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This rare curved-blade saber is consistent with those of French manufacture for the American market dating to the first decade of the 19th century.  The saber is exceptional in many ways.  The eagle-headed pommel is beautifully done and is a classic representation of the form.  The steel blade is deeply etched with a fine federal eagle and the motto E Pluribus Unum, as well as draped flags and cannon, a liberty cap on pole, and the blazing sun. On the other side of the blade are etched similar devices and the words "Honor and my Country".

What is most interesting are the two decorative plates, one on each side, both of which may be unique to this saber alone.  The first plate shows a wreathed portrait of George Washington with a star above the wreath and the letter "W" below, presumably for Washington.  I've found no other examples of swords or saber from this era with portraits of George Washington, our first Commander-in-Chief.

Even more fascinating is the other plate, which depicts the helmet of Pallas Athena with a sheathed Greek sword passing behind it.  The helmet of Pallas Athena symbolizes wisdom and learning and the Greek sword represents the military profession.  This combined symbol has been adopted for the unit insignia and coat of arms of the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Although the academy was founded in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson, the adoption of the coat of arms of the Academy with the helmet-and-sword symbolizing the military and educational functions of the academy was not adopted until 1898, almost 100 years after this saber was produced.

  "According to archival records, the coat of arms and motto [of the United States Military Academy] were adopted in 1898. Col. Charles W. Larned, professor of drawing, headed a committee to design a coat of arms for the Academy and stated several criteria for the design. The committee decided that the design should represent the national character of the Academy, its military function, its educational function and its spirit and objectives.  The committee began with the creation of an emblem that consisted of a sword, a universal symbol of war, and the helmet of Pallas Athena. Athena, a fully armed mythological goddess, is associated with the arts of war, and her helmet signifies wisdom and learning."

- The West Pointer, 2004
 

 


A West Point shako, 1991-1995 era, with the West Point coat of arms depicting the Helmet of Pallas Athena and Sheathed Greek Sword

In all likelihood, at least one of the members of the committee must have been familiar with the symbolism of the helmet and sword, but in researching the symbol, I can find no other examples of its use prior to its adoption by West Point other than on this very early French-made American saber.  We can see, from this saber, that use of emblem first symbolized the virtues of George Washington himself, as evidence by its placement on the saber opposite the laurel wreathed portrait of Washington.  Washington was widely lauded for both his life of unparalleled military and civil service, two attributes that we strive to foster in all of our military officers that graduate from West Point.  Although we may never know what the members of the committee to adopt the West Point coat of arms knew of this symbol, the fact that they chose it is more than coincidental.  In doing so, they adopted a symbol that is a bridge between Washington himself, as evidenced by this rare 200 year old saber, and the past, current and future leaders who graduate from the United States Military Academy.

 
An rare American Officer's Saber with a eagle pommel, patriotic etched blade, and a unique decorative motif of George Washington on one side of the hilt and the Helmet of Pallas Athena and Sheathed Greek Sword, the future emblem of West Point, on the other.   Media:  Bronze, Wood and Steel Sword

Dates:  1800-1810

War:  None

Type:  Sword

Catalog Number:  IAS-00095


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Pencil Sketch of West Point
Cadet Irvin McDowell
1834-1838

 


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