Pistols with a past
Presented by Lafayette to George Washington, they're displayed for the first time.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
By Rebekah Scott, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
President Andrew Jackson once called these great guns "sacred and holy relics," and displayed them over his fireplace.
Today, the elegant pair of combat pistols once owned by America's first president are on public display for the first time, at Fort Ligonier in Westmoreland County.
The long, lightweight flintlocks were made in France for the Marquis de Lafayette, an important foreign volunteer in the American Revolution. They are walnut set in steel, inlaid with gold and silver, engineered for killing. The daring young aristocrat brought them to America as arms for the rebellion.
Lafayette soon gave them to his mentor, Gen. George Washington, who strapped them to his saddle at Monmouth, Yorktown and Valley Forge. He later brought them west to Bedford to help quell the Whiskey Rebellion.
A generation later, in 1824, a Washington heir gave the pistols to Jackson, hero of the battle of New Orleans. He eventually returned them to the Lafayette family, and they remained in private hands.
In 2002, the pistols went on the block, setting a sales record for weapons at Christie's Auction House, where a "mystery bidder" paid $1.9 million for them.
That bidder turned out to be the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which has donated the guns to the nonprofit museum and re-created fort in Westmoreland County.
"These are a link to the founders of the United States," said Martin West, director of the Fort Ligonier Association. "They're weapons of war. They've been fired, for sure."
"After two centuries in private hands, we are pleased to make these important pistols, which symbolize the tumultuous birth of our new nation, available to the public for the first time," said Richard P. Mellon, foundation chairman. Mellon and West were hosts of a gathering of almost 200 guests yesterday at Fort Ligonier to unveil the museum's newest exhibit, the George Washington Collection.
There, the guns are joined by another rarity that's existed outside public view for centuries, a Washington manuscript simply titled "Remarks."
Washington wrote the document in 1787, vividly describing incidents found nowhere else in his writings. It reveals personal thoughts and reflections on the French and Indian War during the early years of his military career.
It includes a description of a 1758 twilight foray near Fort Ligonier, where Washington's troops mistook one another for French invaders in the dying light. The "friendly fire" incident cost the Virginia Regiments 40 casualties, and was stopped only when Washington stepped between the firing lines and shouted to his men to stop shooting.
"Remarks" was bought with a grant from the Laurel Foundation and several other donors.
"Remarks" was simply a draft document for use by an early biographer and was never meant for posterity. Washington told an aide to burn it, but it somehow survived.
The invaluable gifts are part of an ongoing 250th anniversary observance of the French and Indian War, which played itself out across Western Pennsylvania, upstate New York and southern Canada. Fort Ligonier was an important stop on the pioneer road between Bedford and what is now Pittsburgh. It is part of a string of area sites important in the French and Indian War that raged through the 1750s, opened the West for settlement and launched George Washington's career.
Fort Ligonier's Colonial-era treasures include a portrait of Sir John Ligonier by Sir Joshua Reynolds, dozens of original or reproduction firearms ranging in size from pistols to howitzers and thousands of items such as stirrups, chamber pots, musket barrels and flea combs found on site during archeological digs.
The fort stands at Route 30 and Route 711 in Ligonier, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. It is open daily April through October. For hours and directions, call 724-238-9701.