Monday, March 25, 2013

The Early 19th Century American Naval Officer's Sword

British Pattern 1803 Flank Officer's Sword

Utilizing animal imagery to decorate swords is not uncommon.  Europeans did so for centuries.   Hunting swords, popular in the 16th - 18th centuries, are often adorned with dog or wolf pommels (the pommel is the butt of the sword, so to speak).   Many 18th century short swords (for foot officers)  and hangers (for foot soldiers) also have stylized animal heads for pommels.   The British lion head has always been a popular patriotic symbol of that nation.  While it appeared on many a flank officer's (light infantry or grenadier) sword between 1781 and 1802, in 1803 George III made the lionhead pommel part of an official British sword pattern (depicted above -- one of my favorite patterns).    

American military fashion of the early 19th century century followed that of Great British.  Adoption of British fashion is a bit ironic  given the conflicts fought by the nations.  Still, many early Americans considered themselves transplanted Englishman.  Many were former English colonists and some had served in the military with their English cousins.   Regardless, the British military in this time was a major world power -- and one to be emulated.  Hence it is not strange that early American sword styles follow those of Great Britain.  Naturally, the Americans replaced the symbol of British might, the lion, with that of American pride and strength, the eagle. 

The sword depicted above and in the pictures below is an American naval eagle head sword in the collection of Mississippi Department of Archives and History.  Last year I volunteered to  assist the MDAH by reviewing, commenting on and, where necessary, attempting to identify,  the swords in the state's vast collection.  I saw this sword for the first time last Fall and immediately became interested in it.   The use  eagle head pommels in America dates to the infancy of the Revolution.  Its heyday, however,  is between 1800 - 1850 period --- a time in which American military fashion ceased following that of Great Britain and instead adopted that of France.   The eagle was a symbol of ancient Rome.   It was adopted by the French Revolutionaries as symbol of republicanism.   Napoleon I, who first served as the leader of the French Republic before declaring himself L'Emporeur, carried forth the symbol inyo the First Empire.   In fact, French First Empire battle standards are referred to a "eagles.".  The  flag attached was important.  However, the gilded eagle perched on top of the pole was the object sacred to regimental pride.  While not really allies, the American government helped fund Napolean's wars through the Louisiana Purchase.  The Americans shared a bond with France dating back to the American Revolution.  Two nations were united, though not officially as allies, when the Uniteds States fought France's then mortal enemy, Great Britain, during the War if 1812.   I do not mean to insinuate that American popularity of the eagle head sword in the early to mid 19th century is merely French infatuation.  However, I do not believe that the bond between the countries can be ignored.   

I believe that this sword dates somewhere between 1812-1840, given the style of etching on the blade  and the width of the blade.   The width of the blade suggests to me that this sword originates from a time period when fighting by sword was a likelihood, not just  a possibility.   The later antebellum eagle heads swords appear to me to be for peacetime officers.  Their  as their blades tend to be more  narrow and  they look more suited for the ballroom rather than the battlefield.  The MDAH card references this sword as a pattern 1841 Naval Officer's Sword.  While it most certainly resembles the hilt of 1840s eagle heads, as stated above I believe that this sword is earlier,  also because  of the blade decoration.   The blade is hand etched with anchors and 13 stars in a circular pattern  as well as other military motifs and the style of script more closely resembles that seen on late 18th century and early 19th century swords.    The ornate furniture of its leather scabbard carries the same motif -- anchors and 13 stars.  

The blade of this particular sword is marked to the English cutler Jos. Rodgers and Sons, Sheffield.    Joseph Rodgers and Sons originated in the mid 18th century in Sheffield, England.  While it manufactured swords, the company is better known for its knives, including Bowies.  Jos. Rodgers and Sons remained in business until 1975, but in its later years  making more mundane blades  such as scissors and razor blades.  It is not strange that this sword was made by a. British company for American trade.  For centuries  British, French and German cutlers made swords for export.  Sheffield, England was a center for knife making, much as Solingen,Germany and Klingenthal, France are known for sword manufacturing.   Even after the ugliness of the Revolution, the sabre rattling of the impressment of sailors and the War of 1812, business was still business.

What interests me most  about this sword is how and why it came into the MDAH collection. Of course, donors can given anything they want and not every sword  in the collection has some relationship to Mississippi.   Was it the sword of a Mississippian that served in the United States Navy?  Did a former U.S. naval officer carry this sword when he served in the Confederate navy?    The catalog  card is silent as to who donated this sword and when it was acquired   It sure makes me wonder.............