The Civil War Swords

They came to us, my husband and me, in 1977, after my mother-in-law died. Long ago she had laid them carefully in a cedar chest, with the rolled-up charcoal reproduction of the daguerreotype of their first owner, my husband’s great-grandfather, age 17. He was a draftee from Chambersburg.

We also inherited his squashed flat Union cap, so small and flat you wondered how he kept it on, even for the picture. The discharge papers and letters indicated that the young Chambersburg Dunker, enlisting late in the war, had spent some time in Anderson-ville Prison.

We still have all these things, but it is a wonder we still have the two swords in their scabbards. Of all these things they are the most controversial. My family by that time was Quaker, a people who shrink from keeping weapons of any kind in their homes. But we kept them, certainly not in any obvious way, not crossed over the mantel, just propped by the great stone fireplace in our house in Harrisburg. That house also dated back 100 years. It was rumored at one time to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it did have a now cemented over passage out of the basement, which again was rumored to join one in the house next door. Both homes had large yards stretching around them, separated by tall bushes, so the occupants weren’t really all that close. That house was now a group home for wayward youth, who were not permitted to "fraternize" with neighbors, probably especially our own teenagers at the time only somewhat less wayward-seeming to us, a son and daughter, despite their strong urge to question the boys and check out the other end of that tunnel.

We extended our own home and care that year to a foster son, also adjudicated, through Tressler Lutheran Services. He was a tall, handsome-looking young man, hair longer than our daughter’s. His background was mostly Native American. He was polite to a fault in the house. We took him horseback riding once with our kids. He was raised in the country, and had been around horses all his life, rode well, reminding me of a noble "Tonto" on a horse; what a sight!

Unlike our own children who seemed bored by those swords, he loved them. He’d take them out of their scabbards and run his thumb experimentally down the business side, which had dulled over the years and wouldn’t cut soft butter. He asked me if he could sharpen them. The answer was no of course. One day that young man surprised us (but not the agency, who said this was usual) by running away, taking all the wayward youth in the neighborhood with him, save our own two, and the swords. We got them back. Sadly that young man ended up in jail, not in Dauphin County but the county where his family, mostly aunts and uncles, resided and where he was arrested. We drove up in our capacity as now former but still concerned "parental" figures, not in my husband’s workaday capacity as a lawyer, to advocate for him. We could not "spring" him.

Seems he’d been doing some organized ongoing burglarizing in our neighborhood with some of the same youth who had joined him running away north. One of the lesser involved youth returned to his home, and told us that the swords had been sold to the nearby Antique Barn, the one with a large Nazi flag displayed on one wall of the establishment. We retrieved them, though not instantly. My husband finally managed to strike enough fear into the heart of the owner, who had insisted that we buy them back, with a few well-chosen words from the penal code on accepting stolen property on his letterhead stationary. Again the swords leaned by the fireplace.

Then a few years later, after my husband’s death, I opened my house and heart again, this time to a divorced man, and his teenaged daughter who my daughter had met socially at Friends meeting. He, too, was a "problem" person, but again bright, trying to straighten out. He, too, was attracted by the "history of my people" as he said, being African American. He just about came right out and said that he thought I should give him the swords.

And, when he left my abode, they once again turned up missing. His motives were different. He felt they should be his to keep given their and his history. I didn’t notice their absence right away, but when I did I strongly suspected he took them, but was never quite sure. I did not pursue the thought. I’d grown a little weary of pursuing those swords.

Then, several years later when I was working in New Orleans with Mennonites doing relief work with victims of crime, I got a letter from this man. He was involved in a 12-step program and wanted to make amends and return the swords. Actually the letter was from a Friend, a fellow Quaker in Harrisburg, who was acting as an intermediary. It was tricky, arranging the delivery of the swords from him to her, because she felt the swords should not come into the meetinghouse or her home. I do not remember exactly how she solved this problem, but on a visit to Harrisburg, I once again got them back.

Over the next couple of years, a time of some economic stress, I thought of selling them, but found out that Union Army Civil War swords, most of them, the dealer said, "dress swords," are not very rare, manufactured en masse. So I kept them, and when my oldest son married, I gave them to him, with a poem not so much about the swords as my act of handing them on to him, with of course a nice wedding check.

He was, well, underwhelmed apparently. His wife kind of liked them. But once again they are stuck away in the corner of a closet somewhere. He, like all my children, does not attend meeting, but does still identify himself with Quakers to the extent that he does with any denomination, enough of a "Peace Church" person to feel a bit uncomfortable with housing the swords also.

Maybe that is the significance of these swords to us, our family; maybe that was the significance of them to my husband’s great-grandfather, that young Dunker (also traditionally a Peace Church). Sometimes objects that make us uncomfortable, from our past, the past of our family in this generation, and those that have come before, simply won’t let go, stick stubbornly to our heels, as if to remind us who and what we are, were, fought, died for, comparing that to who we are now, who we struggle to become, and just who and what we must someday manage to shake, like dust from our shoes, leave behind to become finally our fully disarmed selves.

Mary Dimon Riley

Mary Dimon Riley has been a member of Pittsburgh (Pa.), Harrisburg (Pa.), and New Orleans (La.) meetings, and is currently a member of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.