Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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A bit more on Burnside’s sword: Go see it!

Park curator Amy Muraca and museum technician Luisa Dispenzirie unsheath Burnside’s sword for placement in an exhibit case, as chief historian John Hennessy watches. (CLINT SCHEMMER/THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, isn’t known for wild overstatement.

So on Friday afternoon, when he said “That is a very cool artifact,” my ears perked up and I took notice.

Hennessy was remarking, mostly to himself, as curators oh-so-gently placed the favorite sword of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside into a special exhibit case at the park’s Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

It was a goose-bump moment for everyone in the room, I assure you.

I would urge everyone–even those with only a passing interest in history–to drop by the center, at 1013 Lafayette Blvd. in Fredericksburg, and have a look.

This most interesting of artifacts will only be on view for a total of 77 days, the same period of time that Burnside commanded the Army of the Potomac.

The metallic-threaded knot still attached to the hilt of Burnside’s favorite sword is “rare as hen’s teeth,” says historian Francis A. O”Reilly, author of “The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.” (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

For the fact that is is here at all, please thank Alan Genetti, the Pennsylvania collector who kindly thought to share Burnside’s treasured sword with the public during the 150th anniversary of the Fredericksburg campaign.

The park has planned a bumper crop of special programs for the Battle of Fredericksburg’s sesquicentennial, but what a great way to start it off!

The presentation sword, in beautiful condition, arrived at the visitor center on Nov. 10–150 years to the day when Federal troops tearfully said goodbye to George B. McClellan, their beloved commander, and he left Warrenton by train to an uncertain future.

McClellan’s inaction after the Battle of Antietam was the breaking point for President Lincoln. Convinced that he would never defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lincoln cut the orders notifying the general of his removal in early November. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

Three days earlier, in the dark of the night, McClellan had gotten word that Burnside was to replace him as leader of the army that the “Little Napoleon” had created and led through several battles.

Within two days of McClellan’s departure, Burnside proposed halting its southwest advance, and dashing cross-country to Fredericsksburg in hopes of putting the army on the road to Richmond, the Confederate capital.

President Lincoln OKd’ Burnside’s initiative, but advised him to hustle.

Two days later, the first units arrived  on Stafford Heights, opposite Fredericksburg.

It was an auspicious start to a campaign that ended in disaster.

Burnside aimed his 120,000-man army at the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, the surest supply line south to Richmond. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

Today, the 38-year-old Indiana native who launched it is famed for two things: his extravagant facial hair (which inspired the term “sideburns,” a reserve play on his name) and bearing blame for Union defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Lots more on all of this in the days and weeks to come.

For now, please enjoy these photographs of the general’s favorite sword, given to him by the men in his first battlefield command, Company F of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry.

Ambrose Burnside (seated, center) and other officers of the 1st Rhode Island pose for a portrait at Camp Sprague, outside Washington, in 1861. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

This sword is likely the one now on exhibit at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Burnside didn’t normally wear a sword in the field, reserving them for formal occasions, O’Reilly said. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)