The long-lost sword of an historic Massachusetts colonel was put on display Tuesday, 154 years to the day after his death in the Civil War.
The Massachusetts Historical Society unveiled its new exhibit focused on Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment — the first all-black regiment assembled during the Civil War.
“To have located ‘the holy grail of Civil War swords’ is a remarkable discovery,” the historical society’s president Dennis Fiori said in a statement. “Experts and visitors alike can finally see a piece of history that has been searched for since July 1863.”
The sword is now safely recovered and on display, but until this year it was feared to have been lost to history since the end of the war between the Union and Confederacy. Shaw carried the sword as he led the 54th Massachusetts into battle on July 18, 1863, at Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C. He was killed that day after suffering a gunshot to the chest.
Although he died with the sword in his hand, his body was looted before his burial and the whereabouts of his personal effects — including the sword — became a mystery.
The sword finally surfaced more than 150 years later, when Shaw’s descendants discovered the long-lost weapon in a family home this March. Three grandchildren of Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, stumbled across the artifact while cleaning the attic, and decided to donate the sword to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Now, after months of research and preparation, the Shaw sword was unveiled to the public in a small display alongside other artifacts related to his and the 54th Massachusetts’ legacy.
A ceremony to commemorate the exhibition of the relic was attended by members of the 54th Massachusetts Company A, a National Guard ceremonial unit. The current 54th, reactivated in 2008, takes its name from Shaw’s original Civil War regiment whose story was fictionalized in 1989’s “Glory,” featuring Matthew Broderick as Shaw.
Also in attendance was Robert Minturn, Shaw’s great-great-nephew and one of the family members who discovered the sword tucked away in the spring.
“It was very touching,” said Brenda Lawson, the historical society’s vice president for collections, of the presentation. “It was much more emotional than I expected it to be.”
Members of the ceremonial volunteer regiment, including retired Brigadier General Sterling D. Macleod, an honorary colonel with the 54th, and Minturn, spoke alongside the small case containing some of Shaw’s personal effects and original 54th Massachusetts memorabilia — highlighted by the historic sword.
“I really think the sword has an immediacy, knowing he held it when he was killed,” Lawson said of the importance of the display. She added that 54th Massachusetts items were placed with Shaw’s belongings to highlight “the importance of this as a unit,” and the symbolism of black soldiers finally gaining respect in the military and society of that time.
The Shaw collection and the 54th Massachusetts artifacts will be displayed at the Massachusetts Historical Society through September.Ben Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org