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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Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Adventures of a Steel Dress Sword

I’ve been discussing myths of Frederick the Great’s admiration for George Washington—claims that he had the highest praise for the Continental Army’s maneuvers around Trenton and that he sent the American general a picture of himself with a laudatory description. Here’s another.

When George Washington died in 1799, his will included this clause:
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington and Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chuse in the order they are named. These Swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.
Bushrod Washington chose a dress sword, and after 1810 it passed to his brother, George C. Washington.

On 28 Feb 1832, as the U.S. of A. celebrated the centennial of Washington’s birth, the Connecticut Courant reprinted a letter that had just appeared in the New-York Mercantile Advertiser. It was from George C. Washington (misprinted as “George V. Washington”) to Silas E. Burrows, an organizer of New York’s celebration, and dated 18 February:
I take pleasure in complying with your request to be permitted to take with you to New York for the Centennial Birthday, the sword and pistols of Gen. Washington, and I accordingly commit to your care those valued relics of my venerated relative.

My Father, by the will of Gen. Washington, had the first choice of the swords bequeathed by him to his nephews, with the injunction “never to draw them except in self defence, or in defence of their country.” The sword which I have placed in your hands was presented by Frederick the 2d King of Prussia, accompanied by the compliment, “From the oldest General in the world to the greatest.”
Again, there’s no documentation of Frederick II ever sending a letter to Washington, much less a sword. But the Washington family had attached the 1780 anecdote about the Prussian king’s praise to this particular dress sword.

George C. Washington died in 1854 and passed the family relic to his son Lewis W. Washington, who lived on a family plantation about five miles outside Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

In the summer of 1859, Washington was walking in the town when a man he didn’t know greeted him and said, “I believe you have a great many interesting relics at your house; could I have permission to see them if I should walk out some day?” Assuming this stranger worked at the federal armory, Washington said yes.

The man made the promised visit in September. Washington showed him “The sword presented by Frederick the Great to General Washington, which he used as his dress sword, and one of the pistols presented to him by Lafayette.” They went outside and shot some guns. Washington noticed the name “John E. Cook” engraved on one of the stranger’s pistols. Cook acknowledged that was his name, and on parting said he planned to go to Kansas soon.

On the night of Sunday, 16 October, Washington heard someone call his name through his bedroom door. Wearing “night-shirt and slippers,” he opened the door to find five men pointing guns at him. As an added surprise, one of the men was Cook, who hadn’t gone to Kansas at all.

In fact, John Edwin Cook had been scouting the area for the radical abolitionist John Brown, who had just taken over the Harpers Ferry armory. Seeking valuable hostages, Brown had sent this detachment to collect prominent local slaveholders, and he also wanted the Washington family’s relics of the first President.

The raiders brought Washington, the weapons, and some of his enslaved workers to the engine house at Harpers Ferry, along with other locals. On 18 October the U.S. military, led by Gen. Henry Lee’s son Robert, attacked the building. Meanwhile, Lewis Washington was keeping his eye on the family sword. He later testified: “Brown carried that in his hand all day Monday, and when the attacking party came on he laid it on a fire engine, and after the rescue I got it.” Washington also pointed out Brown to the first U.S. Marine officer to break into the building.

That raid led to the execution of Brown, Cook, and five other men. It increased the sectional tensions that led to the U.S. Civil War within two years. And it made the sword supposedly sent by Frederick the Great more famous. Some authors claimed Brown had developed a superstitious attachment to that weapon “because it has been used by two successful generals.”

Lewis W. Washington sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War. I’ve found two accounts of what happened to his treasures in that time: either a poor neighbor hid them, or they were confiscated by the U.S. government and put on display at the Patent Office in the capital.

Washington died in October 1871. Already the family had arranged to sell several of his George Washington relics to the New York State Library; the state legislature approved the $20,000 purchase in April. Among those items was the steel dress sword.

In April 1901, the iconoclastic Virginian native Moncure D. Conway published an article in Century Magazine called “Washington and Frederick the Great, with the Story of a Mythical Sword.” By then it was being reported that the line “From the oldest General in the world to the greatest” was actually engraved on Washington’s dress sword——but it wasn’t. That discrepancy led Conway to research more deeply and discover there was no documentation at all to support the tradition of Frederick II’s gift.

The New York State Library staff still believed in its treasure, of course. In the winter of 1902, Prince Henry, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, visited Albany. The librarians and Gov. Benjamin Odell proudly showed the Washington sword to him. “Prince Henry drew the sword from the scabbard,” state historian Hugh Hastings later wrote, ”and vainly scrutinized it for a mark of identification to establish the place where the weapon was manufactured. It is needless to say that all marks had been obliterated by constant polishing.”

Spurred by Conway’s doubts and “considerable discussion” in the newspapers, Hastings wrote to the U.S. embassy in Berlin asking if they could find any papers about the sword. After a few letters back and forth, the secretary of the embassy reported on 23 Sept 1902: “the Foreign Office states that no record can be found of the matter in question,—the presentation of a sword to General Washington, by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Consequently, I am afraid that the tradition that such was the case, was not founded on fact.”

Hastings included that correspondence in his 1903 report, formally titled New York and the War with Spain. (Not, of course, the place one would look for information about an eighteenth-century German sword.) The next year, the American Historical Review published the article by Paul Leland Haworth that I mentioned back here, “Frederick the Great and the American Revolution”; that showed how little Frederick II cared about Washington. In 1911 Francis Vinton Greene’s The Revolutionary War and the Military Policy of the United States summed up and dismissed all the Frederick the Great–General Washington myths in one footnote (vol. 1, p. 73).

Nonetheless, one can visit the website of the New York State Library today and see a photograph of the dress sword with the caption, “This is one of Washington's dress swords, alleged to have been given to him by Frederick the Great of Germany.” Celebrity myths die hard.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

There was a bad fire at the New York State Library in 1911, notorious for destroying a lot of the colony and state’s early records. I understand this sword was damaged in that fire, though the hilt survived. Yet another adventure.