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'This richly mounted sword': the presentation sword of Colonel Louis D. Watkins.

Since antiquity, fine weapons and armour have been deemed appropriate gifts for presentation to great warriors and heroes. In Homer's Iliad, the Greek warriors Achilles and Ajax exchange presents of arms. Medieval and renaissance monarchs made gifts of arms as signs of mutual respect and personal good taste. Even well into the twentieth century, fine arms remained popular gifts of respect and national pride between heads of state and government officials.

As a genre, presentation arms embody personal, historic, technical and artistic interest. To the public, they personify the illustrious figure with whom they were associated. They also demonstrate the influence of prevailing tastes in fashion and decoration and a physical aspect of the owner's military history and deeds. In terms of quality and manufacture, purely presentation arms are far removed from the regulation, utilitarian arms of the day, which they resemble only in the most basic features of form and the components of which they are comprised. They are heavily embellished, ornate, sculptural works of decorative art made of precious metals and other luxury materials, enhanced through the efforts of the finest engravers and jewellers, employing the latest decorative techniques and trends in fashion.

The awarding of such arms was usually the end result of a general acknowledgement of some great personal deed of heroism or service, at a time of national need or strife. Some weapons incorporate a record of the details of the event commemorated, while others indicate only the recipient and the donors.

In the United States, the history of presentation edged weapons goes back to the days of the American War of Independence when such pieces were authorised by the Continental Congress in order to acknowledge the national ser vice of select officers. Following the war, and continuing for another century and a half, the United States's federal government, state and local officers, and groups of military and civilian individuals all ordered and presented these arms.

For the first half-century of the new nation's history, American swords were largely of foreign make or design. These weapons were produced to fulfil specific regulations and needs of the armed forces, but until after the Civil War (1861-65), American swords made for war or ceremony were almost exclusively variations of the types used in Europe. The majority of presentation swords in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History also date from this period, which is regarded as the acme of American sword design. At this time, French weapons largely established the patterns followed by American sword designers.

Whereas Europe could boast production centres in such places as Solingen in Germany and Klingenthal in French Alsace, sword production in the United States was scattered throughout the eastern half of the country. Those who produced luxury arms for presentation have also ranged from regulation arms makers who dedicated a miniscule portion of their output to such pieces, to civilian jewellers like Tiffany's, whose Civil War sword sales were largely in this category.

Not surprisingly, the best presentation swords went to the major commanders, but very fine pieces were also awarded to lesser ranks. In return for a fee that would benefit a military charity, the public were often allowed to cast votes for the 'most popular officers' of the various armed forces, who would be given these swords. Such arms reflected the excessive nature of Victorian taste and decoration. Some represent a true horror vacui, with heavy antebellum ornamentation of blade, hilt and scabbard. As in the rococo period, virtually no surface was allowed to escape unembellished.

The splendid presentation piece, which is the subject of the present article, was given by the officers and privates of the Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on 27 June 1863 to their brigade commander, Colonel Louis Douglas Watkins (Fig. 1). The sword with its waist belt cost $500 in subscriptions from the troops--a tremendous amount at the time in view of the fact that a private made $13 per month, and company grade officers in the range of $120. (1)


This sword (Fig. 2) was retailed by the firm of Joseph J. Hirschbuhl of Louisville, Kentucky. Hirschbuhl is first recorded as a jeweller on Third Street in 1851, and moved to Main Street before the end of the decade5 lake many other jewellers during the war, Hirschbuhl also provided military goods, selling binoculars, swords and accessories, and other items. His wartime advertisements boasted of 'presentation swords of superior quality and workmanship' such as this example.


As preserved, the sword retains its scabbard and sword knot. A richly made waistbelt with straps to allow the sword to be worn is no longer preserved. The sword proper is of sabre form, having a long, gently curving and acutely pointed single-edge blade. Both faces of the blade are lightly acid-etched with motifs of scrolling, leafy vines, trophies, military scenes and patriotic symbols and slogans. A panel, now blank, on the obverse of the blade, at the base of the trophy just below the hilt, bears illegible traces of block letters, probably the name of the blade's original maker and/or decorator. On the thick unsharpened section known as the ricasso, just below the hilt, the reverse of the blade is etched 'J.J. HIRSCHBUHL/LOU.KY'. A flat, oval leather washer insulates the shoulders of the blade from the hilt (Fig. 3). The half-basket guard is of gilded, cast copper alloy, with branches having leafy and scrolled terminals, and the mainplate is cut on the inside face with crossed fronds and a shield charged with the American stars and stripes. The ornate pommel is of Phrygian cap form, made in two parts riveted together at the top. It has two appliqu6s of silver-gilt: the upper one is in the form of the letters 'US' framed by crossed fronds, while the lower one is in the form of the national shield. As shown in a series of photographs taken of Watkins around September 1864 by the celebrated photographer Mathew Brady, the pommel was originally topped with the figure of an eagle. This was later lost, and replaced by a flattish metal button encasing a piece of amethyst. The grip is of ivory, swelling towards mid length, and is carved overall with a basket-weave motif background, atop which is an elongated, octagonal panel with a trophy of period Union arms and military equipment, framed above by drapery and below by crossed fronds. The sword retains its original decorative sword knot of gold thread.


The matching scabbard is of silver, shaped to the blade, and has silver gilt mounts for the suspension rings and the drag at the lower end. These are elaborately decorated with a background of cross hatching, and swirling foliate tendrils and floral motifs at the edges. The drag has an applied tip of cast silver, bearing a charging horseman on one face and a trophy group on the other. On the drag's obverse is an applied, gilded mount comprised of a cannon and national shield atop delicate vines. The suspension mounts are made en suite with the drag, having gold appliques of crossed trophies of period arms and equipment. In addition, the mounts are encircled by bands supporting balustered posts, each with a suspension ring. The bands of these mounts are themselves embellished with a decoration of oak leaves and acorns on their outside face. Between the mounts, the obverse of the scabbard (Fig. 4) is engraved in script with the dedication 'Presented to/Col. Louis D. Watkins./by the Officers & Privates/of the 6th Regt Ky. Cav.' (3)


It is difficult to identify the exact role played by Hirschbuhl's firm in the production of this sword. American presentation arms of the day were often a combination of foreign and domestic parts locally mounted and personalised with dedicatory inscriptions, or drawn from semi-stock items that were custom decorated. Blades were often imported from Europe, especially from Solingen, to be mounted and embellished by others. Although Hirschbuhl signed the blade, this was probably simply to state his role as vendor of the completed arm to Watkins's officers and men. The character of some of the decoration is very similar to that of a blade on a sword produced by Emerson & Silver of Trenton, New Jersey. That firm also mounted its highest grade cavalry officers' swords with a cast brass hilt of identical form to that on the Watkins sword, but which also appears on a presentation sword made by Sauerbier of Newark. It is unclear which company actually made the hilts and sold them to the others, but Sauerbier is known to have provided swords and identical hilt parts to the American sword making trade. The blade also possesses the general characteristics of the German made blades used by Sauerbier. (4)

To counter the daily horror of casualty lists and lost battles, Union supporters on the home front in Kentucky were treated to a flowery account of the presentation ceremony, which was published in the Louisville Daily Journal on 2 July 1863. Watkins and his men were proclaimed the toast of Kentucky, and within the month he was recommended for promotion to the rank of general. (5)

Born in Florida in 1833 near the Georgia border, Watkins was raised in Washington, DC, and was a militia officer there before the war. Despite his southern birth, he promptly enlisted in the Union Army following the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861, and before long received a cavalry posting. In June 1862, in the Seven Days' Battles, he was wounded and trampled in a cavalry attack at Gaines' Mills. While he recovered, he was promoted to the rank of captain and served as a staff aide in Kentucky. In October of the same year, he became Chief of Cavalry of the Army of Kentucky and participated on a raid into Tennessee. In March 1863, he was commended for the 'coolness, courage and daring' of his regiment. His brigade protected the rear of Sherman's army during the Atlanta Campaign, and was part of the Tennessee Campaign at the end of 1864. In early 1865, he was made Post Commander in Louisville, where he remained until the end of the war.

With the postwar reorganisation of the us Army in 1866, Watkins received command of the Twentieth Infantry at Richmond, Virginia. In 1867, his regiment was transferred to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While visiting his family in nearby New Orleans in March 1868, he died. His corpse was placed in a burial vault there, but after the death of his father in law the following year, the bodies of both men were sent to Louisville for burial with that of Watkins's widow, who died not long after him. All three were later disinterred and buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

(1) This same amount would have purchased twenty-five military rifle-muskets with sling and bayonet, or twenty-five regulation officers' cavalry sabres.

(2) Joseph Ignatz Hirschbuhl was listed in the 1860 US Census as a forty year-old German-born silversmith. He was naturalised as a us citizen in 1851, and is last recorded in Louisville in 1872. He returned to Germany, and wrote his will in Baden in 1882. It was probated there and in Jefferson County, Kentucky, in 1888. Notes regarding Hirschbuhl's activities as a military supplier during the war appear in Bruce S. Bazelon and William F. McGuinn, A Directory of American Military Goods Dealers & Makers 1785-1915, privately printed for the authors, Manassas, VA, 1990, pp. 41, 144.

(3) The sword has been reproduced before, but never examined in depth. See Jay Williams, 'Blades of Glory', True: The Man's Magazine, August 1958, p. 39 (top left); R. L. Wilson, Steel Canvas: The art of American arms, New York, 1995, p. 213 (top left); Stuart C. Mowbray (ed.), American Swords from the Philip Medicus collection, Lincoln, RI, 1998, cover (top left), and p. 254, no. 134a, plate 134.

(4) John H. Thillmann, Civil War Cavalry and Artillery Sabers, Lincoln, RI, 2001.

(5) However, Watkins was made Brevet General (honourary grade) only in September 1864, and not until well after the end of the war in April 1865 was he created Brigadier General.

(6) His death was attributed to a stroke, but was no doubt exacerbated by his wartime injuries.

Walter Karcheski is Chief Curator of the Frazier Historical Arms Museum in Louisville. He was Senior Curator of the Higgins Armory, and Arms and Armour Consultant to the Art Institute of Chicago. His publications include The Medieval Armour from Rhodes (co-authored with Thom Richardson) (2000).
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Author:Karcheski, Walter J., Jr.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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