J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

“General Taylor took the sash”

Yesterday’s posting showed Carol James’s recreation of a sash that Gen. Edward Braddock reportedly gave to young George Washington in 1755, as the British commander was dying of wounds in western Pennsylvania. [That action became part of the Seven Years’ War, the end of which is the subject of the “1763 and the Americas” symposium in Boston and Providence today and tomorrow.]

Braddock’s original sash is now in the collection of Mount Vernon, and its website says, “In 1846, the sash was presented to another war hero and future President of the United States, Zachary Taylor.” Mount Vernon also says it bought the sash in 1918 with funds donated by Yoshihisa Tokugawa (1884-1922), who was a son of the last shogun of Japan.

That leaves a lot of questions about provenance. Assuming Washington kept possession of the sash from 1755 to his death in 1799, who “presented” it to Zachary Taylor in 1846, when he was the American general in command of the Mexican-American War? And what happened in between?

The earliest answers I’ve found appear in The History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia by Wills De Hass, published in 1851. After describing Braddock’s death (which he attributes to friendly fire from a specific American soldier), De Hass wrote:

The identical sash worn by Braddock at the time of his defeat, and in which he was borne from the field bleeding and dying, recently passed into the hands of one of America’s greatest and most successful generals.

It appears that the sash referred to, some years since became the property of a gentleman at New Orleans. After the brilliant achievement on the Rio Grande in 1846, the owner of the relic forwarded it to Genl. [Edmund P.] Gaines, with a request that it might be presented to the officer who most distinguished himself on that occasion. The old general promptly sent it by special messenger, to the Commander-in-Chief.
Gen. Gaines had been Taylor’s commander for some time during the War of 1812. At the start of the Mexican-American War he was based in New Orleans and summoned volunteers for Taylor’s army before receiving any orders from the capital. In addition, Gaines was Taylor’s first cousin once removed.
The person who bore it, thus speaks of the presentation and interview. “General Taylor took the sash and examined it attentively. It was of unusual size, being quite as large, when extended, as a common hammock. In the meshes of the splendid red silk that composed it, was the date of its manufacture, ‘1707,’ and although it was one hundred and forty years old, save where the dark spots, that were stained with the blood of the hero who wore it, it glistened as brightly as if it had just come from the loom.

“Upon the unusual size of the sash being noticed, Gen. [William J.] Worth, who had joined the party in the tent, mentioned that such was the old-fashioned style; and that the soldier’s sash was intended to carry, if necessary, the wearer from off the field of battle. It was mentioned in the conversation, that after Gen. Ripley was wounded at Lundy’s Lane [in 1814], his sash, similar in form, was used as a hammock to bear him from the field, and that in it he was carried several miles, his body swaying to and fro between the horses, to which the ends of the sash were securely fastened. To a wounded soldier, no conveyance could be more grateful, or more appropriate.
The American general Eleazer Wheelock Ripley wasn’t wounded at Lundy’s Lane, but he was wounded at York (Toronto) and Fort Erie during America’s invasion of Canada.

To return to America’s invasion of Mexico:
“Gen. Taylor broke the silent admiration, by saying he would not receive the sash. Upon our expressing surprise, he continued, that he did not think he should receive presents until the campaign, so far as he was concerned, was finished. He elaborated on the impropriety of naming children after living men, fearing lest the thus honored might disgrace their namesakes. We urged his acceptance of the present; and he said, finally, that he would put it carefully away in his military chest, and if he thought he deserved so great a compliment, at the end of the campaign, he would acknowledge the receipt.”

The stirring events that have transpired since he made that remark, have added the laurels of Monterey to those he then wore; and the world, as well as the donors of that sash, will insist upon his acceptance of it.

Since writing the above, the old chieftain himself has passed from the living to the dead. He died—a singular coincidence, on the anniversary of that terrible event—the defeat of Braddock. But a few weeks previous to his death, the author, then on a visit to Washington, freely conversed with the distinguished chieftain upon the very subject about which we have been writing. He said, that the sash referred to, was still in his possession, and at any time we desired it, would have it shown. Knowing that matters of state pressed heavily upon him, we did not ask it at that time; and thus, perhaps, the opportunity has been lost forever;—certainly deprived of one of its most interesting features—to be seen in the hands of General Taylor. During the interview referred to, he spoke much and frequently of Washington’s early operations in the west, and inquired whether any of the remains of Fort Necessity could be seen.
Taylor’s death in office meant De Hass couldn’t say where the sash had gone. In fact, no one laid eyes on it for more than forty years.

TOMORROW: The sash resurfaces.

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