Friday, March 6, 2015

To Hawaii and back: The facts and mysteries of Union Lt. Edwin I. Coe's sword

(Petersburg National Battlefield)

Paul Perrone and Chris Bryce had their “aha” moments nearly 5,000 miles apart.

For Perrone, research on a Civil War sword he came across at -- of all places -- a jewelry store in Hawaii, began with the inscription bearing the name of its owner: Lt. Edwin I. Coe of the 57th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers.

An online version of the unit’s history led to the 19-year-old soldier’s photograph and biography. There was now a human connection to this well-crafted piece of steel.

Seeing his face for the first time, and reading the moving account of his life and death, were the most exciting moments for me in this entire experience,” Perrone told the Picket this week. “From that point on, I felt that I had a moral and patriotic duty to ensure that the sword would end up somewhere public, protected and 'forever.'"

That “forever” will be at Petersburg National Battlefield, where Coe – who had in a dream a premonition of his death – fell with a bullet to his head as he took part in a charge on June 17, 1864.

Lt. Edwin I. Coe
Coe’s sword was sent from Hawaii to Virginia last summer after the park purchased it from the Honolulu business. 

Bryce, chief of interpretation at the park, and another staffer who helped in the research and transaction, took the sword made by Ames Manufacturing of Chicopee, Mass., to the area where Coe was killed and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, where he lies buried.

It was an emotional experience.

“Taking the sword to his grave carried a little more weight on me,” said Bryce. They placed the sword at the marker. “To have it lying on top of his resting place, it doesn’t get much more powerful.”

Perrone and Bryce realized this artifact is not like so many available for sale at online sites.

There’s a serviceman’s name, a photograph, an account of his unit and death. And he lies buried in the Virginia soil only a few miles from where the sword is expected to go on exhibit later this year.

(Courtesy of Paul Perrone)

“I cannot imagine this sword hanging on someone’s wall as a conversation piece, or in a private collection that is not open to the public,” said Perrone, a researcher in the Hawaii attorney general’s office.

Many mysteries remain: Was Coe carrying the sword when he died? How did it end up in Hawaii? Who were his friends in Worcester, Mass., that gave him the sword?

A soldier’s premonition before battle

The sword came to the Pacific Diamond and Swiss Watch Exchange in Honolulu a few years ago. Owner Ted Gonzalez bought it from an estate dealer.

“I thought it was unusual just because I’ve never bought one before. I decided to buy it and I decided to keep it,” Gonzalez told TV station KITV.

Perrone, who was shopping for a wedding ring for his fiancée, took an interest and began his research on the Model 1850 foot officer’s sword. The frosted blade contains patriotic motifs -- eagles, cannon, olive branches and arrows -- and was obviously manufactured and decorated with care.

Coe, the son of a Unitarian minister, was born in Medway, Mass., and moved to Worcester, first joined another regiment when he was just 17 or 18. He then joined the 57th Massachusetts and was serving as acting adjutant at Petersburg.

According to the regimental history, written by John Anderson in 1896 and now available in print from HardPressPublishing, the young second lieutenant was “of excellent character, fond of military service, zealous and ambitious in the faithful performance of duty, loved and esteemed by all who knew him.”

It’s not known when the sword was presented to Coe. The inscription said it was a gift “by his friends in Worcester.”

(Photos courtesy of Paul Perrone)

Coe was struck by a spent musket ball at Spotsylvania Court House on May 12. He threw up both hands and fell; his comrades believed he was finished. “But in a few moments he rejoined the regiment,” according to the unit history,” saying that he had only been stunned for a few seconds.”

Just before the charge at Petersburg, Coe told comrades he would be killed. The premonition proved correct: He was struck in the early part of the advance against Confederate troops. Ten enlisted comrades died in the battle.

Coe left no wife or children. His mother applied for a pension in 1891.

His brother, who served in another Federal unit, took charge of his remains and he was buried near where he fell. They were disinterred after the war and placed in the national cemetery now managed by the park.

How did it wind up in Hawaii?

Neither Pryce nor Perrone know how Coe’s sword came to be in Hawaii. It’s the $64,000 question.

The unit history notes that Coe’s brother claimed his possessions. If it was used for ceremonial purposes, it might have been in the fallen officer’s tent. Or if he carried it during the charge, it could have “ended up in practically anyone’s possession,” said Perrone.

“With every branch of the service having at least one base in Hawaii, and with so many government contractors and retired military personnel living here, all kinds of interesting things turn up,” said Perrone, adding the story is the sword belonged to a retired serviceman.

Paul Perrone
Gonzalez, the jewelry store owner, told KITV that he and his wife “agreed to do the right thing” with the sword, rather than sell it for several thousand dollars, and he enlisted the help of Perrone.

“I wanted to literally return the sword to Lt. Coe, and Petersburg is where he has been for the past 150 years,” said Perrone, who contacted former Petersburg park curator Jimmy Blankenship last spring and the discussions on the sword commenced.

Bryce said the park, using donations and sales proceeds from park bookstores operated by a private concessionaire, paid $1,600 for the Coe sword so that Gonzalez could recoup what he paid.

Officials had hoped to acquire the weapon in time for the 150th anniversary of Coe’s death, but the sword was not shipped until last July. Bryce said he is unaware of any surviving descendants.

‘He will be forever remembered’

The park has brought on a new curator. Bryce hopes the sword, which he described as being in good shape, will go on exhibit at the Eastern Front Visitor Center this summer or fall.

“We don’t have a great number of items that we can put to one person, let alone have an image of an individual,” he told the Picket. Coe was among tens of thousands of men in blue and gray who were in the area during the Petersburg campaign and siege.

Bryce and Blankenship took the sword to where elements of the 9th Corps made the June 17, 1864, assault, about 200 yards behind park headquarters on the eastern section of the battlefield, near the Army’s current Fort Lee.

“They were supposed to be in reserve. Their casualties mounted very quickly,” said Bryce. “They were dodging bullets.”

Jimmy Blankenship holds sword near where Coe fell.

The park official believes the Coe weapon is a combat, rather than a presentation sword.

“Chances are good he was carrying it in battle,” said Bryce. “By carrying it,” they (his friends) are with him in battle.”

It is possible Coe had two swords and did not carry this one, which Perrone considers a presentation sword, during the charge. Or he might not have been wielding a sword at all that day.

Coe’s sword and scabbard, along with his photo and possibly other items, later this year will be a visual reminder to park visitors of sacrifice and courage.

I hope the Coe display will serve to represent any and all of the individual soldiers who died at Petersburg and whose personal lives and contributions were forgotten through the passage time, just as Coe would have been had his sword not been recovered 150 years later,” said Perrone. “He will be forever remembered and honored -- in a sense, he is immortal.”

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