Sword of Bunker Hill

Sword of Bunker Hill, believed to have been carried by Joseph Warren. Courtesy of Mass Historical Society and Boston Public Library

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Source: Massachusetts Historical Society artifact. Photograph by Boston Public Library, where the sword is currently on display through November 29, 2015. It is part of the “We Are One” exhibition at McKim Hall at the main library location.

Commentary: This sword is believed to have been carried by Joseph Warren at the moment of his death at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. In 1823 a Captain Cornelius Dunham of Maine asserted its history and provenance. Warren descendants and the public accepted the story at face value. An almost 50 year gap between the seminal event and appearance of the sword, and the several unnamed hands through which the sword was said to have passed, in my opinion combine to cast doubt on its authenticity.

Nevertheless, it is certainly an 18th century dress sword of the kind Joseph Warren might well have carried. The artifact and its story confer a peculiar aura for those Americans who have held the Sword of Bunker Hill in their hands. Regardless of whether it is exactly what it purports to be, the sword also serves as a distinctive example of material culture. It reflects a jingoistic legacy of the Revolutionary War era celebrated during the 19th century.

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