Friday, November 05, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

For more than three centuries, the government of South Carolina has used a ceremonial sword to represent the state’s military strength and civil authority. Held aloft and brandished before crowds of citizens, this distinctive blade has played an important role in the Palmetto State’s long history of political pageantry. The original “sword of state” disappeared from the state house in 1941, however, and its theft is now a cold case of historic proportions. To assist the recovery efforts of state investigators and the FBI, let’s recall the legacy of this important stolen artifact.

The notion of a sword representing the power of the government harkens back to the ancient roots of the European culture that formed the nucleus of the modern state of South Carolina. The steel sword was once the most important weapon of the kings, princes, knights, and soldiers who waged war in the distant past. Black powder firearms began to appear on fields of battle in the late fifteenth century, and muskets gradually displaced swords in general warfare during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During this military transition, the role of the sword in European culture became more symbolic than practical. By the time of the founding of the Carolina colony in 1670, monarchs and lesser heads of state used swords to represent their strength and prestige in formal ceremonies rooted in ancient traditions. It became customary at such affairs for some person of distinction to bear or carry the upright sword in front of the head of state as they processed across the stages of political theater.


The use of swords did not entirely disappear from European and colonial American culture, of course. All military officers of the eighteenth century, both on land and at sea, wore sword belts that supported relatively lightweight blades sheathed in elaborate scabbards, as did affluent men with pretentions to gentility. Such weapons, commonly called small swords in English, were more decorative than practical, but they served well enough in the occasional duel. In contrast to the fashionable small sword, the swords preferred by heads of state were broader, heavier blades that represented older traditions in the culture of edged weaponry. The sword of state, as such symbols became known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was not a practical weapon, but an elaborate, tangible expression of the power and dignity of the government.

The story of South Carolina’s state sword begins in Charleston, the colonial capital, in the spring of 1704. On the sixth day of May, the provincial Commons House of Assembly was wrapping up its affairs at the end of a brief legislative session. The Clerk of the House recorded the day’s events in a manuscript journal, and noted the arrival of a brief message from Governor Sir Nathaniel Johnson (1644–1712). Johnson forwarded to the House “an acc[oun]t of the charges of the Sword of State . . . to be made use of for the public service.” The cost was £26.11.3, the specificity of which implies that the sword had already been fabricated. Evidently, Johnson had already purchased the sword using his own funds or credit, and was merely asking the provincial government to reimburse him or to pay the seller directly.

Nothing is known of the sword’s origin, and its path to South Carolina is obscure. A Charleston merchant might have imported the sword from London with other finished goods for local sale, or Governor Johnson might have asked a colleague in England to select and ship it directly to him. In either case, the sword might have arrived here in finished condition, or it might have arrived as an unmounted blade for which a Charleston craftsperson fabricated a decorative hilt. Forged of fine steel and embellished with precious metals, the sword’s value was not insignificant. Although it’s difficult to translate the 1704 sum of £26.11.3 into a meaningful value in today’s money, we can estimate that it was equivalent to something between four and eight thousand U.S. Dollars today.

The Commons House of Assembly controlled the purse strings of the provincial treasury, and, to our knowledge, its members had not previously conversed with the governor about the purchase of a state sword. The account Johnson submitted on May 6th was, therefore, an unexpected public expense, but one that the governor apparently felt was justifiable. A distinctive ceremonial sword would enhance the solemnity and dignity of future public events in South Carolina, and such a purchase would benefit future governors more than the present incumbent. Sir Nathaniel might have personally initiated its purchase, but the sword was not merely a luxury item desired by an aging executive.

After a brief unrecorded debate of Governor Johnson’s account, the Speaker of the Commons House, Job Howes, called for a vote. “The question is,” said the speaker, “whether the publick shall pay for the Sword of State for the use of the governor and all succeeding governors for the hon[o]r of this government.” The clerk of the House did not record the tally of votes, but simply noted that the question “carried in the affirmative.” Having voted to purchase the blade recommended by Governor Johnson, the speaker “ordered, that George Logan Esqr. Publick Receiver [i.e., public treasurer], do pay the sum of £26: 11s 3d for the making of a Sword of State for the R[igh]t Hon[orable] the Governor and all succeeding Governors for the Hon[o]r of the government, and that this order be sent to the Governor & Council for their concurrence.”[1] Johnson and his council of advisors approved the expenditure, of course, and thereafter became the custodians of the ceremonial blade.

The sword chosen by Governor Nathaniel Johnson in 1704 was a distinctive piece of cutlery that was clearly designed for ceremonial use. Its broad blade, measuring approximately 42 inches long, was hand-wrought by an expert craftsperson into a gracefully undulating or wavy profile. Reminiscent of a flickering flame, this style of blade is now commonly called a flamberge. The steel blade was mounted to a robust silver hilt that adds approximately eight inches to its overall length. Although this sword is mentioned from time to time in the records of South Carolina’s early government, no detailed descriptions or illustrations of it appear to have been made prior to the twentieth century.

It is possible, however, that the 1704 sword of state was featured in a formal portrait of Governor Johnson made in 1705. That famous painting, now held by the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, depicts the stern, sixty-one-year-old governor with a broad mustache and grey wig, dressed in ceremonial black armor adorned with gold trim and a white cravat. The top left corner of the canvas includes a small rendering of the governor’s coat-of-arms, and its crest is surmounted by an arm supporting a very small sword. A close inspection of this sword’s blade suggests that its edges might undulate in the same wavy manner as the sword of state, but the minute scale of the image precludes a definitive conclusion. The visual context of this feature, couched within a personalized work of art, raises an important but perhaps unanswerable question: Did Governor Johnson add the wavy-edge flamberge of 1704 to his armorial crest, or did he select South Carolina’s sword of state to match a preexisting feature of his personal coat-of-arms?

From the time of its purchase in 1704 to the later years of the eighteenth century, South Carolina’s sword of state belonged to the office of the governor and, by extension, his council of appointed advisors. The governor was captain-general and commander-in-chief in and over all the martial forces of early South Carolina, but he did not personally wield the blade that symbolized his power. In civic processions held in Charleston from 1704 to 1772, the sword of state was carried by South Carolina’s chief law-enforcement officer, the provost marshal, who held the blade aloft and walked directly in front of the governor. The office of provincial provost marshal morphed into the office of Sheriff of Charleston District in the summer of 1772, and that officer continued to bear the sword of state as long as the capital remained in Charleston. When the seat of state government and the sword moved to Columbia in the spring of 1790, the sheriff of Richland District (now Richland County) inherited the duties of bearing the sword of state on civic occasions.

South Carolina’s sword of state has been used for a variety of public ceremonies over the past three centuries, including inaugurations, declarations of both war and peace, proclamations of monarchs, and the proceedings of the state senate. To illustrate its career in local politics, let’s examine a few examples of these different uses.

The sword of state has played an important role in the ceremonial inauguration of almost every governor who presided over the provincial and state government of South Carolina, from the first decade of the eighteenth century to the present. Whether these governors were appointed by officials in England, as during the colonial era, or elected by state citizens after the American Revolution, their commissions were read aloud in public ceremonies that included the sword of state as a symbol of executive power. Each of these inaugurations differed in various details shaped by the circumstances of the day, of course, but all included a mix of public and private scenes that followed a similar outline.[2]

When Governor James Glen arrived in Charleston from England on December 17th, 1743, for example, members of the local militia met his boat near the south end of East Bay Street and escorted him to the Council Chamber, an early version of a state house that once occupied the site of the present Old Exchange Building at the east end of Broad Street. There Glen presented his royal commission to the members of his advisory council, called at that time His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. The new governor and his executive board then followed the provost marshal bearing the sword of state and processed with the members of the Commons House of Assembly from the Council Chamber to Granville Bastion, which then formed the southern terminus of East Bay Street. Standing on the ramparts of the fortification, the secretary of the province read aloud Governor Glen’s royal commission, “which was followed by three whirras [huzzahs], a discharge of the cannon at the bastion, and a general [musket] volley of the regiment. Then his Excellency, attended by all the gentlemen present, marched back in like manner, to the Council Chamber, being saluted as he passed by all the officers of the regiment.”[3]

As a symbol of the executive’s military power, the South Carolina Sword of State once played a prominent role in public ceremonies surrounding the formal declarations of war and peace. On several occasions in eighteenth-century, the provincial militia paraded through the streets of Charleston with muskets and cannon, accompanied by government officials, in solemn events designed to heighten the political gravity of the day. The first such occasion to include the sword of state was the proclamation of peace between Britain and Spain in late 1713, which ended a decade-long conflict known here as Queen Anne’s War. Britain again declared war on Spain in December 1718 (the War of the Quadruple Alliance), and that news was proclaimed with due ceremony in Charleston sometime during the early months of 1719. The warring nations signed a peace treaty in February 1720, which was proclaimed in Charleston later that year. Robust descriptions of these early civic events do not survive, but descriptions of later proclamations of war and peace provide many colorful details.

Britain again declared war against Spain in October 1739 (the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear), and official notification of that fact arrived in Charleston several months later. On the 28th of April, 1740, the people of Charleston and the town’s militia regiment of foot soldiers and horse-mounted troopers assembled around the Council Chamber at the east end of Broad Street. The secretary of the province and the clerk of council then appeared on the building’s second-story balcony, facing the crowded street, and read aloud the king’s proclamation of war. At the conclusion of the text, the provost marshal stepped onto the balcony with the sword of state, drew the blade from its scabbard, and brandished it three times over his head. The militia fired a general discharge of small arms as the crowd cheered loudly, but this was just the beginning of the day’s activities. The assembled militiamen turned westward to lead the marshal carrying the unsheathed sword of state and a column of government officials to the “publick market-place” at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets. Here the entire ceremony was repeated before processing down Meeting Street to Broughton’s Battery at White Point. From the ramparts of that fortification, and again a fourth time at Granville Bastion, the reading of the proclamation and the brandishing of the sword of state were followed by cannon blasts as well as musket volleys and loud cheers from the public.[4]

A nearly identical ceremony in Charleston on July 19th, 1744, accompanied the formal proclamation of war against France. Hostilities between the various European powers officially ended during the autumn of 1748, but their treaty of peace was not finalized until the early weeks of 1749. On June 12th of that year, civic and military officials in Charleston again gathered around the Council Chamber to hear the king’s proclamation of peace in a slightly abridged ceremony that included just three formal readings.[5] The clouds of war returned in 1756, and King George’s latest declaration of war against France was read aloud twice in Charleston on August 28th of that year, at the Council Chamber and at Granville Bastion. The provost marshal of South Carolina again unsheathed and brandished the sword of state on May 20th, 1762, when Charlestonians twice heard the king’s declaration of war against Spain.[6] The sword was ceremonially returned to its scabbard at a public celebration on August 26th, 1763, when the marshal and other government officials again processed from the Council Chamber to Granville Bastion.[7]

The War of American Independence commenced in April 1775 without a formal declaration of war, and without any coordination between the thirteen colonies that seceded from their union with Britain. The Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the new United States of America on July 4th, 1776, served as a declaration of war, and therefore was proclaimed aloud in Charleston and elsewhere with the customary protocol. On August 5th of that year, the Sheriff of Charleston District wielded the sword of state in three public ceremonies held in Broad Street and at the Liberty Tree, each of which followed the outline of colonial-era precedents. Henry Laurens, who attended the ceremonies of that day, compared them with scenes from his youth in a letter to his son, John Laurens: “There I saw that sword of state which I had before seen four several times unsheathed in declarations of war against France & Spain by the [two King] Georges now unsheathed & borne in a declaration of war against George the Third.” The state sword, again wielded by the district sheriff, was ceremonially retired in a grand civic festival held in Charleston on April 22nd, 1783, to mark the official conclusion of the American Revolutionary War.[8]

South Carolina’s sword of state is a vestige of its colonial creation under the authority of the English crown. Although the state began as a proprietary colony owned and managed by the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, those gentlemen and their tenants in North America were obliged to demonstrate loyalty to the reigning monarchs of England and, after the Acts of Union in 1707, Great Britain. In the early days of 1715, for example, South Carolina’s provincial government staged a public proclamation of the death of Queen Anne and the accession of King George, pursuant to instructions issued by the Lords Proprietors several months earlier. Similar instructions arrived in the autumn of 1727 following George’s death, and the accession of King George II was formally proclaimed in Charleston on October 31st of that year.[9] These ceremonies probably included the 1704 sword of state, but surviving descriptions provide few details. Later descriptions of the formal proclamation of King George III suggest, however, that these early events likely followed the familiar outline of the aforementioned declarations of war and peace.

On the second day of February, 1761, a large crowd assembled in Broad Street to hear the formal proclamation of King George III. Lieutenant-Governor William Bull first read the proclamation to a select group of local dignitaries gathered within the new Council Chamber within the unfinished state house at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. The provost marshal with the sword of state then led a procession of South Carolina’s civil and military officers outside to the “great square” formed by the intersection of Charleston’s widest streets. Here the entire ceremony was repeated for the benefit of the listening public, and concluded with the loud exclamation, “God Save the King!” The procession then followed the marshal and sword to the Guard House at the east end of Broad Street, below the old Council Chamber, for a third repetition. Finally, the marshal bearing the sword of state led the procession to Granville Bastion for a final reading of the proclamation from the venerable ramparts. The long ceremony concluded with a joyous but deafening display of military firepower, provided by all the musketeers and artillerymen of the local militia, several infantry companies of the British Army then stationed in Charleston, dozens of cannons mounted along the length of East Bay Street, and all of the warships and merchant vessels then anchored in the harbor.[10]

From Sir Nathaniel Johnson in 1704 to Charles Pinckney in 1790, South Carolina’s sword of state was associated with the governor and his executive council of appointed advisors.[11] The first state constitution of 1776, adopted during the early days of the American Revolution, preserved this traditional relationship but changed the names of the executive offices to “president” and “privy council” and created a new “legislative council” drawn from the membership of the House of Representatives (formerly known as the Commons House of Assembly). The revised state constitution of 1778 changed the chief executive’s title back to governor and transformed the “legislative council” into the South Carolina Senate. Shortly after the seat of state government moved to Columbia in the spring of 1790, the legislature adopted a new constitution that abolished the privy council and pared the executive office down to a governor and lieutenant governor.[12]

As a result of these constitutional changes, custody of the sword of state transferred from the executive office to the South Carolina Senate in the 1790s. Officers of the senate became responsible for its care and ceremonial use, just as officers of the state House of Representatives had been responsible for the state mace since its purchase in 1756. By the middle of the nineteenth century, each of these legislative bodies employed a sergeant-at-arms who was responsible for handling the historic symbol entrusted to their care.

The strife that characterized much of South Carolina politics after the Civil War probably led to a brief period of declining use of the sword of state, but stability increased within the present state house during the waning years of the nineteenth century.[13] By the early years of the twentieth century, the South Carolina Sword of State was a familiar fixture on the rostrum of the Senate Chamber. The sergeant-at-arms processed with the ceremonial blade into the chamber every morning of every legislative session and retired it to another room when the assembly adjourned. On the morning of Thursday, February 13th, 1941, however, the sergeant, Zed Hope, was shocked to find the sword missing from the rostrum. Hope recalled that he had last carried the blade a week earlier, on February 5th, while other staff recalled seeing it the following day. A porter who dusted the senate chamber on Monday, February 10th, thought he remembered seeing the sword that day, but he wasn’t positive. Word of the missing sword leaked out of the state house during the afternoon of February 13th and appeared in newspapers across the state the following morning.[14]

More than eighty years after its disappearance, the mystery surrounding South Carolina’s historic sword of state lingers over the state house in Columbia. The details of the search for this missing blade form a story of its own, but I regret to say I’m not familiar with the specifics of the investigation. I do know, however, that this distinctive artifact is included among the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, a fact that testifies to the scope and gravity of the case. The FBI’s website includes a mediocre photograph of the sword that was made sometime prior to 1941 and is apparently the only known image of this 300-year-old artifact. While I have no connection to the ongoing investigation, I hope to contribute to the search by raising public awareness of the colorful story behind this important piece of missing state property.

Immediately after the disappearance of the 1704 sword, the Charleston Museum supplied the state senate with an old military saber as a temporary replacement. The senate purchased a more refined English blade in autumn of 1946, but that sword was likewise superseded four-and-a-half years later. South Carolina’s present sword of state, which arrived in February 1951, was a gift of former British ambassador, Edward Wood, the 1st Earl of Halifax.[15] If you look closely at a photograph of the current sword on the State House website, or if you visit the state house to see it in person, you’ll notice that the blade has scalloped edges that approximate the wavy profile of the original instrument.

South Carolina’s current sword of state is a handsome, elegant blade that serves well in the political theater of the twenty-first century, but, as a historian, I would prefer to see the sword selected by Governor Sir Nathaniel Johnson more than three centuries ago. That gleaming steel blade with its distinctive wavy edges was held aloft during numerous episodes of crisis and celebration in the Palmetto State, from the reign of Queen Anne to the eve of the Second World War. It is a symbolic, impractical device of relatively small monetary value, but South Carolina’s original sword of state is a historical treasure that I still hope to see.


[1] South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, Green’s transcription, 1702–1706, pages 247, 268. Green’s mid-nineteenth-century transcription includes several pages that appear to have been recorded out of order in the damaged original journal, which is now lost. Part of the above-quoted text appears adjacent to material dated 17 October 1704. In my judgment, the entire conversation about the sword occurred on 6 May, the final day of a legislative session.

[2] Temporary colonial governors, like Deputy Governor Robert Daniel, President Arthur Middleton, Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Broughton, and Lieutenant-Governor William Bull were sworn into office in private ceremonies that did not include formal processions or the sword of state. Similarly, inauguration ceremonies were not afforded to later lieutenant-governors who replaced executives who died or resigned. Governor John Mathews was inaugurated in Jacksonboro in January 1782, while the sword of state remained in British-occupied Charleston.

[3] South Carolina Gazette (hereafter SCG), 19 December 1743, pages 2–3.

[4] The ceremonies of 28 April 1740 are described in SCG, 26 April–3 May 1740, page 1; my summary of that event includes a few details from the nearly-identical activities surrounding the formal proclamation of war against France on 19 July 1744, which was described in SCG, 23 July 1744, page 1, and in the Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 11, part 2, pages 414–6, at SCDAH.

[5] SCG, 8–15 August 1748, page 1; SCG, 31 October–7 November 1748, page 1; SCG, 12–19 June 1749, page 2.

[6] SCG, 26 August–2 September 1756, page 1; SCG, 15–22 May 1762, page 3; see the descriptions of the public recitals of the king’s declarations of war against France on 28 August 1756 and against Spain on 20 May 1762 in the Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 25, pp. 341–42; and the un-numbered Council journal of January 1761–December 1762, pp. 498–503, at SCDAH.

[7] SCG, 20–27 August 1763, page 3; SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 29, pp. 82–83 (25 August 1763).

[8] David R. Chesnutt, et al., eds., The Papers of Henry Laurens, volume 11 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 228; South Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser, 26 April 1783.

[9] See the letter dated 10 August 1714 and the memorandum dated 31 October 1727 among the transcriptions of South Carolina materials in the British Public Records Office (BPRO), volume 6, pp. 63–64, and volume 13, pp. 33–36, available on microfilm in the S.C. History Room at CCPL.

[10] The ceremonies of 2 February 1761 are described in SCG, 31 January–7 February 1761, page 2; SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, January–December 1761 (Sainsbury’s transcription), pp. 306–8.

[11] Shortly after a legislative act incorporated Charles Town as “Charles City and Port” in June 1722, councilor Arthur Middleton suggested that the sword of state should be given to the new city government. Middleton felt that the sword was associated with the proprietary government that colonists had rejected in the Revolution of 1719, and was therefore inappropriate for the use of the provisional royal government that commenced under Governor Francis Nicholson in May 1721. Nicholson’s verdict to this issue is not known, but the cancellation of the charter of “Charles City and Port” by British officials in the summer if 1723 rendered Middleton’s objections moot. See SCDAH, microfilm reel BMP/D487, containing the Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, 4 September to 6 October 1722, held at the National Archives of the United Kingdom (CO 5/425); Bruce T. McCully, ed., “The Charleston Government Act of 1722: A Neglected Document,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 83 (October 1982): 303–19.

[12] For the text of the state constitutions of 1776, 1778, and 1790, see Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 1 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1836), 128–34, 137–46, 184–93.

[13] Since the 1968 publication of an article distributed by the Associated Press, many sources have reported that South Carolina’s sword of state was stolen during the Union occupation of Columbia in February 1865 and later returned from an unidentified location in Philadelphia; see, for example, Charleston News and Courier, 3 April 1968, page 12A, and elsewhere. I have not found any evidence to corroborate this story, which I believe stems from a misreading of an article published in 1865 by William Gilmore Simms. The author, who was then living in Columbia, lamented the theft of the masonic “sword of state” belonging to the Grand Lodge of South Carolina; see William Gilmore Simms, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C. (Columbia, S.C.: Daily Phoenix, 1865), 44–45.

[14] News and Courier, 14 February 1941 (Friday), page 1, “Senate’s Ancient Sword Vanishes.”

[15] News and Courier, 1 March 1941, page 5, “Charleston Saber Given to Senate”; News and Courier, 27 June 1944, page 9, “Lost Sword of State May Be Replaced by King of England”; News and Courier, 29 October 1946, page 11, “S.C. Senate Receives New Sword of State”; News and Courier, 20 February 1951, page 9, “British Present New Sword of State to South Carolina.”


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