Solving the mystery of the sword bayonet
Published 11:05 pm Saturday, September 7, 2013
By Kermit Hobbs
One of the fun things about studying local history is that you never know when something new and interesting might pop up.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from Lee King, curator of Riddick’s Folly, asking me to come up and take a look at an interesting relic. Someone had brought in an old Civil War sword that had been found in a shed being torn down on White Marsh Road. The shed was partially built of logs and could very likely have been there at the time of the war.
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At my old job at Amadas Industries, we used to have a saying that nothing is ever as good or as bad as it sounds over the telephone. So, as interesting as this was, I was still pretty skeptical. It’s hard to imagine that a real piece of history could have been lying there in that shed, undiscovered for nearly a century and a half.
When I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised. Although it was not quite what I had envisioned, in some ways it was better. First, it had a somewhat battered and tarnished brass handle. The blade was encrusted with mud and rust. It was clearly not a fake.
It was not, technically, a sword but rather a “sword bayonet.” Sword bayonets were made to mount to the ends of rifles, but they had handles, so they could be used as swords. Their blades were shorter than those of regular swords.
This particular one was even shorter than the typical sword bayonet. It had apparently been broken off and re-sharpened to a point. The edge of the blade showed signs of having been sharpened numerous times.
One area was particularly pitted and worn down, indicating that it probably had been used for chopping. The ring on the hand guard that used to fit the muzzle of the rifle had been battered down to an egg shape, apparently from being used as a hammer.
The puzzle was to figure out where it came from and how it found its way into this shed.
One question was to determine what kind of bayonet this was. There were dozens of similar but different models of these made. We compared it ot others in the Riddick’s Folly collection; we searched books and the Internet; but we could make no positive identification.
A friend who is a collector of such rifles and bayonets provided the answer, though. We tried the bayonet on the mounting ring of his Model 1841 “Mississippi Rifle,” and it fit perfectly.
This was an exciting find, because we also know that some of the Confederates carried Mississippi rifles during General Longstreet’s “Siege of Suffolk” in 1863. Furthermore, there was intense fighting up and down White Marsh Road on April 12 and nearly every day from April 15 through April 24.
It is entirely possible that this bayonet was carried and perhaps broken during that action. If so, it could have been discarded then and there, or it could have been re-sharpened by a soldier and kept in service.
How it ended up in the shed is a tougher question to answer. Did someone hide it away as a defensive weapon? Did a Confederate soldier bring it home from the war? Did an impoverished civilian pick it up off the battlefield and make what use he could with it during the Reconstruction years?
Its condition makes it pretty clear that it did eventually see peaceful service. The rest of the story will remain a mystery.
If only it could talk!
The bayonet is currently on display at Riddick’s Folly.
Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.