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Friday, November 4, 2011

George Washington's Battle Sword

NB: Having come across a more thorough description of George Washington's battle sword than that I had posted previously, which relied on a New York Times article of July 28, 1932, I have rewritten this post.

General Washington's battle sword and scabbard.

George Washington's battle sword a hanger-type sword of forged steel with grooved blade. It had a grip of green dyed ivory with silver strip decoration. Its scabbard was leather with silver trim. It was 36.25" in over-all length. It was first worn by Washington while serving as a colonel in the expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1758, when he commanded 2,000 Virginia provincial troops. He retained it during the entire Revolution.
Upon Washington's death it was inherited by his nephew, Samuel T. Washington, an army captain. His son Samuel donated it to the United States government in 1843, along with a walking stick owned by Benjamin Franklin. Rep. George W. Summers, a Whig from Virginia made a speech to the House about the donation:
Mr. Samuel T. Washington, a citizen of Franklin county, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and one of my constituents, has honored me with the commission of presenting in his name and on his behalf, to the Congress of the United States, and through that body to the people of the United States, two most interesting and valuable relies connected with the past history of our country, and with men whose achievments both in the field and in the Cabinet, best illustrate and adorn our annals. One is the sword worn by George Washington, first as a colonel in the Colonial service of Virginia, in Forbes' campaign against the French and Indians, and afterward during the whole period of the war of Independence as Commander-in-chief of the American army. It is a plain couteau or hanger, with a green hilt and silver guard. On the upper ward of the scabbard is engraven, 'I. Bailey, Fish Kill.' It is accompanied by a buckskin belt, which is secured by a silver buckle and clasp, whereon are engraven the letters ' G. W.' and the figures '1757.' These are all of the plainest workmanship, but substantial and in keeping with the man and with the times to which they belonged. The history of this sword is perfectly authentic, and leaves no shadow of doubt as to its identity. The last will and testament of General Washington bearing date on the 9th day of February, 1799, contains, among a great variety of bequests, the following 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 couteaux 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 its rights, and, in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof." [I LOVE that!]
In the distribution of the swords hereby devised among the five nephews therein enumerated, the one now presented fell to the share of Samuel Washington, the devisee last named in the clause of the will which I have just read.

This gentleman, who died a few years since, in the county of Kanawha, and who was the father of Samuel T. Washington, the donor, I knew well. I have often seen this sword in his possession, and received from himself the following account of the manner in which it become his property in the division made among the devisees. He said that he knew it to have been the side-arm of General Washington during the Revolutionary War; not that used on occasions of parade and review, but the constant service sword of the great chief; that he has himself seen Gen. Washington wear this identical sword, he presumed for the last time, when, in 1794, he reviewed the Maryland and Virginia forces, then concentrated at Cumberland under the command of General Lee, and destined to co-operate with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops, then assembled at Bedford, in suppressing what has been called the ' Whisky Insurrection.' Gen. Washington was the President of the United States, and as such was commander-in-chief of the army. It is known that it was his intention to lead the army in person upon that occasion had he found it necessary, and he went to Bedford and Cumberland prepared for that event. The condition of things did not require it, and he returned to his civil duties at Philadelphia. Mr. Samuel Washington held the commission of a captain at that time himself, and served in that campaign, many of the incidents of which he has related to me. He was anxious to obtain this particular sword, and preferred it to all the others, among which was the ornamented and costly present from the great Frederick. At the time of the division among the nephews, without intimating what his preference was, he jocosely remarked, 'that inasmuch as he was the only one of them then present who had participated in military service they ought to permit him to take choice.' This suggestion was met in the same spirit in which it was made, and the selection being awarded him, he chose this, the plainest, and, intrinsically, the least valuable of any: simply because it was the 'Battle Sword.' I am also in possession of the most satisfactory evidence furnished by Colonel George C. Washington, of Georgetown, the nearest male relative now living of General Washington, as to the identity of this sword.

This information, as to its history, was derived from his father, William Augustine Washington, the devisee first named in the clause of the will which I have read; from his uncle, the late Judge Bushrod Washington, of the Supreme Court; and Major Lawrence Lewis, the acting executor of General Washington's will—all of whom concurred in the statement that the true service sword was that selected by Captain Samuel Washington. It remained in this gentleman's possession until his death, esteemed by him the most precious memento of his illustrious kinsman. It then became the property of his son, who, animated by that patriotism which so characterized the 'Father of his Country,' has consented that such a relic ought not to be appropriated by an individual citizen, and has instructed me, his representative, to offer it to the nation, to be preserved in its public depositaries as the common property of all, since its office has been to achieve and secure the common liberty of all.
Washington owned at least seven swords. Here is a description of another, from the San Francisco Chronicle (March 2, 1902):
Washington's German Sword

Among the many relics of George Washington which are exhibited at Mount Vernon, and are almost idolized by Americans as national historical antiquities, there appears under the sign of "Washington's Sword" an object which may well be in future of great interest to the German as well as the American people.

A thorough inspection of this sword shows and established the undeniable fact that one Theophilus Alter, from Solingen, Germany, during the time of the Revolutionary War in the English colonies, sent his son with this sword in conjunction sympathies from the German people to America, to deliver the same with his own hands to General George Washington. That the son acted according to instructions from from his father, the sword itself is evidence, and if the necessary researches could be made concerning the subsequent life of this messenger, the verdict would most likely read: Died, after bringing greetings and sympathy from Germany, on the battlefield of American liberty.

The sword is of the same shape as the one worn by General Blucher at the battle of Waterloo, and to judge by its saw-like edge, it gives the impression of having gone through many a battle and it delivers to future generations in a sentence, etched in the steel plate close to the hilt, and partially obscured by erosion: "Destroyer of despotism, protector of freedom, steadfast man, take from my son's hand this sword, I beg of you! Theophilus Alte, Solingen."
There is more information on Washington's swords here.


  1. No greater a man ever lived. A higher purpose was his life. I only wish our current leaders had even an ouce of what was George Washington. We would be much better off.

  2. The dates seems to be wrong. It says he first used it in 1758 but then later says it was not made until 1778. Can you confirm the dates?

    1. Thanks, I fixed that error. I had to go back to the library to get the reference material.

    2. Can anyone confirm the origin of the Col George Washington “Battle Sword”?
      Some people refer to a German gift, others refer to John Bailey as maker of the “Battle Sword