Serving and Conserving: The Story of a Civil War Sword

At The Conservation Center, we are tremendously lucky to act as stewards of history. Representations of the past come to our facility each day in the form of photographs, paintings, drawings, documents, and objects, and collectively, we spend hours studying, interacting with, and conserving each of these pieces. Through conservation projects, we learn more about personal histories, family histories, and international history, and each project presents us with the opportunity to help preserve these histories for generations to come. So, when a client came to us with an important family heirloom, that was also a physical remnant of a formative time in the history of our country, we were honored to assist.  

The piece was a sword from the American Civil War that had been passed down through our client’s family. She explained that the sword had belonged to her grandfather, Captain Thomas Davis, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1831. In September 1861, a few months after war had broken out, Davis recruited 120 men from his county to serve in the U.S. Company “C”, first battalion, 19th infantry. The Company entered service the following month. Davis was made first sergeant, then promoted Second Lieutenant, and then promoted again to First Lieutenant. The Company was involved in 32 major engagements in the War, during many of which, Davis served as the acting captain of his company.

Davis resigned his commission in December of 1864, due to ill health. He then married and had four children, and in 1887, seeking to better his health, moved to South Dakota. During the three years that he spent there, he worked in the mercantile and lumber business with his brothers. Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Davis was twice elected to serve in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, serving on the Railroad, Judiciary, Corporations, and Public Health Committees. Captain Davis was also the President of Ebensburg & Blacklick Electric Railroad Company. He died in July of 1907.

The sword arrived at The Center housed in its original scabbard, and while the piece had clearly been cared for, owing to its age and materials, conservation was an important next step in making sure that it could continue to be passed down through future generations. Along the metal blade, and throughout the fittings on the hilt and scabbard, there were areas exhibiting corrosion, which had darkened over time. Additionally, metal polish that had been applied over the years had left a buildup on recessed areas of the sword.

The leather used in the scabbard had become distressed and dry, and showed some areas of loss to the surface. One area of the antique leather at the top of the sheath had even split, causing part of the scabbard break away from the body of the sheath.  

One of The Center’s senior conservators, Steve Ryan, who treated the piece, noted that the project presented some unique challenges. “Marrying two pieces of antique leather is a difficult task in and of itself, but joining them and having that joint remain strong enough to withstand use, is even harder still,” he said. It was important to our client to be able to take the sword in and out of the scabbard, so we worked to devise a treatment method that would not only maintain this functionality, but also adhere to conservation standards.

The edges along the break in the scabbard were joined and held in place using conservation-grade adhesives, and blotters that lined the interior of the sheath. Steve said, “it was important that the scabbard wasn’t lined with anything too heavy or bulky, or the sword would not be able to slide seamlessly in and out. It was also of importance that any materials we used in the joining process were of the highest quality and acid-free, to avoid future corrosion to the sword or the leather.” The two sections of the belt buckle were also reattached and affixed in their original location. Then, the joined break line was concealed as best as possible and the dry leather surface of the scabbard was revived it with the appropriate conservation methods.

To treat the sword itself, Steve began by removing the areas of corrosion on the metal surfaces. In doing so, they were careful to maintain an appropriate patina for the age and history of the piece. The metal polish residue that had built up in recessed areas of the sword was also removed, and the surfaces were then given a new, protective wax coating.

We are honored that our client shared the fascinating history of this piece, and that we were able to assist in preserving it for her and future generations of her family!