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Sherman’s sword comes home: Lancaster museum buys general’s weapon at auction

A sword sits on a wooden trunk that reads "Sherman".
Fleischer's Auctions
Famed Union Gen. William T. Sherman's sword was auctioned off in Columbus last week.

The personal belongings of one of Ohio’s most famous historical figures went to auction in Columbus last week. Union General William T. Sherman’s personal items were put up for sale, including his family Bible, his photographs and, perhaps most coveted, his sword.

The weapon’s highest bidder was the Sherman House in Lancaster, the famed general’s birthplace. Museum director Michael Johnson said it took months of fundraising to acquire the $130,000 needed to place the highest bid.

“It's such an incredible piece of American history. It still hasn't sunk in yet that it's going to be in our museum,” Johnson said.

Sherman’s story

Ohio-born William T. Sherman is most remembered for his command of Union armies during the Civil War. He was known for his “total war” strategy, where he focused on obliterating his enemies’ infrastructure, destroying railroads and stealing food.

An old photo of General Sherman sits on an American flag.
Fleischer's Auctions
Many of Sherman's personal belongings were sold at an auction in Columbus.

Johnson said it was this ruthless approach in his “March to the Sea” that broke the will of the Confederacy and led the Union army to victory. And Sherman’s sword would have been with him through integral battles during his command, Johnson said.

“It is not a standard issue sword. He did have it tailored to fit the way that he wanted it,” Johnson said. “So it would have been with him during major battles, like Shiloh, where he had three horses shot out from under him. … It's just a monumental artifact.”

A winning bid

Johnson said it’s rare for extraordinary items like this to come to auction. And he feared the small nonprofit’s budget didn’t stand much of a chance against wealthy private collectors.

“I kept pushing for it,” Johnson said. “We at least had to try.”

The museum does have a small pot of money set aside for collections, but Johnson said he knew it wouldn’t be nearly enough for a winning bid. So, in the months preceding the auction, the museum took to social media to plead for support in the artifact’s acquisition. They received donations from people across the world. He said many of the donors wanted to help ensure the sword could be viewed by everyone.

“Private collectors are fine,” he said. “But if there are things that are of national significance and there's a museum for it to go to, it's my belief that's where it should be,” he said.

Johnson believes the sword could have gone for double its price and his rival bidders were generous in standing down and allowing the museum to take home the relic.

In a black and white photo, Gen. William Sherman crosses his arms and scowls in a military uniform.
General Sherman's ruthless tactics turned the tide during the Civil War.

Wider reach

Thanks to donations from descendants of Sherman, the museum already houses many of Sherman’s personal belongings: his desk, a trunk he used during the war, furniture from his home in New York where he retired. But, Johnson said the sword is a step above.

Last year, the Sherman House had visitors from 37 states and seven different countries. Johnson said the sword is likely to take those numbers to a “whole 'nother level.”

“This is one of those items where you will go to that museum to see specifically,” Johnson said. “This is of that caliber.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.