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EXCELLENT HISTORICAL SPANISH AMERICAN WAR HOLSTER  - DOUBLE LOOP BROWN LEATHER HOLSTER FOR A SINGLE ACTION 5 ½” BARREL COLT REVOLVER – MAKER MARKED – OFFICER AND UNIT IDENTIFIED – 8TH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEER INFANTRY:  This is a very well preserved specimen of a “Mexican” Double Loop Holster made in the classic size and pattern for carrying the Colt Single Action Revolver with a 5 ½” barrel.  The collective features of this holster – the maker, the period of manufacture, the pattern and style, the size, the unit identification, and the officer’s name – all combine to create a very interesting artifact from the Spanish American War.     

As evidenced by the legible maker’s mark on the face of the pistol pouch, this holster was manufactured by the firm of William Read & Sons of Boston, Massachusetts, a well known purveyor of military arms, ammunition, and sporting goods.  In 1826 William Read and Edward Lane opened their first “gun store” on Washington Street in Dock Square, one of Boston’s waterfront mercantile hubs.  After the death of Lane in 1849 Read took over the business, and in 1854 the firm name was changed to William Read and Sons.  By the onset of the Civil War, Read & Sons was a large enterprise and sufficiently well established to enter into contracts to provide arms and ammunition to federal and state militia units.  Read continued in business until 1921 when the store was absorbed into the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, so at the time of the Spanish American War Read’s was still providing military goods and civilian gun leather to their customers in the Boston area. 

The pistol pouch of the holster is sized specifically for a large frame, single action revolver with a 5 ½” barrel.  Given the unit and personal identification carved into the leather, one can safely presume this holster was intended to, and in fact did, carry one of the some 16,000 Model 1873 Colt Single Action Revolvers which the army altered (or “re-modeled” as described by the Colt Company) by replacing or shortening the original 7 ½” barrels with 5 ½” barrels.  The alteration of these revolvers, now known to collectors as “The Artillery Models”, began in 1895 and for all intent and purposes, was completed in 1898, well in time for them to be issued during the Spanish American War and used in Cuba and the Philippine Islands.  One of these Artillery Model Colt Single Action Revolvers was certainly the pistol carried in this holster.   

The front of the holster is decorated with several lines of hand carved characters which serve to commemorate the unit with which the owner was affiliated.  The face of the holster is carved:

8th

 REGT.

U.S.

VOLUNTEERS

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BOSTON

[STAR EMBLEM]

MASS

[ARROW EMBLEM] 

Upon the onset of the Spanish American War, the 8TH Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers was mustered in on May 11TH through the 14TH in 1898 at South Framingham, Massachusetts.  The regiment’s soldiers were recruited from the communities of Newburyport (Co. A), Amesbury (Co. B), Marblehead (Co. C), Lynn (Co. D), Beverly (Co. E), Salem (Co. H and I), Danvers (Co. K) and Lawrence (Co. L).  Companies F and M were not identified to a particular town or community, but like the rest of the regiment the majority of the soldiers were recruited in Essex County, approximately 35 miles northeast of Boston along the Massachusetts coast line.  It is not surprising that some of the cadets from the Military Science Department at the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (now the University of Massachusetts) answered the national call to arms and enlisted in this regiment.  The 8TH served stateside during the conflict; however it served in Cuba as part of the occupation force following the war.

While there is not a “Billy” or William Wright to be found in the Spanish American War era rosters of the 8TH Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, there is a William Wright with connections to the 8Th and the Massachusetts military community at the time of the SAW.  Then First Lieutenant William M. Wright served as the Professor of Military Science at the Massachusetts Agricultural College from 1896 to 1898.   

Lt. General William Mason Wright was born in Newark, New Jersey on September 24, 1863.  He was the son of US Army Colonel Edward H. Wright (1824–1913, a career officer whose service included assignments as aide-de-camp to Generals Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan), grandson of Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason, and great-grandson of U.S. Senator William Wright of New Jersey.  

Wright recorded an extensive and interesting military career beginning with his admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1882 as a member of the Class of 1896.  Fortunate - not only for his career, but instrumental in confirming the identification of this holster some 139 years later – that upon arriving at West Point, Wright was billeted with another incoming plebe cadet who would be his roommate for the duration of their freshman year – one John J. Pershing who would go on to write his own impressive chapter of U.S. Army history.  From this chance billeting assignment, Wright and Pershing formed a friendship which would endure throughout their careers. 

At the end of the first term in December of 1883, Wright, fearing that he had failed his exams and would be dismissed, resigned his appointment at the Military Academy before the grades were posted.   

Upon leaving West Point, Wright joined the New Jersey National Guard, was commissioned as a Captain, and served as aide-de-camp to the commander of the 1ST Brigade.  In January of 1885 President Chester A. Arthur nominated Wright for appointment as a Second Lieutenant in the 2ND United States Infantry Regiment.  The nomination was opposed by Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln on the grounds that someone who had not successfully graduated from West Point should not receive the same commission as those who had.  In spite of Lincoln’s opposition, Wright’s commission was narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate, 29 votes to 22.  It is notable that when writing his own memoirs many years later, Pershing generously chose to record that Wright left West Point only because he had difficulty passing geometry, and that their classmates approved of Wright obtaining his commission through this alternate route, even though through the odd series of circumstances, Wright’s commission predated that of his West Point classmates.   

In spite of the rocky beginnings, Wright embarked on what would be a remarkable career, serving in the West during the Indian Wars, as a Professor of Military Science as noted above, and on overseas service during the Spanish American War in Cuba.  

Germane to this holster, as noted above from 1896 to 1898 Lt. Wright was the professor of military science at the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (Mass State College 1931, Univ of Mass 1947).  Serving in this capacity, it is very likely that Wright became familiar with many of the state militia units, including the 8TH.   At the onset of the Spanish American War, Wright was promoted to the rank of captain and appointed as the assistant adjutant general of U. S. Volunteers – the organizational entity to which the 8TH Massachusetts would be assigned.  Wright served in Cuba as the aide-de-camp to Major General John C. Bates, commander of the 3RD Division.  Upon activation on May 19, 1898, the 8TH Massachusetts Infantry was assigned to the Second Brigade, Third Division, First Army Corps, again placing Wright and the 8TH within the same command structure.  It is most likely that Wright was presented with this holster during this period by soldiers and/or officers of the 8TH – perhaps some of his former student-cadets from Massachusetts Agricultural College.  While in Cuba, Wright took part in the Battle of El Caney and the other actions leading to the surrender of Santiago.   

Having established the distinct likelihood that Wright obtained or was presented with this holster during the SAW, it remains to explain the use of “Billy” in the name carved into the reverse of the holster loop.  Why would such a distinguished officer choose to identify his accoutrements with such a child-like nickname?  This is where the fortune of Wright’s assignment as Pershing’s roommate smiles on the identification of this holster.   

Pershing was an almost compulsive diarist, and not only did he record his daily activities in detail, but he then retained those diaries, letters, telegrams, reports, meeting agendas, and personal papers in such an all-inclusive manner as to preserve even such records as his wedding plans and wedding gift registries (where Wright’s gift is recorded) for the remainder of his life, leaving behind an impressive archive which survives today in the Library of Congress.

Pershing’s 1886 diary includes a detailed description of a several day long excursion he and a number of his fellow officers made to New York City on June 14 following his class’s graduation and commissioning earlier that same month.  The diary entry records that while dining that evening at Martinelli’s Restaurant, they were joined by former classmates including “Wm. M. Wright of Newark, N.J.”.  Pershing continues, describing his activities in New York during that visit, and makes two specific references of his time spent with “Billy Wright”, suggesting that Wright’s nickname of “Billy” was in common use among his friends as early as 1886.   

The surviving historical record suggests one final observation worth noting regarding the possible origin of Wright’s nickname, “Billy”.  I could find no biographical reference to Wright using, or having been called, “Billy” prior to his entry into West Point.  While it is a common enough alteration of William, Wright appears to have been raised in a relatively formal home environment, the type of home during the strict Victorian Age in which the use of such a nickname would have been out of character.  On the other hand, cadets at West Point were (and are) known to assign nicknames to their fellow cadets as a matter of course.  So popular and so ingrained in the culture of the academy was the practice, that the nicknames were commonly published with the graduating cadet’s photograph in his class’s edition of The Howitzer, the West Point yearbook.  Further, it seems that it was not unusual that some of those nicknames survived throughout the graduate’s entire life. 

General Pershing left an interesting entry in his 1934 diary that reveals his feelings regarding such nicknames.  As he was assembling notes for inclusion in his autobiography, Pershing reflected specifically on the use of the nickname “Billy” for another famous William.  He wrote, referring to Gen. William T. Sherman, “He was familiarly known as Billy by his admirers and the lessons he taught made a lasting impression on me...”.  Considering the life long friendship apparently shared by Generals Pershing and Wright, and Pershing’s reflection on the affectionate use of “Billy” by Sherman’s friends, it is entirely possible that Pershing very well may have been the one who dubbed William Wright as “Billy” in that first semester at West Point.     

Wright was a highly regarded trainer of soldiers and combat leader.  In May of 1908 he was promoted to major and assigned as adjutant of the 8TH United States Infantry Regiment, then stationed in the Philippines.  During the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916, he participated in both the Vera Cruz Landing and Pershing’s campaign into northern Mexico.  He went on to command the 35th and 89th Infantry Divisions, and the I, III, V, and VII Corps – all with the American Expeditionary Force during World War One.  Pershing commended Wright's leadership during World War I, as did former Army Chief of Staff General Leonard Wood and senior British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig, and Wright was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in January, 1919.

After the Armistice was signed in Europe, Wright served as Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and acted as an interim Chief of Staff on several occasions. He closed his career by serving as head of the Department of the Philippines from 1922 until his retirement in 1923 at the rank of major general.  In 1942, the U.S. Congress passed legislation allowing retired Army generals to be advanced one rank on the retired list or posthumously, if they had been recommended in writing during World War I for a promotion which they did not receive, and if they had received the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal.  Wright and James G. Harbord were promoted to lieutenant general on July 9, 1942.  Lt. General Wright passed away in Washington D.C. on August 16, 1943. 

The use of the .45 caliber Colt Single Action Revolvers in the Philippines after the turn of the century is very well documented, and Wright most certainly could have taken this holster with him when he transferred to the Philippines in 1908.  Depending on Wright’s personal preference of pistols, even though the Model 1911 Automatic Colt Pistol had been issued by the time he served on the Mexican border during the Punitive Expedition, the dependable .45 caliber Colt SA’s were still in favor among veteran officers, and it is entirely possible he continued to carry a single action revolver in this holster during that assignment.   

This very attractive holster’s leather surfaces retain a bright, clear, shiny surface - smooth with no crazing or flaking and all of the stamps and carvings described above are fully legible.  The leather is supple and holds its shape with no weaknesses.  While this holster was definitely used on a regular basis during its period of service, bearing the impressions on the interior of the holster indicating that it carried a revolver, the holster has not been abused or worn out.  The seam is fully intact down through the rounded toe with no loss of the stitching.  The holster measures 11” OAL and 5” OAW.  The belt loop formed by the skirt will easily accept a 4” wide cartridge belt – plenty of space to accommodate any of the Mills Woven Cartridge Belts of the era.   

An archive of copies of photographs, entries from General Pershing’s diaries and personal records, and records pertinent to General Wright’s life will accompany the sale of this holster. 

This is a very scarce surviving specimen of the private purchase holsters carried by army officers in the 19TH Century, with the added value of being identified to a long serving officer who served during many key campaigns in our nation’s history.   (0249)  $1250

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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