My favorite artifact at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is a sword sash. The sash is currently on display in the museum’s “Thank God for Michigan” exhibit on the Civil War. It’s label reads this way:
The sash was obtained from a Confederate wagon train captured by Union Soldiers under the command of General Byron E. Pierce. Based on provenance provided by the donors, it may have belonged to General Robert E. Lee, his nephew Fitzhugh Lee, or another Confederate officer. (General Pierce was a resident of Grand Rapids, Mi. He served proudly on behalf of the Union, rose through the army ranks and ended his service as brevet Major General of the United States Volunteers.)
I happen to prefer the provenance provided in a public writing on the Civil War, “Men of the 3rd Michigan Infantry”. Here the story says: “….. Pierce was in command of one of the divisions which was following Lee’s army just before surrender. At 6 o’clock on the evening of April 5, his command suddenly came up with a Confederate division which was convoying the headquarters train of Lee’s Army. So important was the train that is was escorted by the best division in the Confederate Army. Chargers and countercharges were made, muskets rattled, sabers flashed, and overturned wagons, frantic mules and horses, the Blue and Grey mingled in the strife. The result was a victory for General Pierce’s troops and the rich supply train fell to the federal forces. The members of General Pierce’s staff divided the spoils, and to him fell a rich silk sash, the personal property of General Robert E. Lee. This sash, which was of heavy yellow silk, the ends trimmed with cream colored tassels, was long cherished by the General, but later given to the Kent Scientific Museum (now the Grand Rapids Public Museum), where it is today.”
So, to me, it’s Robert E. Lee’s sword sash. As an aside, many of what our museum has and any other museum has, is open to interpretation by the public of what the object really is and where it truly came from. Perfect, by my estimate. It’s how it should be. There is enough here regarding the sword sash to allow me to form an opinion and I’ve formed mine.
Why is it so compelling? The sword sash represents, conveys, and reveals all the complexities of the time and the human drama pre, present, and post the era of its use. The War Between the States was a watershed, if not the watershed, moment in our history that continues to impact our society to this day. Robert E. Lee is regarded by historians as a fine and talented general, and at the time most likely the nation’s most talented army officer. He is forever identified in our history as a central figure in our landmark national struggle. His story of loyalty to his home state of Virginia over the Union reflects and drives home the fact that the origins of our nation was by and through the states. And, it reflects that the orientation of our people nearly 100 years after the birth of the country was still rooted in state citizenship. That all began to change after the Civil War. From that point on we began to see ourselves as citizens of a nation, the now and henceforth evermore United States of America. Regional and local differences continue to exist, and 150 years after the war begin vestiges of the conflict remain. Amendments made to the Constitution following the close of the war, known as the Civil War Amendments, cause debate even now. There is no doubt that The Civil War, or the War Between the States as it was referred to in my elementary school history books, was a major and profound event in our nation’s history. It still captures the interest and imagination of people. It means different things to different people and carries differing weights of impact to our citizens. In my own interpretation, the war is both a demarcation in our history and our functioning as a society and a connection and pathway into the development of a societal order that continues on to this day. That is what the Robert E. Lee sword sash represents to me, Dale A. Robertson.