If you get a chance in the next month, go to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and see the temporary exhibit on Washington’s swords. On display are two of George Washington’s swords he used during the Revolutionary War. One, a green ivory hilted sword that he acquired in 1778 and likely carried at Yorktown, is on loan from where it is usually exhibited, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But even more interesting is the only known Washington sword in private hands. This bone hilted sword is on generous display by an anonymous donor. The sword was made in Philadelphia and acquired by Washington in 1770, as tensions were rising between Great Britain and the colonies. Historians believe this sword to be the one Washington carried in the early years of the Revolutionary War, and is therefore likely to be the sword on his side when he crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 and through the Ten Crucial Days campaign.
Washington’s swords are so humbling to gaze upon because of the virtuousness of the cause in which they were raised and the greatness of the man who carried them. No sword of Napoleon Bonaparte or Julius Caesar can match it. While Washington’s military conquests pale in comparison to these men, the ideas Washington fought for and the impacts of his victories would mean much, much more. It is amazing to imagine what these swords saw when they were drawn in combat, but even more inspiring because of what they represented when they were sheathed. At his military zenith at the end of the Revolution, Washington returned his sword to its scabbard and resigned his commission, an act for which he should always be remembered. In his Last Will and Testament, when he made provisions for giving these swords to his nephews, Washington included an important passage: “These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence 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.”
Included in the display are the sword scabbards and also a small silver medallion about the size of a quarter. The piece of silver was found in an archaeological dig just outside of the mansion recently. It was discovered that “GW” was engraved on it, and Mount Vernon archaeologists determined it was an ornament from one of Washington’s sword scabbards. They believe it was discarded after Washington’s death and it is now on display in the case with the original scabbards.
Frederick Douglass, the famous 19th century abolitionist, once reflected on these kinds of important artifacts, including Washington’s sword. He wrote that “there are some things and places made sacred by their uses and by the events with which they are associated,” and this included “the sword worn by Washington through the war of the Revolution.” He noted that items like the sword “stir in the minds of men peculiar sensations.” Go and see what he was talking about.
An excellent time to see this exhibit would be on the weekend of April 30 and May 1. That same weekend Mount Vernon will be hosting hundreds of Revolutionary War reenactors from around the country, including yours truly.
The swords will be on display at Mount Vernon until May 30, 2016.