First Lt. William J. Coulter was leading the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as the Union forces battled confederates in Petersburg, Va.
A veteran of many of the battles that define the Civil War, Coulter and the 15th Massachusetts were a proven force. But as the 75 remaining soldiers in the unit were on the advanced skirmish line in the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road in Virginia, they were surrounded by superior rebel forces. Though some historians suggested the offensive had been bungled by commanding officers, it brought to an end the storied history of the unit, a Central Massachusetts volunteer regiment with many Clinton men in its ranks.
It was June 22, 1864, and the war had continued almost a year since the 15th Massachusetts had played a key role in defending against Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg the previous summer.
But the small regiment was surrounded and overwhelmed. Coulter, one of four officers in the unit, relinquished his sword, the ultimate act of defeat on the field of battle.
Making it worse, the sword was not a standard military issue, but a special sword presented to Coulter by the citizens of Clinton.
The sword, as his grandson William G. Coulter would later write, likely hung over a southern fireplace as a trophy of war.
The sword was actually in a trunk, in Warrenton, Ga. It stayed there as the officer who seized it, Major Charles Eugene McGregor of the 24th Georgia Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia, went about life in the south.
But Coulter’s grandson and editor of the Daily Item, and other family members had hopes it would eventually be retrieved, looking for it in antique shops throughout the south
“It came back to the family through a beautiful set of circumstances,” Coulter’s great-great-grandson, Tim Langmaid, said. “It’s nice to have it back where it was given to him.”
This week, it will return to Clinton and be repatriated 157 years after the citizens of the community presented the engraved sword to Coulter.
Coulter had visited home in the fall of 1863, having fought since he enlisted as a private on July 12, 1861, moved by a “desire to assist in putting down the rebellion,” according to the GAR record in the Clinton Historical Society.
Before Coulter headed back to the front lines in December 1863, he was awarded the sword by the grateful town’s citizens. Langmaid said Coulter had sought to avoid the ceremony and quickly left, only to be retrieved by a posse of citizens to return and receive the honor of the presentation.
The story of the sword, and Coulter’s wartime contributions, are balanced by the story of how the sword was returned.
Charles “Danny” Eugene Stow, the grandson of the soldier who took the sword, was in failing health.
“He said he would like to get it back to the people who it belongs to,” Langmaid said, and enlisted a friend’s daughter to help.
Through internet searches, she was able to connect with Langmaid. It turned out the sword was in the same state he was.
“The sword was in North Georgia and I was in Atlanta at CNN,” Langmaid said. “The idea we were in the same state was stunning.”
The story the woman offered sounded so far fetched he was suspicious, he said. But, “she knew too much about the sword,” he said. “The call was unbelievable. I knew about the sword; Bill had written about it.”
It turned out it was real.
“The person who had it wanted to give it back, no strings attached,” Langmaid said. The sword had been stored in a trunk that belonged to Stow’s grandfather in Warrenton, Ga.
Langford has a video of Stow talking to him about the sword when the two met in a diner in North Georgia.
Langmaid said given it is over 150 years old, the sword, engraved with Coulter’s name and “Clinton, Massachusetts,” it is in pretty good shape, though the scabbard was painted and there is some rust.
“The intricacy of the engraving is remarkable,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of history.”
That was in August 2017.
This Saturday, the sword will be returned to Clinton, where it will be on loan to the Clinton Historical Society.
In a time when vestiges of the confederate cause supporting slavery are being torn down, the sword, representing those who were dedicated to saving the union and eliminating slavery, arrives home at a time when it can remind people of the goal of those who went to war in the 1860s, and the sacrifices of thousands of soldiers.
At that time, The Courant newspaper was owned by the Coulter family; they would later start the Daily Item, now The Item. Almost all The Courant newspaper’s male staff in Clinton enlisted.
The family volunteers, who enlisted in both Massachusetts and New York units, included Coulter’s father, James W. Coulter, who enlisted in 1861, but was later discharged due to his age.
Clarence L. Coulter, William’s 25-year-old brother who died on Oct. 2, 1863, of wounds suffered at The Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., was one of the estimated 750,000 who died in the bloodiest conflict in which American soldiers served.
The sword William James Coulter was given by fellow citizens and that he carried into battles in the war to save the Union is emblematic of the man.
“He was a remarkable man,” Langmaid said. “I love the idea of returning it to Clinton.”
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