Revolutionary War Historical Article

George Washington's Swords

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the June/July 2004 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

During the era of George Washington, a gentlemen would no more leave his quarters without his sword then without his pants! Today, we cannot appreciate the personal bond a man had with his sword. To the civilian it was the symbol of his standing in a highly systemized Society. To a military officer it was an emblem of his rank and often a reward for gallantry, having been presented to him. To the common soldier or sailor it was the weapon of “last resort”. Swords that had family connections, having been borne in battle by other family members, held very significant emotional ties. It is no wonder that George Washington’s swords hold a very special place among the relics of his life.

As with anything to do with the 18th century, we have bits and pieces of historical data and substantial amounts of missing information. The number of surviving Revolutionary War swords that are supposed to have been presented to individuals by the General is both phenomenal and impossible. We know from Washington’s own writings that he did indeed give swords as rewards for valor. In September of 1782, at a joint Franco-American celebration, the General had three true American heroes join him for dinner. He presented each with a dress sword and a brace of pistols. They were the enlisted men who captured British Major John Andre; John Pauling, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. Where did he get these swords and the others he presented? As you can read in the article Revolutionary War Presentation Swords, it wasn’t until 1786, three years after the war, that Congress was able to fulfill it’s promise to present 10 of the 15 dress swords they had awarded during the war. We believe that many of these swords had been captured from British or Hessian officers. It was a common practice for officers to have both a ceremonial sword and a “fighting or war” sword. Therefore, a generous victor would permit a captured Officer to retain his sword - - which would have been his dress or ceremonial sword, quite often with the blade engraved with his name. The fighting sword was another matter. Another major contributing factor was that the colonies were not capable of producing quantities of high quality swords - - they were manufactured in Europe.

General Washington was only twenty-two when Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia appointed him a Lieutenant Colonel of Virginia Militia. Obviously he carried an Officer’s sword - - probably his brother Lawrence’s who had died two years earlier and had served in the British Army. Lawrence left in his will Mount Vernon and his personal possessions to Washington.

During the French and Indian War, Washington gained fame organizing a successful retreat after the disastrous defeat of General Edward Braddock’s army near Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). Braddock was mortally wounded during the battle on July 9th, 1755, died on the 13th. Apparently, in appreciation for Washington’s effective leadership, the dying General bequeathed his sword to him. During the war Washington presented it to his nephew, George Lewis, who was serving as a Captain in his Commander-in-Chief’s Guards.

In 1772, Charles Willson Peale painted the first portrait of George Washington from life. Peale, renowned for his attention to detail, depicted Washington wearing the ceremonial sword that he later wore at his presidential inauguration. That sword is now in possession of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association.

While headquartered at White Plains, New York, on August 4th, 1778, the General wrote to Major Caleb Gibbs, Commandant of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards and ‘chief scrounger’ for the headquarters; “. . . also some things which I should be glad to procure for my own use - - among which I find myself in want of a genteel cutting sword - - I do not mean a true horseman’s sword, and yet one fit for riding. . . .” No record exists as to the success of Major Gibbs - however he rarely failed acquiring what was needed by the General. We know that General Washington carried a “genteel cutting sword” which was made by John Bailey, a cutler who operated his business in Fishkill. He had moved his operation there on May 14th, 1778. The sword carries the maker’s mark on the throat of the scabbard ‘J. Bailey Fishkill’. It is possible that Major Gibbs purchased this sword for Washington.

This sword is now proudly displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. An excellent article about this sword was written by Compatriot Gary A. Trudgen in the Winter 1997 issue of The SAR Magazine.

By the end of the century Washington had been given or acquired several swords. To better understand the history of George Washington’s swords it is important that we review the clause in Washington’s last will and testament wherein he bequeathed five of his swords to his nephews.

“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 chose in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defense, or in defense of their Country and it’s rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof. . . .”

Unfortunately, based on his will many people assumed that Washington only had five swords, as that is the number he gave his nephews. Two documents shed light on the number he actually owned. After his death an estate inventory was made. The first listing made was his Library. A line item says: Seven swords and one blade valued at $120.00. We do not know for sure if this inventory was taken before or after the five swords mentioned in his will were distributed. A second document, taken after Martha Washington died in May of 1802 was an inventory of personal and household items sold after her death.

Mr. Carter - sword blade to be charged to T. Peter... $2.00
A. Park - a sword ..........................................................2.50
Genl Spotswood - a saw sword .....................................4.00
Mr. Law - two canes and a sword ................................6.25
B. Washington - one sword.......................................... 1.00

What had to have been the most elegant sword used by the General is now exhibited at the New York State Library in Albany. This sword is reputed to be the sword sent to Washington in 1780 by Frederick the Great with a verbal message: “From the oldest General in the World to the Greatest”. This was one of the five swords left to his nephews. It was chosen by William Augustine Washington, The sword was passed down through his son Colonel George Corbin Washington, then to his son Colonel Lewis William Washington, His widow, Ella, donated it to the library. Unfortunately, the sword was very badly damaged in the New York Capitol building fire in 1911. This fire also destroyed the original records of New York during the American Revolution.

Four of the General’s swords have been donated to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and are displayed at their museum at Mount Vernon. One of these the ‘Spanish dress sword’ or ‘Mourning sword’ was worn by Washington at funerals and is seen in Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of the General, which was commissioned by the Marquis of Landsdowne. Inscribed on the sword are the words: “Recte face Ice” (Do what is right) and on the opposite side “Nemine Timeas” (Fear no man).

Under the terms of the General’s will, Judge Bushrod Washington chose this sword. This sword was passed down through Colonel George Corbin Washington, to his son Colonel Lewis William Washington. In 1871 it was purchased by Mr. William F. Hevenmeyer of New York City, and he donated the Sword to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

On September 12th, 1796, President Washington wrote to John Quincy Adams, who at the time was the American Minister to the Netherlands.


"Philadelphia, September 12, 1796

Dear Sir:

To open a correspondence with you on so trifling a subject, as that which gives birth to this letter, would hardly be justified, were it not for the singularity of the case: this singularity will, I hope, apologize for the act.

Some time ago, perhaps two or three months, I read in some gazette, but was so little impressed with it at the time (conceiving it to be one of those things which get into newspapers nobody knows how or why) that I cannot now recollect whether the gazette was of American or foreign production, announcing that a celebrated artist had presented, or was about to present to the President of the United States a sword of masterly workmanship, as an evidence of his veneration etc. etc.

I thought no more of the matter afterwards, until a gentleman with whom I have no acquaintance, coming from and going to I know not where, at a tavern I never could get information of, came across this sword (for it is presumed to be the same) pawned for thirty dollars; which he paid, left it in Alexandria, nine miles from my house, in Virginia, with a person who refunded him the money and sent the sword to me.

This is all I have been able to learn of this curious affair. The blade is highly wrought, and decorated with many military emblems. It has my name engraved thereon, and the following inscription (translated from the Dutch): “Condemner of despotism, Preserver of Liberty, glorious man, take from my sons hands this Sword, I beg you. A. Sollingen.” The hilt is either gold, or richly plated with that metal; and the whole carries with it the form of an horseman’s sword, or long sabre.

The matter, as far as it appears at present, is a perfect enigma. How it should have come into this country without a letter, or an accompanying message: how afterwards it should have got into such loose hands; and whither the person having it in possession was steering his course, remains as yet to be explained; some of them, probably, can only be explained by the maker; and the maker no otherwise to be discovered than by the inscription and name, “A. Sollingen,” who, from the impression which dwells on my mind, is of Amsterdam.

If, Sir, with this clew you can develope the history of this sword, the value of it; the character of the maker, and his probable object in sending it; it would oblige me; and, by relating these facts to him might obviate doubts, which otherwise might be entertained by him of its fate, or its reception. With great esteem, etc.

G. Washington"

Minister Adams discovered that the sword was a gift from Theophilus Alte, a manufacturer of Sollingen, Holland. It was supposed to be hand carried to President Washington by Alte’s son, Daniel. On January 20th, 1797, Alte wrote Washington inquiring if the sword had been received, then again he wrote, on November 29th, 1797, still seeking information on his wayward son who he had not heard a single word from. There is no record of President Washington's reply. However, in the 1810 Census for Virginia we found Daniel Alte living in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Apparently he did not want to go back to Holland.

This sword is inscribed on the blade in German. It translates: “Destroyer of Despotism, Protector of Freedom, Determined man, take from my Son's hands, this sword, I pray thee, Theophilus Alte Sollingen.”

By the terms of Washington’s will, this sword was bequeathed to George Steptoe Washington. Shortly after the Civil War it was purchased from a Washington family member by George W. Riggs, whose descendants donated it to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. It is now at the Mount Vernon Museum.

General Alexander Spotswood had married Elizabeth, the daughter of George Washington’s cousin Augustine Washington and Anne Aylett. Augustine was George Washington’s half brother,. Elizabeth’s brother was famed cavalry leader Colonel William A. Washington. General Spotswood purchased the “sawtooth” sword from the estate of Martha Washington in 1802 for the sum of $ 4.00. - - This sword is now in the Morristown Military Park Museum.

The Mourning or “Spanish” dress sword was chosen under the terms of General Washington’s will by Judge Bushrod Washington. He left it to Colonel George Corbin Washington, and he in turn to his son. Colonel Lewis W. Washington.

On October 16th, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led the now famous attack on Harper’s Ferry. As soon as the arsenal there was captured, Brown dispatched six armed men to capture Colonel Washington, specifically to obtain the George Washington sword that he had inherited. In Brown’s mind that sword was the “sword of state” and in his possession would enhance his political position. He was wearing the sword when he was captured.

Other swords known to have been owned by General Washington: His friend Major

General William Drake presented a very attractive dress sword. President Washington was wearing it at his inauguration in New York on April 30th, 1789. This sword is now displayed at the Morristown Military Park Museum.

Another sword, was given him by the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington, in turn, presented the sword to Chaplain John Gano. That sword is now on display at the

William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri. An interesting article regarding this sword can be found in the Summer 1999 issue of The SAR Magazine. The famed sword maker, Wilkerson, produced a limited edition of General Washington’s inaugural sword. Several other firms have manufactured replicas of some of his swords. Although replicas, these are highly prized.

On January 17th, 2004, President Glenn J. Gujda, on behalf of our Chapter, honored your Editor [Donald N. Moran] with a replica of General Washington's dress sword. President Gujda stated that it was being presented in recognition of your editor being the founding commander of the SAR Color Guard program and having served 15 years as the State Color Guard Commander.

As part of our living history program, your editor does a first person portrayal of Major Caleb Gibbs, who commanded General Washington’s personal guard. At one of the frequent presentations, carrying the replica Washington sword, “Major Gibbs” explained to the students that he had “borrowed” it from the General.

The reactions of the students to being able to touch it is wonderful.

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