Civil War's Gen. Nagle finally gets his sword back
May 29, 2010 4:00 AM
Artist and Civil War historian Mike Kraus, left, and National Park Service ranger John David Hoptak at the statue of Brig. Gen. James Nagle. A new bronze sword Mr. Kraus made for the statue in his McCandless studio will be unveiled during a dedication ceremony today at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 1848, when James Nagle returned home to Pottsville after serving in the Mexican War, Schuylkill County residents gave the 26-year-old hero a beautifully engraved, silver presentation sword with a purple amethyst at its handle.
Brig. Gen. Nagle treasured the weapon, carrying it through the Civil War's bloody hours at Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, where his brigade of 1,500 men suffered heavy casualties.
The only Pennsylvanian to recruit four regiments for the Union Army during the Civil War, Gen. Nagle was honored again in 1904 when 36 surviving veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry erected a statue of him at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. And, by design, a bronze sword hung beside the statue.
Sometime in the 1920s -- no one seems to know how or when -- the weapon attached to the 7-foot-tall statue disappeared. During a ceremony today, the figure of a man so beloved by his soldiers that they looked upon him as a friend will be given a new sword created by Mike Kraus, a McCandless artist, historian and Civil War re-enactor.
Great-great-grandchildren of the general are expected to come from North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arizona, said John David Hoptak, a National Park Service ranger at Antietam. The author of two Civil War books and an authority on Gen. Nagle, Mr. Hoptak expects as many as 60 people for the ceremony.
"I'm looking forward to that," he said.
Like his hero, Mr. Hoptak also hails from Schuylkill County, north of Philadelphia. He noticed that the sword was missing and in 2008, began raising $7,000 to pay for a new one. He was aided by Western Maryland Interpretative Association, a nonprofit group that runs the bookstore at Antietam. Donations arrived from descendants of Gen. Nagle and regimental veterans.
"I think he represented the American spirit of the 19th century," Mr. Hoptak said. "There was a devotion to duty and to the nation. He had no military training, but he raised a company that fought in Mexico."
Gen. Nagle's daring leadership earned his men's respect.
"He was always leading from the front. He had a good ability to inspire his men on the battlefield. He took care of them," Mr. Hoptak said.
"We always regarded you as a friend and father, rather than a mere military commander," one of his soldiers wrote in a letter dated October 1861. His men presented him then with a field glass, a forerunner of binoculars. The instrument allowed him to get a better look at terrain and troop movements.
While he earned a living as a painter, paper hanger and county sheriff, Gen. Nagle may have been influenced by a relative's example.
"His own grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War under [George] Washington. Perhaps that was an inspiration. His grandfather lived until the 1840s and was around for Nagle's adolescence," Mr. Hoptak said.
A year after the Civil War ended, Gen. Nagle, 44, died of heart disease, leaving behind a wife and seven children.
"She never remarried but she did fight to get a pension from his military service. ... Most of the children were under 18 at the time of his death," Mr. Hoptak said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, traveled to Antietam with the new 44-inch-long sword and took measurements to make sure that it fit properly. Cast in bronze at a Cleveland foundry and weighing 9 pounds, this new solid bronze weapon will be carefully attached to the statue and draped in an American flag until it is unveiled today.
To make the new version, Mr. Kraus examined photographs of Gen. Nagle's original presentation sword, which was donated by a descendant in 1999 to the Schuylkill County Historical Society. Mr. Kraus, who earned a degree in fine art at Edinboro University in 1976, is no stranger to working in bronze. In 2000, he created a Holocaust memorial for Temple Ohav Shalom in McCandless.
In a more recent commission, he used 850 pounds of memorial plaques from various Jewish congregations that have closed to forge a new sculpture. From the plaques, he created six bronze triangles that emerge from a boulder at a Beaver Falls cemetery in Beaver County. Together, the bronze triangles form a six-pointed Star of David.
But this is the first sword he has ever made. He is excited to see his work at Antietam, and to see Gen. Nagle's statue intact once more.
"It connected me to the battlefield and the memorials that were placed there. We said we care. We said we want to see it the way the veterans envisioned it. We put it back to what it was."