Growing up in rural Gwinnett County in the 1950s and 1960s, I was exposed to an abundance of family history and family characters. I was a lucky boy. I loved history and was not afraid to talk to my elders. I had a grandmother who could make one hundred years ago seem like just a few years back in a house full of history collected in bureau drawers. I got really good at knowing what was in bureau drawers down home. My own sons carry that particular gene marker.
It would have been hard to miss the long sword-like object hanging above the rock fireplace mantel in the den. Though dulled, there seemed to be glints of gold that would wink from its surface when the hanging lamp was pulled down and turned on at the right height. There was an old rifle with a muzzle hanging below the long sword. Very nice, as well, but I yearned for the sword as would any Sir Michael of Olde England.
I don’t recall when I was first allowed to hold the venerated object. I must have passed the necessary process that would allow me to hold it and learn about it. I know that it sometimes visited with me in town. “In town” would have been the house that I grew up in on Fox Street in Duluth. I learned about this historical object from my grandmother, whom I called MawMaw. The weapon was not a sword, but a saber. And it was not the property of an English knight, but that of a Confederate Colonel, Mawmaw’s own grandfather.
The military saber descended in the Mills family of Gwinnett County, Georgia, from Colonel George Washington Mills, the original owner and my great-great grandfather. I inherited the saber from my grandmother, Nellie Mae Mills Liddell in 1984. I became something of a family historian. Researching and learning, I helped to edit a volume of research on Gwinnett Families for the Gwinnett County Historical Society over twenty years ago.
During the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties, I interviewed fellow family history researchers, trekked to courthouses and made the occasional cemetery pilgrimage. I tracked down leads on old photographs, tin-type portraits and letters. In 1995, along came the PBS phenomenal series, “Antiques Roadshow.” I viewed the series then and now with a mixture of curiosity, laughter and awe. “How much? You’ve got to be kidding me! Did you say?”. A saber dating from the 1860s was evaluated on one episode. Based on many findings back in the pre-laptop computer decades, I honed my genealogical research into a family history chart and I collected the facts about the saber.
Manufactured for infantry use during the American Civil War, the saber is approximately 150 years old. The blade is steel; the scabbard and hilt are brass. The hand grip is carved wood, originally covered in black leather and trimmed with braided brass wire. All of the leather and most of the wire has been lost over the passage of time. The scabbard had lost its lip, a piece of brass shaped like a one inch fin at one end. The tip of the saber’s blade was broken off at some point in the first decades of the twentieth century by Daniel Meredith Liddell, definitely an action that would make historians and museum curators queasy in the extreme.
Of course, when we look at my grandfather Dan Liddell’s seeming lack of historical respect toward an old military object objectively, we might be persuaded to forgive the benign vandalism. And so, the story goes that Mr. Dan was trying to make the blade a little more child-friendly. Daniel Meredith and Nellie Mae Mills Liddell raised eight children, some of whom could not resist sneaking the saber down from its display above the hearth mantel. There were poses to make, skirmishes to enact, and soldiers to thrash amongst the tall standing Joe-Pye weeds and swaying Queen Anne’ s Lace flowers growing near the homeplace. Children could have an eye put out.
From grandmother Nellie Mae Mills Liddell I had learned that Colonel George Washington Mills received his saber from General Lee. She had no written documentation and the oral history seemed to be confused. Why would he have received the saber at the battle and why, Lee?
The answers came and confirmed the accuracy of my grandmother’s tale.
Her grandfather had been present at the Battle of Appomattox Court House, the final battle of April 9, 1865 and the Confederate Army formal surrender point of April 12, 1865. All confederate soldiers were expected to lay down their weapons for confiscation by the Union Army. General Robert E. Lee was indeed at the epochal Battle of Appomattox Court House. Confederate army officers were expected to surrender their sabers to their commanding general. The commanding general of the defeated army would then ceremonially offer his saber to the victorious general. General Lee accepted Colonel Wash Mills’ saber and returned it to him before submitting his own saber to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army. General Grant returned Lee’s weapon
to the confederate general in a symbolic display of solidarity for a reunited country.
After the cataclysm of the war years Wash Mills made his way home to his farm in Gwinnett County to resume a quiet life. The saber was put in a place of honor and in time reflected lost dreams and lost causes. The anger, violence and destruction that threatened to destroy the United States began to shine less brightly on the saber as the years slipped by. The saber’s sheen dulled and it took on the role of a curious relic or, fantastic, forbidden toy.
The saber is a joy to behold, shining boldly in the home of my family in Milton, Georgia.
September 3, 2011