Patrick White’s Saber

1st Lt Patrick White in 1862

In a lower shelf in the New York State Museum's dark storage area rests a beat up Civil War saber, an officer's Model 1850. It is missing the grip, original finish, and about 12" of the tip of its metal scabbard. The engraved inscription is barely legible. On shelves above this sorry sword glitter half a dozen fancy presentation blades. But of all the swords in the collection, this one is the best. It belonged to Captain White.

Patrick H. White was born in County Sligo, Ireland on June 1, 1832. He immigrated first to Fredericton, New Brunswick, and then moved to Chicago to live with his mother and sister. By 1858 he was working as a butcher or pork packer in Gordon S. Hubbard's packing house.

In his memoirs, published in 1923 by the Illinois Historical Society, White related how, after the day's work, he would attend drill evenings at a local militia battery; the Chicago Light Artillery. The activity appealed to him, and he worked hard at becoming a proficient gunner. But when the war began, his sister opposed his enlistment, saying, "You can't go now, as our Mother has lately died; and my marriage will leave the younger portion of our family scattered." White was ashamed of himself but promised not to enlist. He did not see the battery off to war.

He relates how he would keep to the back streets of Chicago, so as not to be seen by his old militia acquaintances. One day he stopped into a small shop kept by a young girl. The talk turned to the war, and she said: "There are so many young men that used to belong to the militia, who will not go, but have hid their uniforms and themselves too." He was "very blue" for the next two weeks, and "kept shady." But one night he found himself near the armory, the place all lit up and inside about a hundred men drilling on a six pounder gun. He went inside. Some of the men knew White and he was asked to help drill them.

Thus when he enlisted on June 15, 1861, it was as Second Lieutenant in Company B of the 1st Regiment, Illinois Light Artillery. He was tall and dark: 6 feet tall, dark hair, dark complexion and black eyes. This unit had already moved to Cairo, Illinois, and there, on July 16th, it was reorganized to serve three years rather than three months.

White led his section of two guns in the battery's first action, in Missouri, south of Greenville, on October 21, 1861. According to his memoirs, White and his section did well. Later, at Belmont, which was Ulysses Grant's first action, White said his section was in the thick of the fight, capturing prisoners, being cut off in their retreat, and fighting their way back to the boats, capturing two guns of the enemy on the way. He relates how his was the last gun to embark during the withdrawal.

Further service at Forts Henry and Donelson saw more good work done, but by now the strong, thirty-year old White was seriously ill. He was still ill at Shiloh, lying upon his cot on that April Sunday morning when the rebel bullets came flying through his tent. Fortunately, the horses were harnessed, ready for Sunday inspection, when the battle began.

White said he never saw so many sick as at Shiloh, and after the battle he himself asked for and was sent on furlough to Chicago to recover. It was there that a group of his friends called upon him and on May 1, 1862, presented White with the sword now in the New York State Museum.

Overcome with emotion, (it was after all, an emotional age, as well as an age which prized florid oratory) White replied: "Gentleman, I do not deserve this compliment. I am serving my country, to the utmost of my feeble ability, because I love it. I promise you that no act of mine shall ever bring disgrace upon the sword you have given me, nor shall it ever be yielded to an inferior in rank of the enemy's line." This speech is given here in full, as I feel it is typical of the times in both its false modesty and the fervid patriotism of a recent immigrant. Everyone present had heard similar remarks or read them in the newspaper. Soldiers did not have to rehearse such sentiments -- they were what society expected of them. That White meant his words would later be fully proved. White's promise never to surrender the sword to an inferior in rank, inconsequential to our modem thinking would have important consequences for Patrick H. White.

White returned to the front, where he took part in the siege of Corinth and the campaigns on the Yazoo River and at Arkansas Post. His memoir ends here, but at some point early in 1863, White was chosen to take over command of another of Grant's batteries, being promoted Captain of the Chicago Mercantile Battery.

At Vicksburg during the great assault of May 22, 1863, White won the Medal of Honor. His obituary tells us the story -- a story no doubt told many times at Albany's George S. Dawson Post 63, Grand Army of the Republic.

General McClernand wanted to run two guns down a slope and up the opposite side, to fire into a gun embrasure of the enemy's works. He had asked five or six battery commanders to do so, only to be told it was impossible. General A. J. Smith told McClernand, "I know a battery that will go to hell if you order it there." The battery was Patrick White's.

"Yes, Sir, I will take my guns there," said White. The obituary adds that White's crew carried ammunition in their haversacks, saw one gun stuck and abandoned on the down slope, and could not elevate the muzzle of the remaining gun sufficiently to do damage to the enemy, as the gun was too close to the earthworks. That night the gun was drawn off down a ravine.

White's gun was so close to the enemy that when finally fired, the blast from the muzzle set afire the cotton bales lining the embrasure. Perhaps the exploit was ineffectual but none could deny that White's act was very brave. On January 15, 1895, White and three other survivors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their brave efforts. "Carried with others by hand a cannon up to and fired it through an embrasure of the enemy's works."

In the early spring of 1864, Major General Banks' "Red River Expedition" got into serious difficulties. On April 8, 1864 White and much of his battery were overrun and captured at the battle of Sabine Cross Roads. In the hurly-burly, a Texas private named Cross demanded that White surrender his weapons. Remembering the promise made to his Chicago friends, White refused.

Private Cross aimed his gun to shoot White when Captain Alexander McDow, Co. I, 16th Texas Infantry, intervened. McDow said he was an officer and would accept the sword and revolver. White gave them up and entered into 13 months captivity.

McDow admired the plucky Yankee captain and did two things: he sent White to the rear, with orders to treat him well, and promptly shipped the trophy saber home to Victoria, Texas.

Neither White nor the sword would fare well. White lived in a hole in the ground at the infamous prison camp at Tyler, Texas until exchanged early in 1865. In 1870 the sword was swept away and lost in a flood of the Colorado River. Eventually it was found downriver, but badly rusted and missing its grip. The inscription engraved upon the scabbard, what was left after hard polishing, was still faintly readable.

Captain McDow died in 1891 and the sword was kept by his daughter, Mrs. J. M. Brownson, also of Victoria. In the January 2, 1896 issue of the National Tribune, the nationwide veteran's newspaper, she inserted a letter:

"I have an old saber, captured by my father from an officer in General Banks' army in Louisiana. The inscription is much defaced, but; I would be glad to return it to its family."

On January 11, 1896, Patrick White wrote to Mrs. Brownson, “It would be impossible for you to imagine how deeply that newspaper paragraph affected me. It was like a message from a dear friend, mourned as irrevocably lost in our late awful fratricidal contest. The sword is hallowed in my memory because of the affection which prompted the giving of it, the associations and incidents circumscribing that occasion, and the long and tender attachments I had for it until the mutations of war compelled me to surrender it as a trophy of conquest."

White went on to say: "When this old relic comes into my possession I shall be the happiest man in existence, and I shall forever preserve it in my family as a token of the love that has now scaled by its indissoluble bonds the hearts of all patriotic Americans into a union of fraternal peace and good will, which, God grant, may endure until the end of time.

"With a heart overflowing with gratitude and with the sincerest wishes for abundant happiness and prosperity to yourself and your kindred, I am very respectfully yours, P.H. White."

Mustered out in 1865, White had left Chicago for Albany, New York, where on May 10, 1866 he married a widow named Annie Owens. No children came of this union, but perhaps Annie had children of her earlier match which now constituted Patrick's "family." His obituary mentions his daughter Catherine as being present at White's death.

In 1867 White was engaged in a fish and oyster business. In 1882 he made application for a federal pension. When White died on November 25, 1915, he was working as a night watchman at the State Capital. This government sinecure was the fate of many worthy but unfortunate veterans, or at least those who voted right. White's obituary mentioned that he was a member of the Unconditional Republicans Club.

By 1923 White's memoir had gone to the Illinois Historical Society, while his army documents and relies were given to the New York State Library. In 1942 the relics were transferred to the New York State Museum.

Throughout my childhood the frock coat, sash, revolver, canteen and sword, (mysteriously missing about 12" of the tip of the scabbard) and both of White's Medals of Honor (the Model 1863 and newer Model 1904) rested in a case in the "Hall of History." No label told of White's heroism, or of the sword's history.

When the museum moved into its new building in 1976, there was no place for old-fashioned "anecdotal history." Nor was the management about to "glorify war." White's relics and his story were relegated to a wardrobe and a drawer in a dark comer of the museum's storage, awaiting a better day when such stories of determined principles and tolerant reconciliation will again find a respected hearing in our society.

This saber can represent many attitudes about our Civil War. I prefer to think of it as stated by a reporter for The Albany Evening Journal in 1896 who concluded his story of the sword's return with the following:

"No incident has occurred since the awful fratricidal strife that breathes forth so much patriotism and loyalty to country as this returning of a sword to a Union soldier by the daughter of a Confederate to whom it was surrendered. Yes, we may say, God bless our nation and the men who fought in the great rebellion on either side! What a happy union of such a North and such a South."