Mystery Sword Comes Back to Bentonville

Posted on by fobbnc

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the September 2018 edition of ‘From the Trenches’ newsletter and was co-authored by former site manager, Donny Taylor who passed away June 23rd, 2022. Model 1850 Staff and Field Officer’s Sword owned by US Lt. Col Samuel Tolles of the 15th Connecticut Infantry now on display at Bentonville Battlefield.

To say that March 8, 1865 was a bad day for Lt. Col. Samuel Tolles and the 15th Connecticut would be a dramatic understatement. Rushed to the front as part of Brig. Gen. Charles Upham’s brigade, Tolles’ Nutmeggers were poorly deployed and soon found themselves captured in mass by Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s Confederates on the first day of the Battle of Wise’s Forks. Tolles and a few of his men attempted to escape on foot from his headquarters near the Cobb House but instead ran into additional Confederates who forced their surrender. To add insult to injury his sword, presented to him as a gift from his men, was lost or more likely yielded when he was captured. Instead of a short march to reinforce William T. Sherman’s armies at Goldsboro, Tolles and his men were destined to walk much further – all the way to Libby Prison in Richmond.

The 15th Connecticut Volunteers were raised in 1862 as part of President Abraham Lincoln’s “300,000 more.” By August they were ready to head south except for the issuing of their “iron-clad life preservers.” The delay in the procuring these bullet proof vests allowed time for the presentation of swords and horses to the field officers of the unit. Tolles’ sword was awarded to him on August 20, by the “Veteran Grays,” a pre-war militia unit that formed the basis for one of the regiment’s companies. Upon leaving Connecticut, the 15th joined the Army of the Potomac, fighting in the battle of Fredericksburg, their only major engagement until 1865.

The 15th Connecticut that was mostly destroyed near Kinston was in many ways not the same unit that had left New Haven in August 1862. Attrition from disease, expired enlistments, and modest battlefield casualties had forced Union authorities to reinforce the unit with hundreds of new recruits.  There were so many new soldiers that the regiment was split in two, with Tolles commanding the right wing. Wise’s Forks was the first and only battle many of these “greenhorns” would ever see. Placed in a poor position by Upham, the regiment’s former commander, both wings and much of the 27th Massachusetts were captured on March 8 by Hoke’s Division, or like Tolles, they fled into the waiting arms of Hill’s men.

It is presumable that at this point that Tolles surrendered his sword to his Confederate adversaries. At this point all records of the sword was lost, lost until resurfaced 50 years later, and 50 miles away, at the Harper House on the Bentonville Battlefield.

There is much speculation about how and when the Tolles sword made its way to Bentonville. The sword came to us in a scabbard from an US Model 1860 Light Cavalry Sabre with about one-third of the bottom of the scabbard missing. This was obviously not the nice, brass trimmed scabbard presumably designed for this weapon. Could it have been that Tolles dropped the sword or lost it from the scabbard in his escape attempt? Was it carried by the Confederate that found it or to whom it was surrendered, then subsequently lost again here at Bentonville? What area of the battlefield was the sword found, when and by whom? Was the present scabbard also a Bentonville Battlefield find? Who found the sword?  These are just a few of the many questions we can think of associated with the wandering sword.

So, what do we know about it? We know from its condition – missing hand grip and rusty blade – it was a battlefield relic at some point. Here or in Kinston, we can’t be sure. We also know according to J. J. Dunn family legend, that it was already in the Harper House when they purchased the property in 1919. Did one of the previous owners forget it when they moved from the home? Fortunately, it was kept and passed down through the Dunn family for many years until the family decided to offer this historic sword to Bentonville Battlefield. The sword was purchased by the Friends of Bentonville Battlefield, Inc. and is now on loan to the site and displayed in the Visitor Center.

Photos of the sword:

Written by Donny Taylor and Derrick Brown

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