While researching my book Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott (Westholme, 2014), I was thrilled to learn that the Continental Congress had passed a resolution directing that an “elegant sword” be awarded to Lieutenant Colonel William Barton for planning and executing the spectacular cross-bay raid that led to the capture of General Prescott at an isolated farm house on Aquidneck Island, about five miles north of Newport, Rhode Island. It was a special honor for the officer of a Rhode Island state regiment. In the course of the war, Congress awarded presentation swords for meritorious conduct to just fifteen patriot officers, including only three to state or militia officers.
Due to a lack of funds, Congress had had to delay awarding Barton’s sword (and those of most of the other honorees) until long after the war. In 1784, prior to leaving for his diplomatic post in France, David Humphreys, a Yale College graduate from Connecticut who as a younger man had served as a lieutenant colonel and an aide to Washington, met with Robert Morris, then head of the Continental Office of Finance in Philadelphia. Humphreys asked Morris when he would receive the sword Congress had awarded to him in 1781. Morris responded that he wanted both the swords and medallions awarded by Congress to be made in Europe under Humphreys’s direction. In June 1784, Morris followed up his meeting by writing to Humphreys, repeating that the “swords can be best executed in Europe” and authorizing Humphreys to purchase ten of them during his diplomatic trip.Why Morris ordered Humphreys to bring back only ten swords and how it was determined who should receive them is not known.
By a letter dated March 18, 1785, from Paris, France, to the Continental Congress, Humphreys proposed to have the ten swords “all constructed in precisely the same fashion, to wit, the hilt to be of silver, round which a foliage of laurel to be enameled in gold in such a manner as to leave a medallion on the center sufficient to receive the arms of the United States on one side, and on the reverse an inscription in English, ‘The United States to Colonel Meigs July 25, 1777.’ And the same for the others.” Humphreys added, “The whole ten to be executed in this manner may probably cost about 300 Louis d’ors, which is (as I have been informed) but little more than was paid for the sword which sometime since was presented on the part of the United States to the Marquis de Lafayette.” Congress approved the proposal, and Humphreys ordered the swords from master fourbisseurs (sword makers) at the Liger family workshop in Paris, France.
Upon Humphreys’s return to New York City, the June 1, 1786, edition of the New York Journal reported that he “brought with him a number of elegant swords made agreeably to different resolves of the honorable Congress to be presented to a number of gentlemen, who by acts of heroism and valor, distinguished themselves in the late Revolution.” Humphreys delivered the “ten elegantly mounted swords” to the War Department and by letter informed Henry Knox, Secretary of War, “You will find the names of the officers, to whom these honorary presents were voted, engraved on the different swords.” Knox then distributed them to the surviving honorees.
The slim swords, all French in style, were made to Humphreys’s specifications and beautifully crafted. Each featured a blue-steel blade in a triangular shape that tapered evenly to a point. Each was heavily decorated with gold figures and designs. The grip of each sword displayed the coat of arms of the United States on one side and an inscription from Congress to the recipient, with the date of the Congressional resolution granting the sword, on the other. While each weapon was based on the same general pattern, the talented workmen in Liger’s shop made subtle differences in each model’s design. Each scabbard was made of lizard skin with a silver throat and middle band.
As part of the research for my recent book, I became fascinated with whether the ten swords brought back by Humphreys still exist. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that each of the ten swords was passed down to generations of family members and still exists today, and that a few of them are currently shown in museums. Here is a list of the officers who received the swords and their ranks at that time, with quotations from the New York Journal article of June 1, 1786 describing their feats, as well as information on who holds the swords today.
- Lieutenant Colonel William Barton of Rhode Island for his “valor and address” in capturing General Prescott. The sword is held by the Rhode Island Historical Society, having been donated to it by Barton’s great grandsons in 1933. The sword for many years was displayed next to a portrait of Barton in the John Brown House Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, but was recently removed. It was again displayed for my book lecture at the museum in April of 2014, where it remains. An image of it can be viewed at www.rihs.org (in the online NETOP catalogue, click on “call number” and type in 1933.3.1).
- Lieutenant Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs of the Connecticut Continental line, “for his prudence, activity, enterprise and valor in an expedition to Long Island,” in which twelve brigs and sloops were destroyed and ninety Loyalist militiamen taken prisoner at Sag Harbor in May 1777. Meigs’s sword is held by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., but has not been on display for years (despite the museum currently displaying inferior presentation swords). It was donated to the museum by Return Jonathan Meigs IV. Attractive images of the well-preserved sword and scabbard can be seen online as part of the American Stories exhibition at www.si.edu (search for “American Stories”; after clicking on it, click on “Visit the Online Exhibition”; then click on “1776-1801: Forming a New Nation”; then find the image on the second page).
- Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett of New York for his “successful sally on the enemy investing Fort Schuyler” (also called Fort Stanwix) in a siege in August 1777. The sword presented to Willet remains in terrific condition and is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in the American Wing, Gallery 753. Next to the sword, Willet appears in a painting, done about 1791 by Ralph Earle, wearing his Continental uniform and presentation sword. The sword was donated by a descendant in 1916. Readers can also view Willet’s sword and portrait online by going to www.metmuseum.org/collections (search for “marinus willett”).
- Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith of the Maryland Continental line “for the defense of Mud Island” at Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River in the fall of 1777. Smith’s sword is held by The Society of the Cincinnati at its Washington, D.C. headquarters in the Anderson House and was presented in a lecture by the Society’s Deputy Director and Curator, Emily Schulz, on November 16, 2012. (When news of the delivery of a sword to Smith became known in Rhode Island, it rankled Brigadier General James Varnum, who argued in the August 5, 1786 edition of the Providence Gazette that the sword rightfully should have been awarded to Rhode Island’s Major Simeon Thayer. The British army initiated its bombardment of Fort Mifflin in earnest on November 10, with Smith being wounded and evacuated from the fort the next day. Thayer then assumed command on November 12, until after a furious barrage over several days he finally ordered his troops to abandon the fort, which was completed on November 16, with Thayer being the last to leave. Smith would subsequently lead the successful defense of Baltimore against a British invasion force in 1814 during the War of 1812.)
- Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Greene of the Rhode Island Continental line, for his “defense of Red Bank on the Delaware River” at Fort Mercer in the fall of 1777. Because Greene, a distant kinsman of General Nathanael Greene, was killed in action during the war in 1781, this sword was presented by Henry Knox in 1786 to Greene’s eldest son, Lieutenant Job Greene. In 1965, the sword was held by one of his descendants, Francis Vreeland Greene, and currently is presumably still held by a descendant.
- Commodore John Hazelwood, commander of the naval force of the state of Pennsylvania, “for his gallant defense of his country against the British fleet, whereby two of their men-of-war were destroyed and four others compelled to retire” in the Delaware River in October of 1777. Hazelwood was the only naval officer to receive one of the ten swords. Hazelwood’s sword, along with an accompanying scabbard in good condition, is currently on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
- Colonel Andrew Pickens of the South Carolina militia “for his spirited conduct in the action of the Cowpens” in January 1781. Pickens’s sword is currently in private hands, held by a descendant who is a member of The Society of the Cincinnati. The Pickens sword was loaned to The Society of the Cincinnati for an exhibition in 2004 by Andrew Pickens Miller.
- Captain William Pierce of Virginia, aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Greene, “who bore Gen. Greene’s dispatches, giving an account of the victory” at Eutaw Springs in September of 1781. Officers carrying good news sometimes received promotions, but this was a signal honor for a mere messenger. Pierce’s sword was held by a private individual in 1965. Reportedly, it remains in a descendant’s hands, its blade is broken off, and its scabbard is missing.
- Lieutenant Colonel Tench Tilghman of Maryland, aide-de-camp to General Washington, for bringing the news of the victory at Yorktown and “in testimony of Congress’s high opinion of his merit and ability.” Unfortunately, Tilghman died prematurely in Baltimore one month before Knox sent the sword to his widow, Anna Marie. Donated by a relative, Tilghman’s sword too is held by The Society of the Cincinnati and was presented in a lecture by Emily Schulz on November 16, 2012. An image of its decorative handle can be viewed at www.societyofthecincinnati.org (click on “Collections”; click on “Museum Collections”; click on “Revolutionary War”; and click on the thumbnail image of the sword in the Revolutionary War Gallery).
- Lieutenant Colonel David Humphreys, aide-de-camp to General Washington, for bringing twenty-four captured British regimental colors from Yorktown to Congress and “as a mark of esteem.” (Humphreys was also second-in-command of Meigs’s force that raided Sag Harbor.) In 1965 Humphreys’s sword was held by a member of the American Society of Arms Collectors, who desired to remain anonymous. The sword was displayed several years ago at the National Firearms Museum at Fairfax, Virginia. Some reports indicate that the sword is held by the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, but that sword is a different one—it is a saber with an ivory grip that was awarded to Humphreys by the Society of the Cincinnati.
Interestingly, at the time most of the recipients were voted the award, they bore the rank of lieutenant colonel. These men had already accomplished much, yet they had ambition to do more.
It appears that credit for making these wonderful swords should be given to Claude-Raymond Liger, who ran his workshop at 192 Rue Coquillière in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Museum and The Society of the Cincinnati credit him with making the swords in their possession. However, after doing some research on the matter, I have concluded that while this seems likely to be correct, credit might also go to Liger’s son, Pierre-Ambroise Liger, or to both of them.
Humphreys probably decided to use Claude-Raymond Liger and his workshop in Paris to produce the ten swords because Benjamin Franklin had already hired the master fourbisseur to craft a wonderful sword for Major General Marquis de Lafayette in 1779. This two-edged sword, ornately engraved and with an encrusted gold hilt displaying the marquis’s battles, was awarded to him by Congress in October 1778 and was gifted to him in August 1779 while the Frenchman was briefly visiting his home country. An early biographer of Lafayette wrote in 1836 that during the height of the reign of terror in the French Revolution, Lafayette’s wife buried the sword to keep it from being seized, but when it was dug up years later, the blade had disintegrated, and that Lafayette subsequently replaced the blade with one forged from bolts of the Bastille presented to him by the National Guard of Paris in 1791. This sword was held by direct descendants of Lafayette for many years and apparently still is.
The other four swords awarded by Congress, which were not brought back by Humphreys from France, were to Continental Army officers Captain Henry Beekman Livingston of New York, Major Walter Stewart of Pennsylvania, Colonel Otho Holland Williams of Maryland, and Major General Baron von Steuben. Livingston’s sword, made in the French style, was presented to him during the war, and it is currently on display at Washington Crossing State Park. In his 1794 will, Steuben’s mentioned “the gold hilted sword given me by Congress,” but this sword must have been lost or destroyed. Due to the paucity of evidence about the other two, they may never have even been produced. If a reader is aware of any further current information on the ownership or location of any of the swords mentioned in this article, I would appreciate hearing from you.
I thank Emily Schulz, Deputy Director and Curator of The Society of the Cincinnati, for providing me some of the information on the ten presentation swords used in this article.
/// FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman’s sword (The Society of the Cincinnati); Lt. Col. Return Jonathan Meigs’s sword (Smithsonian); Col. William Barton’s sword (The Rhode Island Historical Society); Col. Marinus Willett’s sword (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
 Resolution, July 25, 1777, session, in Worthington C. Ford, ed., The Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office 1907), 8:580.  D. Humphreys to the Continental Congress, March 18, 1785, Papers of the Continental Congress, Resolve Books 1785-89, m247, r140, Item 123, p. 14; R. Morris to D. Humphreys, June 15, 1784, in Elizabeth M. Nuxoll and Mary A. Gallagher, eds., The Papers of Robert Morris, (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 9:392 and Frank Landon Humphreys, Life and Times of David Humphreys, Soldier—Statesman—Poet, (New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), 1:324.  D. Humphreys to the Continental Congress, March 18, 1785, Papers of the Continental Congress, Resolve Books 1785-89, m247, r140, Item 123, p. 17.  The same announcement and material relating to the ceremonial swords brought back by Humphreys that appeared in the New York Journal was reported in the June 5, 1786, edition of Hartford’s Connecticut Courant and the June 7, 1786, edition of the Pennsylvania Herald.  D. Humphreys to H. Knox, May 22, 1786, in Humphreys, Life of Humphreys, 355; see also H. Knox to D. Humphreys, May 25, 1786, in id., 356 (confirming receipt of the “ten elegantly mounted swords” with the names of the applicable officers “engraved thereon”).  For the most complete discussion of these ten ceremonial swords presented by the Continental Congress, as well as the four others, see John Brewer Brown, “Swords Voted to Officers of the Revolution by the Continental Congress, 1775-1784,” (Society of the Cincinnati pamphlet, 1965); see also Donald N. Moran, “Revolutionary War Presentation Swords,” at www.revolutionarywararchives.org (relying heavily on The Society of the Cincinnati’s 1965 pamphlet, but with some new information on current owners, despite not being aware of the existence of a few of the swords); Harold L. Peterson, The American Sword, 1775-1945 (New Hope, PA: Robert Halter, 1954), 190-92; “South Carolina in the Revolution, An Exhibition from the Library and Museum Collections of The Society of the Cincinnati,” (Society of the Cincinnati pamphlet, 2004); and description of Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willet’s sword at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also consulted Emily Schulz, the Deputy Director and Curator of The Society of the Cincinnati, who has studied the fifteen presentation swords. For the background of Congress acquiring medals and swords it awarded, see Boyd et al. (eds.), “Notes on American Medals Struck in France,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 16:53-79. For the awards of the ten swords by the Continental Congress, see Ford (ed.), Journals of the Continental Congress 8:579-80 (Meigs and Barton); 9:771-72 (Willet) and 862 (Greene, Smith and Hazelwood); 19:247 (Pickens); 21:1082 (Tilghman), 1085 (Pierce), and 1108 (Humphreys).  By a web-engine search of the name Pierre-Ambroise Liger conducted on June 3, 2013, I found two useful French sources. The first one is a family tree of the Liger family, prepared by Antonio Liger on GeneaNet, which lists a Claude-Raymond Liger (1720-1802) and his son, Pierre-Ambroise Liger (1752-1806). A second result of this search, authored by Thierry Straub in 2000, lists a Pierre-Ambroise Liger residing in Paris in 1776, and describes him as a “maître fourbisseur” (master sword maker) who was born on April 4, 1752, the son of Claude-Raymond Liger.
Emily Schulz, Deputy Director and Curator of The Society of the Cincinnati, showed me a 2009 email from a Belgian researcher. The information indicated that the sword maker’s full name was Pierre-Ambroise Liger; he was promoted to the post of master fourbisseur in 1757; in 1770 he was fourbisseur for the Duc de Chartres and the Comte de Clermont; and in 1793 he was responsible for a study to improve the fabrication of edged weapons. The email further notes that Liger’s workshop stood at 192 Rue Coquillière in Paris and that his signature appeared on items until the early 1800s, although it is not known if his workshop was eventually taken over by his son. The source of this information, according to this email, is Jean-Jacques Buigné and Pierre Jarlier, Le “Qui est qui” de l’arme en France de 1350 à 1970, Tome 1, France: La Tour du Pin, Édition du Portail, 2001.
American sword expert Harold L. Peterson examined the sword awarded to Colonel Meigs and found that the “reverse side at the hilt bears the inscription “LIGER/ Fourbisseur/ De S: A:/ Msgr/ Le Duc/ De Chartre/ & Comte/ De Clermont/ Rue/ Coquillière/ à Paris.” Peterson, The American Sword, 1775-1945, 192. This information is consistent with that found in the email described in the above paragraph.
Based on their birthdates in the Liger family tree, it appears that French authors Buigné and Jarlier may have confused Claude-Raymond Liger and Pierre-Ambroise Liger. Given that Pierre-Ambroise was born in 1752, it must have been Claude-Raymond who was promoted to the post of masterfourbisseur in 1757 and was working in 1770 as fourbisseur for the Duc de Chartres and the Comte de Clermont. By 1793, either of them could have been responsible for a study to improve the fabrication of edged weapons. But given that Claude-Raymond would have been seventy-three years old at that time, it was probably Pierre-Ambroise who did that work. In 1786, when the last of the swords contracted for by Humphreys were delivered, Claude-Raymond was sixty-six years old and Pierre-Ambroise was thirty-four years old. I suspect, but cannot be sure, that at that time, Claude Raymond Liger still controlled the shop, but that Pierre-Ambroise Liger was performing more work than his father. See B. Franklin to Lafayette, Aug. 24, 1779, Lafayette to B. Franklin, Aug. 29, 1779, and Lafayette to W. Templeton Franklin, Sept. 7, 1779, in Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776—1779, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 2:303-08; see also Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1850), 2:118-20, n. † (detailed description of sword with drawings of scenes for the sword guard; “Cost two hundred Louis. Made by Liger, Sword-cutler, Rue Coquillière, at Paris).  M. Jules Cloquet, Recollections of the Private Life of General Lafayette, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1836), 13.  See the Associated Press report in the The Evening News (Newburgh, NY), Nov. 21, 1976, and other newspapers, reporting that Count René de Chambrun, a Paris attorney and direct descendant of Lafayette, outbid the Smithsonian Institution in an auction for the sword with a bid of $145,000 and that the sword had never left possession of the Lafayette family. Chambrun, who created a museum for Lafayette, may have donated the sword to the Josée and René de Chambrun Foundation, which also holds an eagle medallion gifted by George Washington to Lafayette in 1824. This foundation purchased the medallion at an auction for $5,300,000 in 2007 and planned to display it at Chateau La Grange, Lafayette’s home thirty miles east of Paris. See the Wikipedia online entry for The Society of the Cincinnati. Perhaps the Lafayette sword is also at Chateau La Grange. Count de Chambrun passed away in 2002. See the Wikipedia online entry for “Pineton de Chambrun” family. See also Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress 12:1035 (awarding an “elegant sword with proper devices” to Lafayette on Oct. 21, 1778).  See Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress 3:424-25 (Livingston); 6:966 (Stewart); 21:1085 (Williams) and 26:227 (Steuben). Boyd wrote that “A committee recommended that Otho H. Williams of the Maryland line be given a sword for his conduct at Eutaw Springs, but this rejected by Congress. JCC, XXI, 1085.” However, this statement does not seem correct, as just three paragraphs after Congress resolved to present a sword to Colonel Williams, it voted to award Captain Pierce with a presentation sword, and that sword was delivered by Humphreys to Pierce. There is no reference to a sword being delivered to Colonel Williams in his papers or any other source I have reviewed.  Livingston’s sword, the first one awarded by Congress, is currently on display at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, New Jersey, and an image of it can be viewed at the Swan Historical Foundation’s National Museum of the American Revolution online website at www.nationalmusuemoftheamericanrevolution.org(go to the Virtual Museum and write “Livingston” as a search term). The website describes this sword as a “gold gilt hilted and silver wire gripped French officer’s dress sword with a colichemade blade” and states that Livingston carried the sword at the Battle of Saratoga. This sword was highlighted in John Brewer Brown, “Swords Voted to Officers of the Revolution by the Continental Congress, 1775-1784,” (Society of the Cincinnati pamphlet, 1965). Livingston had received the sword by December of 1777. R. Livingston to G. Washington, Dec. 8, 1777, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. For Steuben’s will, see Schuyler, John, Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati . . . of the New York State Society (New York, NY: The Society, 1886), p. 298. Donald N. Moran, who has studied the four swords, but did not know about those actually given to Livingston and Steuben, stated that they have not been found. Donald N. Moran, “Revolutionary War Presentation Swords,” at www.revolutionarywararchives.org.
Thanks for this – the ancillary by-lines that fall out of research is always interesting and rarely seen. How fitting that Lt Col Humphreys was detailed to procure his own award – that couldn’t happen in today’s overly analyzed world of distrust: “why did he spend so much…” “why weren’t there at least three bids…”, etc. But then, our nation entrusted a great deal more than this to the good Colonel.
I believe the parenthetical comment at the end of the Humphreys’ sword lineage regarding Varnum’s objection of Congress’ presentation to Smith rather than Simeon Thayer belongs with the Smith sword, and I’ve mentally placed it there pending your further advice.
Jim: Thanks for your comments. Yes, you are correct about Varnum’s objection. While doing other research just last week, I came across that tidbit, which I thought would be interesting for readers. I asked for it to be added to the article, but it was inadvertently appended to the wrong paragraph. Let’s see if we can fix that! Thanks, Christian
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The parenthetical comment has been moved to the correct location.
They are claiming this [LINK] to be the sword awarded to Livingston at Washington Crossing State Park, I guess.
Geoff: Thanks for the tip! It would be great if some documents confirming the expense for the sword’s purchase could be located. Christian
I have a habit of looking at happenings dated around my birthday. In the process, I came across a letter to the president of Congress from David Humphreys, dated Paris, 18 March 1785 and Congress heard it on 9 June (my birthday is the 7th). In the letter, Humphreys explained that he had asked Robert Morris about his sword and that once in France he had received the list of names of people to receive swords and medals and instructions to proceed. He then talked with four potential makers before being advised to talk with Abby. Bartholemy, “Keeper of the King’s cabinet of Medals & antiquities,” who advised writing to the Royal Academy of Inscriptions & Belles Lettres which he says he did. He doesn’t mention any names of makers but does include the following:
“As to the Swords in question it is proposed to have them all constructed in precisely the same fashion, to wit, the hilt to be of silver, round which a foliage of laurel to be enamelled in gold in such a manner as to leave a Medallion on the center sufficient to receive the Arms of the United States on one side, and on the reverse an inscription in English ‘The United States to, Colonel Meigs July 25, 1777.’ and the same for the others.—The whole ten executed in this manner may probably cost about 300 Louis d’ors [1 Louis = about 1 pound 2 shillings], which is (as I have been informed) but little more than was paid for the Sword which some time since was presented on the part of the United States to the Marquis de la Fayette—“
There is a note dated 13 June that says, “Ordered, That the foregoing Letter from D. Humphreys be referred to the Secretary at War to take order.”
I’m sorry–I didn’t say where I found that information. It’s in the “Papers of the Continental Congress, Resolve Books 1785-89, Item 123,” pp. 14-17.
Mike: Thanks much for the additional information. I think that merits being added to the article if it is to be printed! Christian
Interesting article and I enjoyed the reference to Lafayette’s receipt of a sword in 1779. The following year he turned around and presented “an elegant sword” to each of the men under his immediate command, one of whom included Daniel Shays (of rebellion fame). We don’t know what happened to that particular sword as Shays, who was experiencing financial difficulties at the time, sold it for a few dollars, earning himself the approbation of his peers. One has to wonder at the effect it might have had on his subsequent actions in the not too distant future.