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Union general's sword returns to Fredericksburg

November 11, 2012 12:10 am


A wartime photo of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside shows him with the presentation sword now on loan to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. lo1111burnside2.jpg

The inscribed sword, believed to be Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's favorite, was a gift from his troops in 1861.


An irreplaceable piece of history has returned to Fredericksburg after a long absence.

The prize sword of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside, who commanded the Union Army of the Potomac, is back in town.

People are invited to view the relic at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center until late January, a period matching the 77 days that the ill-fated Burnside held his command.

The general's sword came to the most-visited facility of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Friday--the 150th anniversary of Burnside's appointment to command the army--and was carefully installed in a special case in the building's exhibit area.

"Isn't that wonderful?" visitor Susan Marston of Wayland, Mass., exclaimed as park curator Amy Muraca and museum technician Luisa Dispenzirie put the sword in its new home.

It is likely the sword that Burnside carried at the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought in mid-December 1862.

Collector Alan Genetti of central Pennsylvania is loaning the artifact to the park for the battle's sesquicentennial. The sword's display--along with a special walking tour Saturday that traced a Union cavalry raid of Fredericksburg--launched weeks of public programs for the 150th anniversary that will conclude Dec. 15.

The handsome sword was presented to Burnside, then a colonel, by members and friends of Company F, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, in recognition of his coolness under fire during the Battle of First Manassas, the war's first major land battle, in July 1861.

It was inscribed to him by the regiment, and appears in several wartime photographs and a later portrait of the general. A newspaper correspondent's sketch made on Dec. 14, 1862, also appears to portray the sword, strongly suggesting it was his accouterment of choice at Fredericksburg, the National Park Service said.

The sword still includes the hilt's original metallic-threaded knot, a fragile bit of fabric that usually wouldn't last a year in normal use.

"They are rare as hen's teeth," Park Service historian Frank O'Reilly said in an interview. "This was clearly a sword taken care of with love, which also speaks to the idea that it was his favorite one."

Its provenance and fine condition testify to friendship, loyalty and admiration felt by the troops in Burnside's first command, O'Reilly said.

"The first Rhode Islanders were not only saying 'job well done' and 'We were the first ones engaged, you were the first to lead us in battle,'" the historian explained. "They meant, 'You're moving up and onward, but we were the beginning, and we appreciate you.' I don't think that was a hollow thought with him."

Burnside went on to have a long and fruitful life, serving as governor of Rhode Island, a U.S. senator and president of several railroads.

But O'Reilly, who wrote what's considered the top military history of the Battle of Fredericksburg, believes this talisman of his early military career held a special place in Burnside's heart.

"Given the way he clings to this sword for the rest of his life, unlike any other, I think it was the most sentimental sword he ever had," he said.

Generals would often have 15 or 20 swords in their collection, O'Reilly noted.

The weapon arrived at the visitor center 150 years to the day that Burnside's predecessor, George Britton McClellan, left Warrenton on a train upon being relieved of his command by President Lincoln. McClellan, infamous for being too timid when confronting Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was cashiered after failing to promptly pursue Lee's forces into Virginia after the Battle of Antietam.

Burnside didn't seek the command, but was pressed to accept it by Lincoln. Burnside, a genial man liked by his troops, had successfully led operations off the North Carolina coast and performed admirably in the Battle of South Mountain near Sharpsburg, Md.

Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, with its 15,000 Union casualties, he resigned his command after the disastrous "Mud March," a winter offensive launched from Stafford County in January 1863.

Later, serving under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside led troops in the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

Fred150 events: Burnside's sword:

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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