The Mystery of Richard Garnett’s Sword

Photo of a Confederate believed to be Richard B. Garnett

On July 3,1863, George Pickett’s famous Virginian division stepped out from the woods of Seminary Ridge to begin the charge that would go down in the annals of history bearing their commander’s name. It was mid-afternoon and the Battle of Gettysburg was quickly reaching its climax. Much has been written about this fateful charge.

However, one mystery from the charge still remains.

One of the brigade commanders, Richard Garnett, suffering from a cold and from injuries sustained from a fall from his horse, was determined not to miss this opportunity for battle and what he hoped was a shot for redemption. A little over a year before, the late Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had relieved Garnett and pressed charges of cowardice against him after the brigade commander had ordered his brigade to retreat from the battlefield at the First Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862.

Garnett yearned for the chance to plead his case and redeem his honor, but the war interrupted any chance of a court convening to try the charges and exonerate him. Then, in May, before Garnett had a chance to defend himself in front of his peers, Jackson died from pneumonia following wounds received at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Two months later at Gettysburg, Garnett urged his horse out into the open fields between the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge and the Union position approximately a mile away on the opposite Cemetery Ridge, determined to find that redemption on the field of battle.

The charge was desperate to begin with, and riding mounted, Garnett made an even more conspicuous target. Nearing the Union lines, somewhere between the Emmittsburg Pike and the stone wall, Union artillery pieces let loose a torrent of shot and shell. Garnett disappeared into a plume of smoke (the movie Gettysburg depicts this scene dramatically, with Garnett’s horse running rider-less out of the smoke). With the confusion and carnage, coupled with the Confederates retreating back to Seminary Ridge shortly thereafter, Garnett was unaccounted for. When the casualty list was organized, Garnett was counted among the missing—but presumed dead.

Garnett’s body was never identified.

In 1872, the Hollywood Memorial Association raised the funds to remove the Confederate dead from Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and have them reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Garnett’s body is presumed to be among the remains collected.

Here is where the mystery begins.

About 150 miles north from where Garnett’s body presumably rests, and approximately 30 years later, another ex-Confederate general, George H. “Maryland” Steuart, came across Garnett’s sword in a second-hand shop in Baltimore. He purchased the relic, which was described as a sword with the initials “R.B. Garnett, U.S.A.” According to the Baltimore Sun, the sword was after the pattern of artillery officers in the United States Army.

Garnett, a graduate of the West Point Military Academy class of 1841, had served as an officer in the United States artillery until he resigned his commission in May 1861 and accepted a commission in the Confederate army. The sword he carried with him in the service of the United States went South with him.

Being a fellow graduate of West Point and United States cavalry officer, Steuart would have had a familiarity with the swords of the United States military. Before Steuart could locate the Garnett family to return the sword, though, he passed away in November 1903.

However, two years later, in 1905, the Baltimore Sun reported that the sword was returned by Steuart’s newphew, James Steuart, to the wife of Colonel John B. Purcell, who was the neice of the late Garnett. According to Col Purcell, the relic “will be treasured by her as a precious heirloom.” The sword that Garnett had carried into his last earthly charge 42 years earlier had finally found its way back to the late officer’s family.

But, that is where the facts end. Questions have arisen since the sword turned up in that second-hand shop in Baltimore, and therein lies the mystery. Did a Confederate, seeing his brigade commander fall, snatch it? Or was it gathered up by a Union soldier? How did it end up in Baltimore?

These questions can even lead to further questions: Did Garnett somehow survive and die after the battle, entrusting his sword to someone? Or was the sword just collected among the other debris of battle and, through a series of transactions, make its way to Baltimore?

All these questions are valid and good, but like the mystery they remain unanswerable—just like the ultimate final resting spot of the sword’s owner.

This entry was posted in Battles, Emerging Civil War, Leadership--Confederate and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Mystery of Richard Garnett’s Sword

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    What an interesting post. There are so many little mysteries like this one that can fascinate one for years.

  2. Did Garnett somehow survive and die after the battle, entrusting his sword to someone?

    It’s clear that Garnett was killed on the field. There are numerous accounts of his death. He is placed within 25 feet of the stonewall in an 1892 letter by John Bachelder. There are no post battle writings that I am aware of placing Garnett alive at one the Union or Confederate field hospitals.

    The larger question that is brought up by his death is how did he die? Birkett Fry, commanding Archer’s Brigade places Garnett at the left of his brigade. Fry and Garnett exchanged words moments before the brigades came aground at the wall. Fry simply states that a ball killed him.

    Another account has Garnett shot through the head by a musket ball. Yet another has him nearly cut in two by grape shot through the stomach.

    An article in Confederate Veteran (1903) states that one of his staff officers came to the general shortly after his fall. Garnett was dead and the staffer was able to retrieve his watch, the sword was supposedly still on the generals body.

    It could have been canister fire from Cushing or Cowan’s battery that felled him or a volley from the 7th Michigan, 69th PA, 71st PA, 106th, Pa, 59th NY, etc… that felled him as well. The only things things that most agree on is that he was about 25 feet from the wall, mounted on a black charger, in a blue uniform, was bravely encouraging his men, and that he didn’t make it off the field alive.
    In all probability the sword was taken by 2nd Corps soldier, how it ended up where it did is still the mystery.

  3. Pingback: Emerging Civil War | To the Sound of the Guns

  4. chris pennington says:

    Interesting story. However, riding the horse was the only way he would be in the middle of the action. He wanted his men to know he was no coward. He was a sitting target. I’m sure after the battle his sword and dozens of others were found and people in Gettysburg or Union Soldiers kept and later sold these and many other items. No way he lived. It was all or nothing to him in that battle. He wanted to show that he was a brave man. Just my opinion though.

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