Ever since Confederate Col. Charles Courtenay Tew was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, his descendants have searched for one of his most valued possessions, a sword given to him by his former students.
It’s no average weapon, and its historical significance resonates especially in the Palmetto State.
Not only was Tew The Citadel’s first valedictorian and first president of its alumni association, but the sword was given to him by cadets at The Arsenal, a Columbia military academy that was The Citadel’s sister institution. The Arsenal was burned by Union troops near the end of the Civil War, never reopened, and its sole surviving building now serves as the Governor’s Mansion.
Maj. Steven Smith, The Citadel’s alumni association historian, notes the school has other important historical artifacts, including a 15-inch shot that Confederate Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard presented to the school in 1863.
The rich history behind the sword and its tie to Tew, one of The Citadel’s most accomplished graduates, is why its return is being celebrated with three days of events.
“This sword is probably its equal, based on Tew’s connection with the college,” Smith said. “He was a cadet, a soldier, a scholar and an educator.”
A soldier lost too soon
A Charleston native, Tew was among The Citadel’s first 26 cadets who reported in 1843.
After graduating in 1846, he taught at The Arsenal in Columbia, and its cadets gave him a sword in appreciation when he left to establish the Hillsborough Military Academy in North Carolina.
When the Civil War began, Tew led the 2nd North Carolina Regiment, and he carried with him both his sword and a silver cup that Hillsborough’s cadets had given to him.
During the war, Tew felt he could be of more service if he returned to teaching, and he had submitted his resignation.
But before his Confederate superiors could consider his request, his unit arrived in Maryland and fought at Antietam, along the infamous Sunken Road — also known as “Bloody Lane.”
The Citadel had a cadet and 25 alumni — one-ninth of its living graduates — at the battle, two of whom were killed and four wounded. The epic battle ended in a standoff, though Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee later withdrew his forces back to Virginia — and President Abraham Lincoln felt emboldened enough to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation a few days later.
Tew was shot through the head and was among the hundreds of Confederate dead buried in mass graves, the bodies eventually relocated to cemeteries in Maryland and West Virginia. His final resting place is unknown.
Tew was 34.
A family’s search
Caroline Sloan of Portland, Ore., is Tew’s great-great-granddaughter and has heard the family’s stories of his life and death — and what happened after the war — over and over.
“My mother and uncle grew up in the house with Col. Tew’s daughter, and he was seriously revered,” she said. “People writing about him after he died called him ‘gallant,’ ‘chivalrous,’ ‘brilliant.’ The family has always been terrifically proud of him.”
After the war, Tew’s father, Henry, began searching for his son’s sword, silver cup and pocket watch.
“All they knew was that he’d been shot at the Sunken Road. No one could say they saw him dead,” Sloan said. “There were mass graves, no records.”
The search for the possessions was also a search about what had happened during the battle.
Tew’s father even made a costly and futile trip to Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas off Key West, Fla., to chase a bogus lead that his son might be alive and imprisoned there.
“They had reason to be skeptical of stories without proof, and the sword and cup gained importance to them after that,” Sloan said.
Sometime after 1870, Tew’s father got a letter from a man in Ohio saying that the sword was hanging in the Odd Fellows Hall in Norwalk. Before a family representative could check out the tip, it was gone.
“Then nothing for 145 years,” Sloan said.
Tew’s descendants had no idea that in 1963, a New York native named Amelia Blythe, who had moved to Ottawa, possessed the sword and donated it to the 763 Communications Regiment of the Canadian Army, now the 33 Signal Regiment.
Just 13 years before, Sloan’s father, Edward “Ned” Sloan of Greenville, had graduated from The Citadel in 1950. When he later learned his wife was Tew’s descendant, he started to conduct a lot of research and renewed the family’s search for the sword.
“He thought someone who had it would show it to an expert eventually, so he contacted a lot of dealers, and put ads in collectors magazines,” Carolina Sloan said.
“He put together a really precise description of it and distributed it widely. He was still doing that as late as five or six years ago. I pinned great hopes on the Internet, and had web alerts on all kinds of variations on his name and ‘sword.’ No luck until now.”
For a generation, the sword was displayed inside the Mess at Wallis House, a landmark building in Ottawa that eventually fell into disrepair.
Its nameplate reads “The Cadets of the Arsenal Academy to Capt. C.C. Tew, November 25th, 1858,” and Sloan joked that the family figured that plate must have been facing the wall.
The regiment had the sword and other nonpublicly-funded property appraised in 2009, when it was moving to a new home.
That appraisal determined it was a genuine Civil War-era sword — and it was valuable. While swords like that often sell for $20,000 to $30,000, its connection to Tew made it priceless, said Michael Martin, chairman of the 33 Signals Regiment Foundation.
Martin and others wanted to give the sword to a new home, but first they had to undertake painstaking research to make an airtight case that it had no value to the Canadian people.
The government could have put it up for auction or loaned it to The Citadel, but Martin and others pushed to have the sword “alienated” from Canada and given as a gift — a step that required approval from Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff.
“To get a military to give up their treasure like this is not an easy task,” he said. “We’re really thankful that there was nobody standing in the way of making it happen.”
It wasn’t until March when Martin was able to reach out to The Citadel about an object “of great significance.”
No one knows exactly how the sword got from the battlefield at Antietam to the Blythe family, but Martin said his research shows it likely was acquired by one of her distant relatives, Capt. Franklin J. Sauter of the 55th Ohio. He could have shipped it home before he was killed in the battle at Chancellorsville, Va., in March 1863.
“We believe this is the most probable scenario for the sword’s journey,” Martin said, “Admittedly, it requires connecting the data points.”
A long trip back
On Wednesday, The Citadel plans to send nine cadets, four faculty and other supporters to the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.
William Sharbrough, a Citadel professor and faculty advisor to the school’s Living History Society, is among those making the trip to Maryland to participate in that ceremony and to receive the sword.
“The pictures indicate it’s in remarkably good shape,” he said.
Sloan, who plans to join several other family members at The Citadel later this week, said she was “ecstatically happy” that the sword had been found, though sad her mother, Charlotte, was not alive to see it. Sloan was especially pleased the sword did not reappear in some auction catalog with a steep minimum bid.
“To have it intact and in good condition is more than we could have hoped,” she said, adding Martin should get a lot of credit for his dogged determination to have the sworn gifted — not just loaned — to The Citadel.
David Goble, director of The Citadel’s Daniel Library, where the sword eventually will go on display said it might be the school’s most significant artifact.
The library already has Tew’s diploma, some of his letters and other documents carefully collected and bound together in 1902 by former Charleston Mayor William Ashmead Courtenay, Tew’s cousin.
And the sword soon will be reunited with Tew’s other prized possession, his silver cup.
In 1873, travellers aboard a boat to New York met a man from New Hampshire named J.W. Bean. The talk turned to the Civil War dead and lingering questions about them.
The travellers knew about Col. Tew and mentioned Henry Tew’s futile trip to the Dry Tortugas. It turned out Bean not only had fought at Sharpsburg, but he also had come across Tew’s body after the battle. And he had Tew’s silver cup, which Bean later returned to the family.
“My mother left it (the cup) to my son, Charles Courtenay Sloan,” Caroline Sloan said of her 7-year-old, adding that she polished it last weekend in anticipation of their trip here. The family will loan it to The Citadel through the current school year so it can be displayed with the sword.
“Maybe he’ll give it to The Citadel one day,” she said. “For now, we can’t let it go.