Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Harper's Ferry Sword

On this day, 145 years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed abolitionist John Brown for treason.  Six weeks before, he had led raid on the United States Federal Arsenal on Harper's Ferry in Jefferson County, Virginia (now in West Virginia). This act shook a country already in turmoil after a decade of tension over the future of slavery. 

Many historians cite a particular artifact from the raid.  The United States Marines who put down the raid captured numerous muskets and pikes that Brown intended to give to aid the slave revolt.  The item in the picture above stands out.  They found a sword belonging to none other than George Washington himself.  It was given to him by King Frederick the Great of Prussia.  In the Seven Years' War in the 1750s and early 60s, his small yet effective army defeated most of Europe's great powers, albeit at great cost.  When the Prussian king head of Washington's victory at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, he called it "one of the great victories of the age" - high praise from the man whose victories two decades earlier impressed his enemies, and even garnered Napoleon's respect.  As a token of esteem, Frederick sent Washington one of his swords with the phrase "from the oldest general in the world to its greatest."  The President handed the weapon down through his family, from which his grandnephew Lewis Washington received them.  His descendants in turn handed it over to the New York State Museum where it remains today.  While a fire in 1911 damaged it, the archivists have restored it to its original state.

I find this sword to be fascinating.  It symbolizes so much of American history.  Starting with the Revolution and its promise for independence, it represents the international esteem that Washington held around the world.  Yet it also stands in the middle of the antebellum strife over slavery that would tear the country apart in the Civil War.  Passing from the president's hands to his descendants, all of whom owned slaves, it ended up in the hands of its foes.  As such, it is a important artifact.