Congressional Presentation Sword and Scabbard of Peleg K. Dunham (1794–1822)
William Rose Sr., 1783–1856
Possibly decorated by John Meer (active ca. 1795–1834)
Steel, copper alloy (brass), gold, leather
L. with scabbard 39 5/16 in. (99.8 cm); L. without scabbard 38 1/2 in. (97.8 cm); L. of blade 32 5/16 in. (82 cm); W. 4 5/8 in. (11.7 cm); D. 1 7/8 in. (4.7 cm); Wt. 1 lb. 11 oz. (888 g); Wt. of scabbard 1 lb. 1 oz. (481.9 g)
Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulberger Gift, 2013
Not on view
This sword is considered the finest example, in terms of condition and completeness, among the eight swords known to survive from a group of approximately twenty-seven that were commissioned by Congress during the War of 1812 for presentation to junior warrant officers (sailing masters and midshipmen) who took part in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. While many nineteenth-century presentation swords in both the United States and Europe follow conventional patterns and forms, this hilt combines classical elements, nautical motifs, and patriotic emblems to create a completely original design that was used only for these 1812 Congressional presentation swords. It is thought that the hilt design was created by one of the diesinkers at the US Mint in Philadelphia, which may account for its innovative and nontraditional appearance. In addition to the remarkable condition of the hilt and scabbard fittings, the sword is also particularly notable for its finely preserved blade, which retains its original polish and delicate etched decoration on a frosted ground. The sword was presented to midshipman Peleg K. Dunham (1794–1822), a nineteen-year-old serving on the USS Caledonia during the Battle of Lake Erie, and has remained in the family of his descendants from that time until it entered the Museum's collections. It forms an appropriate pendant to another War of 1812 sword in the Metropolitan Museum's collection (acc. no. 22.19a, b), which was presented posthumously by the state of New York to Brigadier General Daniel Davis (1777–1814) for his actions at the Battle of Fort Erie in 1814.
The hilt and scabbard fittings are made of cast and mercury gilded brass. The pommel is cast in the round as an Antique bust in the form of a head wearing a Roman style helmet. The rectangular grip features the figure of a mermaid holding an urn above her head cast in low relief on a pebbled ground on the front and back of the grip. The sides of the grip are smooth and bright and are divided by three incised vertical lines. The top and bottom of the grip terminate in simple palmette collars cast in one with the grip. The outer shell guard is bent downward at an angle nearly parallel with the plane of the blade. The shell is decorated in relief with an eagle looking to the right, standing on a cannon barrel in front of crossed anchors and flags. The edges of the shell are decorated with acanthus volutes that terminate in a round four-petal blossom. The underside of the outer guard has a laurel wreath flanked by the letters US. There is a short rear quillon of rounded wedge form and decorated with leaf petals. The straight inner guard has a laurel wreath border on the exterior and a border of stars on its underside. The forward quillon is a short spatulate tab. The knuckle guard is formed of pierced fiddleback branches above and below a central oval medallion bearing a stylized portrait head in low relief. A short curved rectangular arm with a finial in the form of a round four-petal blossom runs from the top of the grip to the tip of the knuckle guard.
The straight double-edged blade has parallel edges that taper to a narrow point. The surface is polished bright, with etched decoration on a frosted ground covering approximately two-thirds of its length on both sides. The decoration is divided principally into four rectangular panels on each side, featuring an inscription flanked by decorative motifs. The decoration on the obverse, from the forte down, consists of a reticular pattern with a stylized blossom repeating in each lozenge compartment; a trophy of arms; the inscription PELEG K. DUNHAM, MIDSHIPMAN, / Lake Erie, 10th September, 1813.; a long undulating branch of oak leaves and acorns. On the reverse of the blade, also from the forte down, the same reticular pattern; a naval engagement framed on the left side by the grip of a lance and on the right by the lance point, both encircled by a laurel wreath; the inscription Altius ibunt qui ad / summa nituntur. (He who aims highest rises highest); a long undulating branch with leaves and berries. Each of the main panels is separated by a narrow band with a Greek-key motif. The name W. ROSE appears to be etched at the very base of the blade, behind the outer shell guard.
The scabbard consists of an unlined black leather sheath stitched vertically up the back and fitted with a locket with suspension ring, a mid-locket with suspension ring, and a chape, each made of cast and gilt brass and with a decorated cartouche on the obverse and smooth and undecorated surface on the reverse. The locket is decorated with an elaborate trident-like motif; the mid-locket with a floral spray; and the chape with an anchor entwined by a sea creature. The chape has a round bead at its extreme end.
Inscription: Inscribed on the obverse of the blade within a lozenge compartment: PELEG K. DUNHAM, MIDSHIPMAN, / Lake Erie, 10th September, 1813.; on the reverse within a lozenge: Altius ibunt qui ad / summa nituntur. (He who aims highest rises highest); etched at the base of the blade, behind the outer shell guard: W. ROSE.
Peleg K. Dunham, Newport, R. I. (1817–d. 1822; presented to him by the U. S. Congress, 1817); by descent through the family of Peleg K. Dunham, United States (1822–2013; consigned to Kochan); [James L. Kochan, Frederick, Md., 2013; sold to MMA].
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Arms and Armor: Notable Acquisitions 2003–2014," November 11, 2014–December 6, 2015.
Hamilton, John D. "'So Nobly Distinguished,' Congressional Swords for Sailing Masters and Midshipmen in the War of 1812." Man at Arms 7, no. 2 (March / April 1985). pp. 35–36.
Tuite, Peter T. U.S. Naval Officers: Their Swords & Dirks. Lincoln, R.I.: Andrew Mowbray, 2004. p. 143.