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AMES LIGHT CAVALRY SABRE DATED 1860 – PRE-CIVIL WAR DELIVERY TO THE STATE OF VIRGINIA - A RECENT DISCOVERY OF AN EXCELLENT  SPECIMEN OF A WELL DOCUMENTED ISSUE OF CONFEDERATE USED SABRES:  Due to the relatively few surviving specimens being carefully retained in private collections, seldom do any of these early pre-Civil War dated Ames sabres appear on the market.  Featuring a particularly desirable combination of date and maker, this 1860 dated Ames Light Cavalry Sabre holds an important place in the lineage of US Cavalry Sabres.  Not only does it represent the manufacture of these sabres prior to the onset of the Civil War, but it is one of the very rare survivors of the limited number of 1860 dated delivered by Ames to the State of Virginia prior to the onset of hostilities in 1861.     

Heretofore, the story of these Virginia 1860 dated Ames Light Cavalry Sabres has been a little known footnote in the history of arming what would become the Confederacy, but it is now well documented in John Thillmann’s Civil War Cavalry & Artillery Sabers on pages 80-81. 

In March of 1860, Secretary of War John B. Floyd ordered the Chief of Ordnance, Colonel Henry K. Craig, to deliver 1,200 sabres to the State of Virginia.  Craig’s subsequent letter which transmitted this order to Major William A. Thornton at the New York Arsenal survives today, and in that letter Craig specified that the sabres were to be obtained from the Ames Sword Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts. 

That federal ordnance supplies were sold to the states was not unusual; in fact it was a normal practice which was mandated and closely regulated by federal law under The Militia Act.  What is interesting about this specific transaction is that the Secretary of War – no less a native of Blacksburg, Virginia - would direct such a sale of weapons to a southern state under the very shadow of the gathering storm clouds of the impending Civil War. 

Of the 5,000 cavalry sabres received by the U.S. Army from Ames under the contract executed in 1859, 1,200 were sold to, and delivered to, Virginia.  Thillmann determined that due to the date of the order – March 22, 1860 - for these Virginia sabres, the sabres must have been manufactured in the March-September period and therefore the blades would have been dated 1860. 

Secretary Floyd held his office at the War Department from March 6, 1857 until December 29, 1860.  After President Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, an embargo was placed on all arms shipments to the south; however it is believed that by the time the embargo was imposed, Floyd certainly had accomplished the sale of the 1,200 Ames cavalry sabres to Virginia and they had been delivered.

This particular sabre was discovered in 2018 in the wall of a residence in Norfolk, Virginia while the house was being demolished.  While no more than that is known of the discovery, that this 1860 dated Ames was discovered secreted in an old building in one of the more historic cities of Virginia is certainly consistent with what we know of the history of these particular sabres.  Concealing arms such as sabres, pistols and long guns in walls, attics and basements of homes was not an uncommon practice by Southern veterans as they sought to prevent their seizure by occupying Federal soldiers. 

This sabre shows evidence of use by a mounted soldier, so apparently it was issued and carried by a Confederate soldier for some time, but it was not used to destruction as so many of these early sabres must have been during the course of the war.  And that it was secreted in the wall of the Norfolk home indicates that the soldier who carried it was never put in the position of having to suffer the ignominy of having to surrender it. 

Norfolk fell to Union forces in May of 1862 and remained an occupied city for the duration of the war with a significant federal military and naval presence, so hiding arms such as this sabre would have been a logical choice by the city’s population.  Whether the sabre was hidden in the wall at the time Norfolk fell, at the end of the War, or at some time in between we will never know, but it survives today as a another interesting page in the history of arming the Confederacy.  

The sabre blade bears a full set of maker and inspector stamps.  The ricasso is stamped with a legible Ames maker stamp on one side, and an equally legible “US”, the inspector’s initials “JT” for John Taylor, and the “1860” date stamp on the other. 

The blade has survived in remarkable condition.  In full form, the metal surface is overall very clean and bright, the ricasso cross polishing is still present, and there is no pitting on the blade.  The edge is clean with no nicks, and it shows some evidence of sharpening, more evidence of having been used in the field.

The brass guard has a soft, old patina, showing no signs of polishing or heavy cleaning.  The guard is full form and shows evidence of this sabre having been carried in the field.  The outer branch is pushed into, and beneath, the inner branch, perhaps the result of the guard being caught between the horse and an unyielding object such as a tree or fence post, or the result of a horse falling on the sabre.  The brass branch is not cracked or broken and shows no sign of weakness.  The quillon shows the commonly encountered forward curve which is seen on so many of these field-used sabres.  Apparently, this was an affectation which was preferred by the soldiers given the frequency which it is seen and the individual degrees to which the quillons are pushed forward. 

The original leather washer is full form and present on the face of the guard.  The grip leather is original and overall smooth with a shiny surface and no flaking.  The leather is worn through to the wood grip on the crests of the three upper ribs, and the exposed wood has an old patinated shine and blends in well with the black leather.  The original wire wrapping is present, tight, and complete. 

It is of some interest that it has been noted that state militia sabres are often found without the federal inspector initials stamped on the pommels where they are normally found on U.S. Army sabres.  As the states had to pay the cost of these final inspections, paying the inspectors at the same rate the federal government paid them, it is possible that this step in the inspection was omitted as a cost saving measure.  The blades were already inspected by the time they were assembled into the finished sabre, and the scabbards were inspected as they were finished, so perhaps the cost of the final inspection of the assembled saber, which was indicated by the stamps on the pommel, was considered by the states to be redundancy which they could live without.  Such is the case with this sabre, as pommel is not stamped with the “JH” for Joseph Hannis, and “WAT” for William A. Thornton as would be normal on a federally owned sabre of this vintage.  The absence of the stamps of these two inspectors further argues for this sabre being one of those delivered to Virginia prior to the outbreak of the War.   

The scabbard features the expected overall naturally aged brown one would expect from a sabre which had been hidden in the wall of a building all these years.  The surface of the metal is lightly and evenly pitted, though nothing major or disfiguring, mostly concentrated on the lower end.  In spite of the pitting, the government inspector’s initials, “G.G.S.” for George G. Saunders, on the drag are fully legible.  This is an added value feature as these inspector stamps are often worn away or obliterated on sabres of this vintage.  The scabbard retains its full form without any severe dents.  The few dents which are present are shallow without compromising the shape or integrity of the scabbard, and are typical of any scabbard that was worn during the conflict.  The scabbard is complete with the throat and carrying rings, and a full form drag.     

This is an excellent example of a very special lot of pre-war dated Ames Light Cavalry sabres, far above the norm one encounters on the market today – if one were able to locate an 1860 dated specimen.  The condition of this sabre coupled with the historical significance of the date will provide the eventual owner with a great deal of pride in the ownership of such a piece through the years.  SOLD



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