AMES MODEL 1840 GENERAL OFFICER’S SWORD PRESENTED TO JAMES W. PRESTON BY THE CHATHAM ARTILLERY OF SAVANNAH, GEORGIA

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This beautiful sword was presented by the Chatham Artillery as a prize for gunnery in 1848. The organization is an old and illustrious militia organization of Savannah, claiming descent from earlier units, including a company of artillery organized for the defense of the city against the British in the Revolution. It’s formal organization dates to 1786, when it was attached to the first regiment of Chatham County militia, and it exists to this day.

The sword follows the pattern of 1840 general officer’s sword, sometimes called the Model 1841 (see Thillmann’s “Civil War Army Swords” for a full discussion.) The blade is straight, with rounded spine and single, broad fuller. The pommel, knucklebow and counterguard are gilt brass with cast and chased with floral designs. The pommel cap is draped with leaves and the quillon has a decorated tip. The brass has a mellow patina with traces of the gilding in recessed areas. The silver grip is beautifully engraved and skillfully executed. This sides and reverse bear floral motifs. The obverse bears a very detailed stand of arms and flags.

The reverse, folding, counterguard is plain. Applied to the upper surface of the obverse, however, is a silver plaque conforming to the contours of the guard and bearing within a floral-scrolled border the following inscription: “The CHATHAM ARTILLERY Presents / to James W. Preston / this SWORD for his Skill in Gunnery / 8th JanY 1848”.

The blade is etched on both sides and includes scrollwork along the spine as well. The reverse has detailed crosshatching at the base, and above floral scrolls and a panel reading, “Chatham Artillery / founded 1st May 1786,” with a large U.S. above. Over that is the Georgia state seal, a columned façade with “Constitution” etched above, supported by an American Indian, with more floral scrolls overhead. The obverse is etched at the ricasso, “Ames Mfg. Co. / Cabotville / Mass.” with floral scrolls and a panel reading: Savannah 1st January 1848. Over that come military trophies, an American eagle with E Pluribus Unum ribbon and more floral scrolls.

The scabbard is black leather with gilt brass mounts matching the patina of the hilt that are plain on the reverse and nicely engraved with floral motifs on the obverse. The scabbard is set up for wear on a shoulder belt, using  simple hook on the upper mount, indicating that although the sword itself is the pattern for a US general officer, it was specially ordered by the company for a presentation to one of its members.

The Chatham artillery performed a number of ceremonial and civic tasks, escorting dignitaries, etc. It served at the funeral of Nathaniel Greene, welcomed Lafayette in 1824, and even hosted Washington in 1791, who is reputed to have presented them with a pair of cannon, honored to this day, in thanks. The were called up briefly during worries about Indian troubles in the 1790s, and were placed briefly in U.S. service at the end of the War of 1812. They volunteered, though were not chosen, for service in the Mexican War, but saw extensive duty in fortifications and the field during the Civil War. Their earlier military functions might politely be described as police actions, dispersing groups and small settlements of Indians and escaped slaves in the area, who were deemed threats to civic order. Two ongoing duties, however, were celebrations on May 1, the anniversary of their founding, and New Years Day, for which this sword was ordered for presentation to the winner of a gunnery competition, as evidenced by the blade etching and the engraved silver plaque, which indicates the actual date of the presentation to the winner was January 8, 1848.

Published rosters of the company are limited, but many exist in its papers and records at the state historical society that might shed more light on the recipient. Our research shows that the best candidate is James Willard Preston (1818-1892.) Preston’s father was the Rev. Willard Preston, a prominent theologian and teacher who moved for health reasons from New England to Georgia with his family in 1829. In Fall 1831 he was selected for the eldership of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, which retained, well respected, until his death there in 1856. The appointment certainly placed the family in the better social circles of Savannah: “his congregation was among the largest, most refined, and intellectual in the southern states,” according to an obituary published in a collection of his sermons.

James Willard Preston, one of nine children, was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Amherst in 1839, but returned to Savannah, where he married in 1843. His wife’s maiden name was Williams, and she may have been connected to Col. William Thorne Williams, several times mayor of Savannah and a commander of the Chatham Artillery. In any case, Preston was in the right social stratum to be in the company. His wife and first two children were Georgia-born, and they moved north to Massachusetts with him some time before 1850 to pursue a legal career. He was clerk in 1850; a customs house officer in 1860; and a lawyer in Boston by 1865. He died there in 1892 and is buried in Lynn, Mass., next to his wife, who died in 1904.

The sword is not only a beautiful example of workmanship, etching and engraving, but a symbol of a family split by the Civil War. There is no indication James W. Preston served the Union army. He would have been too old for the draft in 1863, but was likely hesitant in any case to take a commission or draw his sword against former friends and even family. Members of the Chatham Artillery did extensive service for the Confederacy. Preston’s wife, born in Georgia, certainly had friends and relatives still there. Indeed, Preston’s mother remained in Savannah, as did at least one sibling, Joseph, a railroad agent in Georgia, who ended up becoming the Captain of “Preston’s Company of Railroad Guards” for the Confederacy.  [sr]

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