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Swords and Sabers

The Madison Historical Society has an impressive collection of swords and sabers once proudly owned by Madison men from the 1770s to the late 1800s. They are still shiny, and some have embossed or inlaid designs on their blades.

As military weapons, they illustrate the skill and artistry of their makers and their potential lethality in the expert hands of a trained soldier. They also frequently reveal information about their owners and their personal stories. We are lucky to know who owned most of the sabers in our collection — and we might even know what the owner looked like.

One of the weapons, for example, belonged to Col. Jonathan S. Wilcox (1791-1875), who owned the house across from the green at 558 Boston Post Road. At the age of only 33, Wilcox took part in the 1824 reception party for the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. At the festivities on the green, Col. Wilcox wore the very saber in the Madison Historical Society’s collection.

He later owned a store in town, was president of the town's Total Abstinence Society, and, in 1849, was president of the Connecticut State Democratic Convention. He opposed the Civil War, which he called suicidal and bloody, and was hostile toward abolitionists. He contributed to the American Colonization Society, which arranged for free black Americans to emigrate back to Africa, specifically to the new colony of Liberia. A pious member of the Congregational Church, he sometimes attended three different sermons on Sundays. More than just steel, brass, and wood, his saber evokes an intriguing and complicated personal story.

Another saber in our collection evokes only mystery. It is ornate — almost ceremonial — with gilded engraving on the blade and an ivory grip, capped with a brass eagle head. In 1980, the donor, Mrs. Everett Warren, reported that her father, Capt. Edward M. Willard, carried it in the Civil War — and that it had also been used earlier, in the War of 1812. Its design and condition attest to that age, but we have no other record of Edward. Could a person alive in 1980 really have a father who served in the Civil War? It’s possible — the last Civil War veteran died in 1956 at 106. Or could the owner actually have been Warren’s grandfather? If so, then who used it in 1812? It certainly seems to have been used in combat; its blade has several triangular nicks as if it had been damaged in dueling. But for now, this relic simply hangs in our museum, teasing us to learn more about its history.

Capt. Daniel Hand (1732-1816), the grandfather of Madison’s great philanthropist and namesake of our high school, served in the Revolutionary War, using another saber in our collection. He commanded the 6th company of 102 men under Col. Andrew Ward in the Long Island campaign. His saber is a simple design with elaborate gilded engraved graphics on the blade and a gilded brass and leather handle. Since we only have a silhouette image of the captain, this handsome saber must represent him well — and it does.

Nowadays, military swords and sabers are strictly ceremonial. Think of those U.S. Marine commercials, for instance. The Society’s collection harks back to a time when these tools were actually used as weapons. It is simple enough to appreciate the design and manufacturing excellence of these artifacts, but real insight comes with the recognition of the personalities who employed these glorious tools in defense of our country. We may mourn the loss of our handy penknives when we pass through airport security, but imagine what these old sword-bearers would think of our pride in our little trinkets. But then, they couldn’t fly — and we can.

To see additional swords, sabers, and other weaponry at the Society’s Allis-Bushnell House, visit the MHS Flickr page. To see additional swords, sabers, and other weaponry at the society’s Allis-Bushnell House, visit the MHS Flickr page at https://flic.kr/s/aHskgQxQbY.