ETCHED BLADE, INSCRIBED E.J. JOHNSON C.S. OFFICER’S SWORD OF COL. W. M. SLAUGHTER, 51st GA, KILLED AT CHANCELLORSVILLE

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This E.J. Johnston Confederate officer’s sword has an etched blade identifying both the maker and the officer who carried it when killed at Chancellorsville. It was the subject of an article and featured on the cover of North-South Trader’s Civil War, Vol. 38, Number 5 (2015.)  Johnston was a jeweler in Macon, Georgia, who expanded into the military goods business when the war broke out. Newspapers reported that he had secured, “a skilled German cutler,” and Debow’s Review of May 1862 put his weekly output at about 40 each of cavalry and artillery sabers, naval cutlasses, and “fine infantry swords.” This was double the output of William McElroy, also of Macon, with whom some collectors feel he shared the skills of a local blade etcher and perhaps other resources, though he seems to have made everything but the leather scabbard bodies for his swords. As would be expected from reference to “fine” swords, he could produce very high quality work, which he advertised at one point by displaying a presentation sword intended for Jefferson Davis in a store window.

The sword follows the general lines of the U.S. 1850 pattern foot officer’s sword, with brass hilt having a guard cast and chased with open-work scrolling floral motifs, but with a plain pommel. The blade has square ricasso, producing a stopped fuller, not common on southern swords, but typical of Johnston’s work. The blade is etched with floral motifs and foliate scrolls on both sides, with Johnston’s name and address etched on a panel in the fuller on the obverse: “E.J. Johnston & Co. / Macon, Ga.” along with a “C.S.” further forward. The reverse of the blade bears a long etched inscription in Old English: “Col. W. M. Slaughter 51st Regt. Ga. VOLs. 1862.” The blade was broken, likely in action as seen below, and repointed, measuring now 14 ½ inches, but preserving all of the etched maker’s address, CS, and the complete officer’s name and unit, which reads from the point to the hilt. The hilt is very good, with an aged, but not overly dark, tone to the brass. The wire binding of the grip is in place and the grip is wood, painted black and polished to resemble leather. This fits with a high quality officer’s sword from Johnston: even some of his plainer swords use wood grips that are unpainted, but so finely polished that they can be mistaken for horn. The blade pad is gone. The blade frosting has darkened over time, but the etching is visible and quite legible as a medium gray with scattered spotting against the background. The edge shows a few small nicks.

William M. Slaughter, born in 1824, was a Georgia native and graduate of William and Mary. He opened a law office in Greenville in 1846, married in 1847 (with two daughters and a son surviving to the 1860 census,) and moved his practice to Albany, Dougherty County, where he also served in the local mlitia. He served as a state senator, was an ardent secessionist, and was captain of the Dougherty Grays (sometimes also, the “Dougherty Guard,”) which mustered into Confederate service for three years as Company K of the 51st Georgia Infantry. He was elected colonel of the regiment on March 4, 1862, apparently the day the company mustered in, and was commissioned as such on March 22.

The regiment first served in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, guarding the railroad and then serving on James Island. It transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia in July 1862, seeing action at Catlett’s Station, Waterloo Bridge, Second Manassas, Boonsboro, Crampton’s Gap, South Mountain, and Antietam, after which it moved from Drayton’s brigade into that of Semmes. It was in reserve at Fredericksburg, but took signifcant losses in the opening fighting at Chancellorsville as part of McLaws’s division, under the temporary overall command of Stonewall Jackson.

Pushing west along the Orange Turnpike to face Union forces as they headed for Lee’s left flank at Fredericksburg, McLaws deployed his brigades on either side of the road as he encountered elements of the Union Fifth Corps. Semmes formed to the left of the road, placing Slaughter’s 51st Georgia on his right, next to an artillery battery in the road itself. “It has since been ascertained,” wrote Semmes in his official report, “that the United States Regulars, under Sykes, were here encountered. They were finally and handsomely driven from the field after a sharp contest of perhaps three-fourths of an hour, in which this brigade was the chief participant, the Fifty-first Georgia Volunteers receiving and repellling the main attack, and sustaining more loss than the balance of the brigade. It was here that Col. W.M. Slaughter, the gallant leader of the Fifty-first Georgia, received his death-wound early in the action, while by his own courageous example inspiring his command with confidence in their ability to repel the foe.”

Regimental adjutant F.H. West later wrote that the regiment, “lost considerably from balls and grapeshot,” and it was artillery fire that killed Slaughter. A eulogy later published by his legal associates back home states Slaughter was struck by a, “solid cannon shot” that first, “passed through” Capt. Daniel Sessions and, “decapitated his gallant and noble young friend and secretary Jesse Moughon… The projectile crushed the right leg and arm of the gallant Colonel. Amputation was soon performed, but he lingered only a few hours. He spoke with great calmness of his approaching death, expressed his great satisfaction of the gallant conduct of his men, whom he much loved, said he had no fear of death and was glad to feel so contented to die in so glorious a cause. He expired on the morning of the 2nd of May…

West was near Slaughter and the first to get to him. His description was more matter of fact and gruesome: “I raised him up. His right arm was torn off at the elbow and his right leg shattered below the knee. His shock was terrible and his agony intense, but he recognized me and said: ‘They have got me, Fred. I am gone.” I was satisfied it was true and for the first time in years tears ran down my face. I sent him to the rear….

West’s earlier mention of grapeshot (a common alternative designation for the shot of canister rounds) has led some to question whether Slaughter was hit by a solid shot, but Union artillery in the opposing line (Battery I, Fifth U.S.,) just five hundred yards away (“point-blank” in the battery commander’s report) was likely hesitant to  fire canister over the heads of advancing friendly troops. Further, they were dueling with the Confederate battery in the road next to Slaughter and may have been trying to dismount the enemy guns. Whatever the reason for its use, the solid shot may explain the damage to the sword. Slaughter’s wounds were on the right side of his body. If he was holding the sword, it was likely struck. Oral tradition in Slaughter’s family reportedly held that the sword was returned by Adjutant West, who had retrieved and carried it for a time, possibly explaining why the blade was re-pointed. Slaughter’s body, however, along with that of Jesse Moughon (a member of the Dougherty Grays, and listed on his tombstone as a lieutenant,) was brought home for burial by Slaughter’s father-in-law, providing another possible return route for the sword.

Identifications of Confederate officers’ sword don’t get any more solid than this, nor do indications of actual battlefield use. The owner was an interesting figure in Georgia and the sword is a good example of E.J. Johnston’s high quality work. It would enhance a Georgia collection or display related to Chancellorsville, regarded as Lee’s finest battle, where maneuver and audacity overcame very long odds, though at some fearful cost.  [sr]

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