PRESENTATION SILVER GRIP AND DAMASCENE ETCHED 1850 FOOT OFFICER SWORD AND SASH OF LT. WILLIAM H. ALEXANDER 139th NEW YORK, KILLED IN ACTION BY A 12 LB. SOLID SHOT

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Item Code: 1113-01

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Lt. William H. Alexander, Co. F 139th New York, was killed in action in Virginia in October 1864. A letter from his commanding officer says his body and personal effects were collected and brought home to Brooklyn by his brother soon after. The sword and sash were certainly among his effects and likely worn when he was killed.

The sword is a nice presentation 1850 foot officer’s sword by Schuyler, Hartley and Graham, the well-known military goods dealers who assembled and retailed swords as part of their offerings. The pommel is unusual in having an eagle in relief perched on a rock on top and spirals instead of conventional leaves along the lower edge. The guard has typical openwork floral motifs, but the inside of the guard shows additional detailing with a border line and scrolls that continue onto the quillon. The grip is silver, or an alloy, spiral grooved textured to resemble a sharkskin wrap, which is unusual for SH&G, using rather symmetrical raised and depressed squares to suggest the nodes of the regulation sharkskin.

The blade has a good edge and point, and shows etched panels about mid-way up the blade on either side with Damascus etching above that. The motifs are very visible and show gold highlighting and thin frosting. The obverse has a floral bordered panel at bottom reading: Schuyler, Hartley / & Graham / N.Y.” on a thin gold washed background, with floral scrolls above, leading to an eagle with an E Pluribus Unum ribbon in its beak, also showing thin gold, floral elements and a trophy of arms overhead with a liberty cap on pole at center. The reverse shows a dense series of floral sprays, foliate and geometric scrolls, all showing traces of a thin gold wash, along with Roman fasces, symbolizing the constitutional powers granted for limited periods to magistrates under a republic.

The scabbard is the regulation black leather scabbard with brass mounts regulation for a lieutenant or captain serving on foot. The leather has oxidized slightly toward brown. The throat, upper mount and middle mount (the drag is missing) show and untouched, mellow aged patina matching the hilt.  The upper and middle mount have matching, deeply cast foliate scroll borders with central spiral ring bands showing alternating plain and floral strands. The upper mount is engraved,

“Presented to / Lt. Wm. H. Alexander / By The / NON COMD OFFICERS & PRIVATES OF CO. E / 139th REGT. N.Y.V. / as a token of their appreciation of him as an Officer”

The presentation likely dates to November or December of 1863 as a farewell gift from his old company when he received a commission as first lieutenant and was transferred to Co. F, though it could date any time after his commission as 2nd lieutenant of Co. E in September 1862. An obituary says, “He was truly loved by the men under his command, for although he was a martinet, yet by his courteous and affable manner he gained and secured their affections.” It may have gained him some respect from his NCOs and privates that in July 1863 he was hauled up on court-martial charges for declaring that the company first lieutenant, “’bilks’ all his servants and never pays them anything,” and to that officer’s denial responded, “You lie,” adding for good measure, “’You little son of a bitch, you, if I had you out of the army I would mash you,’ or words to that effect” as the formal charges were obliged to phrase it. However, it was resolved, both officers remained in service, but the “servants” were likely enlisted men detailed for the duty, who appreciated the 2nd lieutenants’ sentiments.

Alexander first served in Co. A of the 67th NY, enrolling at age 19 on 1 May 1861 at Brooklyn. He seems to have mustered in as a sergeant on 20 June 1861, but was returned to the ranks 1 August 1861 (perhaps for speaking his mind about something?) and was then promoted to corporal in June 1862. During his service with the regiment they first saw service with McClellan on the Peninsula as part of the 4th Corps, and first took casualties at the Battle of Fair Oaks 31 May 1862, where they lost 29 officers and enlisted men killed in action and another 19 mortally wounded, with a total loss of 170. Muster rolls show him present at the time, and Fair Oaks thus has an eerie significance for his life.

Alexander mustered out of the 67th to accept a commission as 2nd lieutenant of Co. E in the 139th NY, also recruited in Brooklyn, to date September 9, the day the regiment was mustered into U.S. service. As part of the 4th Corps and Department of Virginia they were stationed on the peninsula, where Alexander married Mary Ann Kelly On March 1, 1863, at Fortress Monroe. The union ultimately produced two children, a son born 30 December 1863, and a second child born after his death who did not survive infancy. Shortly before the birth of his son, Alexander was promoted to 1st Lieutenant of Company F, commissioned November 25, with rank from Nov. 19, and mustered in Dec. 19.

March 1864 marked the beginning of serious combat for the regiment as part of the 18th Corps and Butler’s Army of the James, seeing action first at Proctor’s Creek, Drewry’s Bluff, and Bermuda Hundred. In May the corps reinforced the Army of the Potomac and the regiment lost some 33 killed in action in the first and second assaults at Cold Harbor, and more men daily in the trenches at Petersburg. In late September, back with the Army of the James, it took part in the battle of Chaffin’s Farm and the taking and defense of Fort Harrison, losing 41 in killed and wounded.

In late October 1864 Alexander may have experienced deja-vu, if not a sense of foreboding, though one might read the latter into what was likely his last letter to his wife (dated October 21 and included in her pension file,) apologizing and begging forgiveness for a recent fight. On October 27 the regiment took part in an attack on the Richmond lines coordinated with an move against the Boydtown Plank Road at Petersburg that, it was hoped, might stretch Confederate lines thin. Elements of the 18th Corps advanced up the Williamsburg Road against Confederate lines near the old Fair Oaks battlefield. Fields’s Confederate division, however, counterattacked. In the fighting of October 27 the 139th NY got off light, with just two fatalities: a mortally wounded enlisted man, and William Alexander, killed on the field.

Letters in his wife’s pension file and local papers at the time give details of his death, the newspaper account mentioning that he had just received a promotion to captain (which is not in the records.) The regimental commander wrote to Alexander’s widow in mid-November that Alexander was, “shot dead by my side at the late battle of ‘Fair Oaks’ near Richmond, by a Cannon ball, on the morning of 27th of October last.” (Details provided by the surgeon and spelled out in the letter printed by the newspaper indicate, “he had the top of his head cut off by solid shot,” when the unit was suddenly enfiladed by Confederate artillery.) The regimental commander wrote to his wife, “He was a brave officer and has been with me in every battle in which this regiment has been engaged. He is a great loss to his country, to you, and to me. I was very much attached to him for his many good and manly qualities.” He also gave an account of Alexander’s financial affairs and informed her that Alexander’s brother had taken the body and Alexander’s trunk and effects back to Brooklyn.

The sword is in good very condition overall, but shows looseness in the hilt and an open seam and dents along the silver grip, damage that very well might have taken place when he fell. The scabbard drag and a couple of inches of the lower scabbard body are missing as well. The brass mounts have a nice mellow patina. The blade is excellent. Wrapped around the sword, and knotted through its upper carrying ring, is Alexander’s crimson silk officer’s sash. We have not tried to remove the sash or undo it, nor should this be done. It is clearly as the family preserved it. The sash shows various tears and wear, all appropriate to field use and age, as well as typical fading to the tassels. This is an impressive memento kept by the family of a fallen officer. He was interred in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. We include pension and service file data, a printout of his obituary, and show photos of him from online sources.  [sr]

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