel P. Cook, the namesake of Cook County, IL, which holds the city of Chicago. The presentation placard on the scabbard indicates that this sword was presented to Cook for “gallant conduct at Fort Donelson.” By 1863 then-Colonel Cook’s forces were attached to those of General Ulysses S. Grant as the future president’s star was beginning to rise. They had participated in several battles together, including Shiloh, when in February of 1863, the Union forces began the Siege of Fort Donelson, a Confederate fortification near the Tennessee-Kentucky border that limited access to the Cumberland River.
Union gunboats had been driven back by the fort’s batteries, yet troops surrounded the Confederates. Often times Union troops would go without campfire during the cold February nights for fear of giving up their position to the Rebel guns. However, after 2 full days of siege, the Confederates attempted to break free via a surprise attack. Cook and his men held an important flank, exposed themselves to incredible amounts of fire, and Cook himself had three horses shot out from under him. The Confederates were remarkably close to their goal, but pulled back to the fort. That night, Confederate commander Brigadier General John B. Floyd and his second in command, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, each made their excuses, relinquished command, and fled across the river. Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner would eventually agree to the Grant’s terms of unconditional surrender, giving the Union and important victory. Courtesy of this incredible provenance, the sword has been displayed at several museums, and is accompanied by much research on General Cook, his military service, and personal life.
Gold and engraving abound on the blade and are highlighted by brilliant nitre blue fields. The use of bright and satin grays expands the palette even further while providing a contrast in backdrop for the luxurious embellishments. The grip is sculpted from a single piece of metal and shaped to be a mustachioed Roman legionnaire with his horse hair plumed helmet and uniform.
Nearly three years to the day after Cook engaged in the battle at Ft. Donelson, another presentation sword in this auction was being presented to Lt. Col Henry Ware Lawton. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is often credited with the capture of the Apache leader Geronimo. The Winchester 1886, serial no. 1 presented to Lawton for this achievement is also appearing in this sale. If you’ve read our previous article on Lawton, you know he was an accomplished career military man and Medal of Honor recipient.
This sword is further proof of his military successes. Besides the fact that they didn’t present swords to poor military performers (who were also often dead), the scabbard’s suspension bands and tip are all inscribed with Lawton’s extensive battle record. They also state that the sword was presented to Lawton “From the Officers and Men of the 30th Indiana Infantry Regt. Vol.” The opposite sides are adorned with sculpted brass figures; from hilt to point they depict Columbia, a patriotic motif, and an American soldier carrying a flag. The guard also enjoys many sculpted figures such as an eagle head and laurel branches, which all protect the German silver grip that has been wrapped with brass wire.
The blade you see above belonged to a man who did it all in terms of serving his country. William H. Bissell began his career as a school teacher and doctor, but was persuaded to go into politics. He began by first practicing law and had achieved the office of a prosecutor in St. Clair County, IL by 1844, but two short years later he joined the 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry as a private at the start of the Mexican-American War. He would quickly become colonel of the regiment and engage Santa Anna’s forces in February 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista where his actions, even in a highly disciplined retreat, earned him praise from top military men. After the short war, Bissell returned home, resumed his law practice and was soon elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Once there his anti-slavery leanings caused him to butt heads with his fellow Democrats, even to the point of accepting a duel from fellow Buena Vista veteran Jefferson Davis
Long story short, Bissell was upset at remarks made by a Virginia Democrat. He proceded to give an hour long speech to the delight of his allies, but that particularly incensed the future President of the Confederacy. Davis challenged Bissell to a duel, knowing that Northerners often refused duels and frequently took oaths to not participate in them (Bissell was one of these). To Davis’ surprise, Bissell not only accepted, but as the challenged party exercised his right to choose the weapons. He selected military muskets, loaded with ball and buckshot at point blank range. In other words, “I don’t care if I die, but you’re definitely going to die.” Several parties received wind of the challenge and attempted to intervene between Davis’s and Bissell’s seconds, and eventually the duel was cancelled. One legend says that President Zachary Taylor, another Buena Vista veteran, had to personally intervene, while other sources say that Davis wisely “accepted further explanation” of the offending remark and backed down. In any case, given Taylor’s brief presidency, we can reason that the said interaction took place between March 4, 1849 and July 9, 1850.
Bissell would hold several more Congressional offices as both an Independent and a Republican (despite previously serving as a Democrat), and even as the Governor of Illinois before dying of pneumonia in 1860. This blade is a fitting tribute to the former Colonel, congressman, and governor. The gilt and etched blade is covered in decorative panels of weapons, scrollwork, patriotic motifs, Greek mythology, symbols of the Mexican-American War, and even a scene over 7-inches long portraying infantry and cavalry marching outside a walled city. The grip and pommel are made from a single piece of engraved & gold-washed silver, with the pommel featuring two faces back-to-back. Read our official description in the auction listing for more details about this wonderful sword.
After some of the luxurious dress swords that have been featured in this article, one might find this sword to be relatively plain. That would be partially correct as this is not dress sword, but one intended for actual combat. It is typical of those carried by American and British officers in the American Revolution and the French and Indian War. What makes it atypical is its superior quality, embellishments, and high condition.
This is a sword crafted by John Bailey who was a well-known cutler (sword/knife maker) in the Revolutionary War era and even had the distinct honor of forging a silver-hilted hunting sword for George Washington, referred to since as his “War Sword.” The markings of “ANDREA FARARA” on the blade at one time indicated a superior quality of blade. Farara was an Italian bladesmith that lived in Scotland whose excellence was known far and wide. Unfortunately, he lived in the 16th & 17th centuries, not the late 1700s. The presence of his name on this blade can likely be attributed to that renowned quality and the prestige that would have come from possessing one of his swords, even decades after his death.
Even though it was meant for battle, the sword still has finer features rare to swords of the period. The sword uses silver for its guard, counterguard, and pommel which is in the shape of a lion’s head. This use of silver in combination with the antique ivory grip show that this sword did not belong to just any soldier, but was the property of a field grade officer. One might think the blade to be in “lesser” condition than others shown here, but make no mistake, historical context is everything. In a similar vein, Colt Walker revolvers always saw hard use, and those that exist today are far from one would call “Excellent” condition. Likewise, swords intended for use would have seen incredibly harsh conditions and so to see one survive today in as fine a condition such as this, let alone with embellishments befitting an officer, is an incredible opportunity.
According to the plate mounted to the remaining 6-inches of the leather scabbard, the sword was once the property of Captain Thomas Buchanan of the 1st Regiment of the Pennsylvania line. He took part in numerous battles in the Revolutionary War including the Siege of Boston, the New York Campaign, the Battle of Trenton, the Second Battle of Trenton, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Barleywine, and others. After his military service he became the sheriff of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. According to the plate on the other side of the scabbard, this very sword was later presented in 1850 to a presumed descendant of General (formerly Captain) Buchanan, Robert Buchanan.
This sword in its fine condition, with its officer-grade embellishments, and links to a documented soldier of the Revolutionary War combine to make it a incredible piece of American history and an amazing collector’s item.
I hope seeing some of the outstanding history that is available in this auction lights a fire in you to find out what else is contained in this endlessly educational sale. The best part is, Rock Island Auction Company specializes in firearms, so if we have this much history in swords, imagine what you’ll find when it comes to guns! If swords and knives are your area of interest, please click here to see all the lots in the auction containing those items. If history is more your passion, head over to our YouTube Channel or read some of our previous blog posts for more in-depth analysis on a wide variety of items. We can’t wait to share what’s in store.
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