Friday, December 23, 2022

John Blackshoe Sends: Serendipity History - An Old Sword Leads To A Fighting Minister, Four Medals of Honor, & Black Jack Pershing's Father-In-Law - Part One

Students, accumulators, collectors, hoarders, and sometimes peddlers of military antiques (some overlap) often find “interesting” stuff in antique malls, gun shows or other less predictable places.

A couple of years ago I saw this sword at a gun show, and the fact that it had a name elevated it into the “interesting” category. You never know what some research will show. Heck, I have a U.S. Navy sword with my name on it, which will probably never interest anyone but my family members. Starting with a name alone is not always very productive as there may be several possible owners, but a name WITH a unit is almost certain to turn up something. Although I ended up not buying the sword, I still wanted to find out more about the owner and their history. It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I ever expected.

The Sword is a typical U.S. Model 1850 Foot Officers Sword, with etched blade designs and large U.S., fitted with a brass mounted sharkskin scabbard. The blade was made in Solingen, Germany, and the finished sword was sold by W.H. Horstman & Sons, Philadelphia, PA, a major outfitter for officer uniforms and accoutrements in the 19th century. It was for sale at a modest price.

There are many Civil War officers swords, most without names. Some had an owner’s name inscribed at time of purchase by the officer, or by admiring friends or comrades as a presentation inscription. (Many officers of newly raised Massachusetts regiments were given an officers sword by the town in which their company was raised. Such presentations are mentioned several times in Henry T. Johns’ history of the 49th Massachusetts discussed below.)

Engraved on the pommel of this one: 
Lieut. Johns
61st Mass. Vols.

Google is your friend. Today there is a Wikipedia page on Lieutenant Henry T. Johns, but that did not exist when I first saw this sword, and each piece of the puzzle needed to be found separately.

Google image search turned up a photo taken circa 1864-1865 while he was in the 61st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The sword in the photo is very likely the one inscribed to him, as it appears to have the sharkskin scabbard, not the standard leather type.

The name and regiment on the sword provides a starting point for further research. The seven volume set “Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War,” which lists everyone by their unit(s) was the first stop.

The listing for the 61st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, in Volume 5 confirms that Lt. Johns was a member of Company A of that unit.

He enlisted as a Private on August 27, 1864, and was 34 years old, with occupation listed as “author.” He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on September 6, 1864 and mustered in at that rank on September 27, 1864. He was subsequently promoted to 1st Lieutenant on January 15, 1865. He was mustered out of service June 4, 1865 as a 1st Lieutenant. He received a “Brevet” promotion to Captain effective April 9, 1865, but this was an honorific title, not a rank at which he served. We’ll check later on the “See Co. “C” 49th Mass. Inf. (9 months)”  notation.

What was the 61st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and what did they do in the war?

Wikipedia is a good basic starting point for unit histories, and it confirms the 61st Massachusetts was raised for a 1 year term of service, and served from September 1864 to June 1865, with a total of 41 Officers, and 966 enlisted men.
The 61st Massachusetts arrived on the James River, in Virginia and supported the siege of Petersburg during the winter of 1864-65. They were part of the assault on the Confederate Fort Mahone on the outskirts of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.


As the Confederates fled west from Petersburg, many rebel troops were captured. Within a few days, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865.

The 61st Massachusetts briefly guarded prisoners after Lee’s surrender. On May 23-24, 1865 they were part of the 145,000 victorious troops who marched in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC. They then proceeded back to Massachusetts for discharge.

During their 9 months of service, the 61st Massachusetts lost 17 dead from disease, and only 6 killed in battle or died from their wounds. Living in those days was more dangerous than being a soldier.

But, what about that occupation as “author”?

In 1864, prior to enlisting in the 61st, Henry T. Johns published “Life With the Forty-Ninth Massachusetts Volunteers,” based largely on letters he had written to his wife describing events and his own actions and feelings. This book is readily available used, or as new print on demand copies. There is even a free digital copy on line here.

Henry Johns was proud of his book and sent a copy directly to President Lincoln on Sunday, June 26, 1864, with a cover letter. That letter survives in Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, and a copy appears below, followed by a transcription by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.


To be continued ...


  1. i look forward to the next installment!

  2. Fascinating how a name on something can lead to so much more, like Scott.......waiting.........

  3. Interesting how that all worked... signed up for a 1 year hitch.

  4. Fascinating JB, thank you for writing this (and the investigation). Tracking down Japanese sword smiths from their swords is the same sort of historical detective hunt.

  5. I got a ding from an ancestry website last week. I did some followup work and found three more CSA vets in my family. Great Great Grandpa John died in the spring og '64 after wintering with Longstreet. His brother, Isham died at Murphreesboro, TN in '63. His brother George died in Chicago at the Camp Douglas of smallpox in '64. Another brother, Jacob, went MIA in 1865, unit / place unknown. GGG Grandpa lost 4 of 5 sons in that horrible war. On mom's side, I found a George that enlisted twice during the War of 1812. Lived to his 90's. Served in the NE, then again in New Orleans.

    It's really neat to look into the historical records and see the living and dying that took place. I don't know if this is normal or not, but I always come away conflicted. The curse of being able to read, think and synthesize ideas, I reckon.

    Happy Christmas!

  6. Nicely done JB, part two tomorrow.

  7. As an avid Civil War buff and re-enactor I have an example of an 1850 Foot Officer's Sword with a leather scabbard marked J.H. Lambert, Philadelphia. Swords are pretty common. Scabbards being made of leather much less so. I imagine a shark's skin scabbard to be rarer yet.

  8. That is amazing.
    Holding that sword in your hand makes history become real in a way that no amount of reading can ever duplicate.

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. Interestingly, when I was in SAMS (Jedi Knight School) we spent more time studying the Civil War than any other war (Yes, Beans, more than Vietnam, Korea or WWII/WWI. The Petersburg campaign was about a 2 week long study. As was the Mississippi Valley . Gettysburg was only a couple of days although we did visit the battlefield. So...I've enjoyed these posts immensely, Keep up the good work.


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