This article originally appeared in the American Civil War Museum Magazine, Winter 2016-2017.
A mystery that has long accompanied the sword worn by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to his surrender meeting with U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, 1865, has finally been solved.
The sword is not only a unique weapon but a finely crafted work of art. It was made in 1863 by the workshop of Louis-Francois Devisme in Paris, France. It is that firm’s only edged weapon made exclusively for the Confederacy that bears Confederate inscriptions. The steel blade exhibits the following text gilded on its obverse: “Genl. Robert E. Lee. C.S.A. from a marylander. 1863.”
The identity of “a marylander” has been unknown for more than 100 years. Two of Lee’s granddaughters, Anne Carter Lee (later Mrs. Hanson E. Ely) and Mary Custis Lee deposited the sword and its scabbard at the Museum in January, 1918. Anne Carter Lee wrote and presented a six-page history, “Relating to the Presentation of the Appomattox Sword of General Robert E. Lee,” in which she noted, “This sword was a present from a Marylander, whose name I have been unable to ascertain.”
The exhibition of the sword at the Museum instigated numerous attempts to identify its presenter. One credible theory came to light with the 1922 publication in the Maryland Historical Magazine of Confederate General Isaac R. Trimble’s wartime diary. Trimble wrote on February 278, 1863 that a “sash & sword hilt of beautiful materials sent by ladies of Balto. to Genl. Robert E. Lee – was taken over today.”
But it seems odd that only a sword hilt, and not a blade or scabbard, were mentioned – and that a group of women would refer to themselves as a singular “marylander.”
Another possibility was Confederate sympathizer Samuel H. Tagart of Baltimore, Maryland. Lee had stopped at his home both before and after the War. This suggestion came from Baltimore journalist and arms collector Richard D. Steuart, and is published in William A. Albaugh’s 1960 reference book, Confederate Edged Weapons. Yet there seems to be no definitive evidence for this proposition.
Ultimately, neither of these theories was completely satisfactory. As J. Appleton Wilson, corresponding secretary of the Maryland Historical Society, stated in a letter to the Museum in 1924, “I am beginning to think we shall never know who gave the sword to Gen. Lee – as nearly all the actors in the matter are dead, as are those who knew the facts…”
Nearly a century later, an unexpected and fortuitous development proved Wilson wrong. Late last year, the Lee Family Digital Archive, an online repository of Lee family papers now based at Stratford Hall, posted a recently transcribed letter. Writing from his home in Lexington, Virginia, on February 19, 1870, R. E. Lee revealed the identity of the “marylander” to his “dear Nephew & Niece,” [sic] Edward Lee Childe and Blanche de Trigueti Childe:
“Col: [Richard S.] McCullo[c]h when in Paris visited the Laboratory of M. Devisme who manufactured the sword sent me during the war by Mr. Richard Tyson of Baltimore. He found him such a warm sympathizer with the South & so friendly to myself & learning that he furnished a sword of double the value of what was ordered that he is very importunate that I should send him a note of thanks…”
This matter-of-fact reference to both the sword’s French manufacturer and to the person who had sent it to him provided the proverbial smoking gun. And it prompted the Museum’s Collections staff to learn more about Richard Tyson of Baltimore.
Richard Wood Tyson was born on October 20, 1824 to Quakers Isaac Tyson, Jr., and Hannah Ann Wood Tyson. Isaac was an industrious and innovative entrepreneur who mined chrome ore in Vermont. He also received a patent for making iron sulfate, and founded the Baltimore Chemical Company, the Baltimore Chrome Works, the Tyson Furnace, and the town of Tyson, Vermont. By the 1840s, Isaac Tyson had monopolized the world supply of chromium, which was used as the basis of several popular paint colors.
When Isaac died in November 1861, his obituary described him as “one of Baltimore’s wealthiest and most energetic citizens.” Upon his father’s death, Richard W. Tyson received in trust one-eighth of his father’s estate – a portion valued at approximately $109,000.
While his two younger brothers, James and Jesse, followed their father into the metallurgical profession, Richard does not appear to have done so. After attending Haverford College in Pennsylvania from 1837 through 1841, he seems to have found employment as a merchant and manufacturer, presumably through one or some of his father’s companies. The Baltimore Sun refers to him as an agent for the Baltimore Coal Company at the outbreak of the war.
Richard married twice. His first wife was Anne Smith; following her death, he remarried in 1853 to Juliana McHenry Howard. Richard and Juliana traveled to Europe sometime during the Civil War. While in Europe, they commissioned a marble sculpture of their infant from noted Maryland-born sculptor William Henry Rinehart, who was then living and working in Rome, Italy. The sculpture is either of their daughter Jessie, who died in Rome in 1863 around the age of one year, or their son Jesse, who was born shortly thereafter. It might be reasonable to assume that the sculpture was intended to commemorate their deceased daughter. It is now part of The Peabody Art Collection, which is owned by the state of Maryland.
Although Richard’s politics are not known, his commissioning of such an expensive sword as a gift to General Lee suggests Confederate sympathies. He does not appear to have returned to the United States after his departure in the early 1860s. He died in Baden-Baden, Germany on June 14, 1873.
Tyson would have taken the anonymity of his extravagant gift to his grave – but for a single sentence in a long-overlooked letter.
Catherine Wright is a Project Officer with the National Trust for Scotland. At the time of writing, Wright was a curator in the ACWM’s Collections Department.