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Swords and sabers even today invoke romantic images of bold knights and dashing cavaliers, and are the symbols of honor and military elitism. The saber was the arm blanche of Gen. J.E.B Stuart’s Virginia cavalry, even though massed firepower from formed infantry had made Napoleonic style cavalry charges not only obsolete, but also downright suicidal.
During the Civil War, officers in all branches of service, including the Medical Department, and enlisted personnel in the artillery and cavalry carried swords as badges of rank. For some officers, like Gen. Wade Hampton of South Carolina who carried a long, straight, double-edged sword, they were more than just badges of rank they were battle weapons.
New high-resolution digital photography allows museum staff, visitors, and researchers to virtually examine artifacts up close and personal. Follow this link to view select items in the Museum's Digital Collections Artifact Showcase.
The Museum’s collection of swords and sabers, numbering more than two hundred pieces, includes examples of U.S., foreign, and Confederate manufactured weapons. Both J.E.B Stuart and John Bell Hood carried French officer’s cavalry sabers, while Gen. Richard Taylor carried a foot officer’s sword made by Thomas, Griswold & Company of New Orleans.
Of the presentation swords in the collection, the most famous belonged to Gen. Robert E. Lee. Worn as part of his full dress uniform for his meeting with Ulysses S. Grant, it is often referred to as the “Appomattox sword.” Given to Lee by an anonymous Marylander in 1863, the sword was made by Devisme in Paris, France, and includes the inscription: Aide toi et dieu l’aidera (“Help yourself and god will help you” or “God helps those who help themselves”).
Gen. Lewis Armistead’s sword, carried at the battle of Gettysburg, is also part of the museum’s collection. Commanding one of the three brigades in Pickett’s division, Armistead led his troops during “Pickett’s Charge” with his hat raised high on the point of this sword. Armistead was mortally wounded in the charge and died two days later. The veterans of the unit that defended Cemetery Ridge against the charge returned the sword to the Pickett Division Association during a reunion at Gettysburg in 1906, and it was donated to the museum that same year.