Friday, May 27, 2011


There is a myth of the Civil War that Robert E. Lee surrendered his sword to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and Grant refused the traditional gesture of surrender. But the truth is that this never happened.

But in an interesting historic moment Lee's French-made ceremonial sword will return to Appomattox 146 years later, leaving the Richmond museum where it has been displayed for nearly a century.

The Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond is delivering one of its most-treasured pieces to Appomattox for a new museum that it's building less than a mile from where Lee met with Grant to sign the document of surrender on April 9, 1865. This is where the Army of Northern Virginia formally surrender three days later bringing an end to the Civil War which left about 630,000 dead.

The sword, scabbard and the Confederate gray uniform Lee wore to his fateful meeting with Grant will be displayed about 75 miles west of Richmond when the museum opens next spring.

Senior curator Robert F. Hancock said the Lee sword remains one of the Confederacy museum's biggest attractions.

"It's a one-of-a-kind piece," he said. "There's really no replacement so you can't put a value on it. It's like putting a value on the Mona Lisa. It can't be done."

The scabbard is made of blued steel. One side of the blade, in raised letters, reads: "Gen. Robert E. Lee CSA from a Marylander 1863."

The Lee admirer who had it commissioned in Paris by Louis-Francois Devisme is not known.

The other side of the blade reads: "Aide toi dieu l'aidera." Translated, it means, "Help yourself and God will help you."

Russell Bernabo, a fine object conservator, was selected by the museum to restore the piece to its original luster. He considered 12 different samples of gold before settling on a match: 23-karat Italian gold in tissue-thin sheets, used to restore gilt to the engraved text on the blade, the hilt and pommel.
The sword was intended for ceremonial use and there is no evidence Lee used it in battle. Lee surrendered after his forces were blocked near Appomattox Court House.

The Virginian returned to Richmond after the surrender and then became president of what is now Washington and Lee University; he died on October 12, 1870 and is buried in the university's chapel.
Lee's descendants permanently loaned the sword to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1918. The family bequeathed the sword and scabbard to the museum in 1982.