Courtney & Tennent Marked Confederate Naval Cutlass by Robert Mole
- Product Code: EWSK-1637-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
In June of 1848 a notice in the Charleston Mercury in Charleston, SC had noted that Gilbert B. Tennent was joining the wholesale hardware business of (W.R.) Morton & (W.C.) Courtney. On June 1, 1849, a year later, another notice published in the Charleston Mercury announced that “The Subscribers having purchased W.R. Morton’s interest in the concern of Morton, Courtney & Co. will continue the business under the firm of Courtney & Tennent. (Signed) W.C. Courtney & G.B. Tennent.” Thus, was established the firm of Courtney & Tennent, which would be a major player in the importation of goods to the Charleston market for the next decade and half and which would help to equip the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. An additional partner, James B. Evans joined the firm in June of 1852, creating the first iteration of the firm of Courtney, Tennent & Co.
The firm was listed in period directories as an importer of “Hardware, Cutlery & c.” and at least initially was focused on the wholesale sale of their imported goods to the retail trade. An 1852 advertisement that ran of October 15 of that year in the Charleston Daily Courier listed that the firm was also as an importer and seller of “Tin Plate, Iron Wire, American & Russia Sheet Iron, Solder, Bar Copper, Rivets” and further noted that, “A large assortment of the above goods kept constantly on hand and will be sold low.” The business was located at 35 Hayne Street in Charleston and like most businesses of the period one of the most feared business catastrophes was a fire. A May 2nd, 1854 notice in the Charleston Daily Courier noted that on that day an Underwriters Sale would occur at 186 King Street at which the salvaged inventory from a recent fire at Courtney, Tennent & Co would be sold. Among the items listed for sale in the notice were: “Table knives and forks, Pen & Pocket Knives, Scissors, Razors, Files, Chisels, Hatchets, Hammers, Saws, Pocket Books & c. & c.” This partial list indicates that the firm was well acquainted with the English cutlery trade and certainly had strong connections within it. As with most firms of the period, Courtney, Tennent & Co rebuilt after their fire and returned their business, despite the financial setback.
In 1858, partner James Evans passed away and the firm returned to their original business name of simply Courtney & Tennent. Two years later, in June of 1860, both J. Waring Axson and Jasper W. Lillard joined the company as partners and once again the Courtney, Tennent & Co moniker was in use. This four-way partnership would be the ownership of the company through the American Civil War period. At some point between the 1854 fire and the addition of the new partners in 1860, the company expanded their imported product lines and apparently began to deal in a wider range of items. The masthead of the firm’s invoices immediately prior to the Civil War noted that the firm was “Direct Importers & Wholesale Dealers in Hardware, Cutlery, Guns, Pistols, &c.” As the Civil War erupted, the company used their contacts in Great Britain to make a variety of imported goods available for the Confederacy. It is at this point that the company’s work to support and supply the southern Confederacy becomes somewhat more enigmatic.
Over the years two very specific forms of Confederate edged weapons have been specifically associated with the Charleston firm of Courtney, Tennent & Co. These were the Confederate Naval Officer’s Sword, know colloquially by modern collectors as the “Dolphin Head” sword and a Naval Cutlass that was produced in two variations. All of these edged weapons were manufactured by Robert Mole & Sons of Birmingham and are found marked with a two-line boxed cartouche that reads COURTNEY & TENNENT / CHARLESTON. S.C. It is quite likely that Courtney, Tennent & Company’s contacts in the English cutlery trade led to their association with Mole for the production of edged weapons.
At the outbreak of the war Gilbert Tennent traveled to England for a multitude of reasons. One was clearly to conduct business on behalf of his firm with the numerous contacts that he had with the industrial and manufacturing businesses of Great Britain. He was also asked to represent the Charleston firm of John Fraser & Company in the sale of Confederate cotton bonds to raise funds for the acquisition of military equipment and for the financial support of the war. John Fraser & Co were intertwined with the New York firm of Trenholm Brothers as well as the Liverpool (England) based firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Company. The principle in all of three of these companies was George Alfred Trenholm of Charleston. Trenholm served as one of the primary financiers of the Confederate cause and used his financial firms in New York and most importantly in Liverpool to facilitate the majority of Confederate arms purchases in England. He subsequently arranged the transportation of many of these goods via a fleet of blockade runners that he either owned or controlled. Fraser, Trenholm & Company would essentially become the financial clearinghouse for all Confederate governmental purchases in Great Britain and would eventually be ruined due to the failure of the Confederate government which resulted in massive defaults on financial obligations on both sides of the ocean. It was in this dual capacity as a financial agent for one of the Confederacy’s primary financial supporters and to further the goals of his own company that Tennent found himself in the position to influence the type of equipment purchased by the Confederate Navy.
Tennent was tasked with providing samples of a wide variety of naval items to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory as well as to Commander James H North who was involved in the procurement of Confederate naval equipment. Tennent helped to supply items as varied as buttons and telescopes to the Confederate Navy, as well as a small number of Wilson’s Patent Naval Rifles and of course, the previously mentioned edged weapons.
There remains some confusion regarding the acquisition of these edged weapons by the Charleston importers, as there is little evidence that they were contracted with by the Confederate government to provide the swords and cutlasses. In the case of the officer’s swords, this is quite understandable as Confederate officers, like their northern brethren, were required to purchase their own uniforms, arms and equipment from an allowance provided by the army or navy or from their own financial resources. Thus, an officer purchased his own sword and Courtney, Tennent & Co clearly imported the “Dolphin Head” swords on a speculative basis for private sale to Confederate naval officers. The Naval Officer’s Sword was of a pattern then in production for use by British Naval Officers, so only a change to the motifs of the blade etching and guard decorations were necessary to make them appropriate to the southern market.
The cutlasses are somewhat more problematic. They do not follow any British pattern of the period and in fact are more like some of the southern-made cutlasses produced by New Orleans makers like Cook & Brother and Thomas, Leech & Company. The two types of cutlass procured by Courtney, Tennent & Co from Mole were nominally 25” in overall length with wasp-waisted 20” long spear point blade with a nominally 10 ½” median fuller in the blade. The blade was reminiscent of the Roman Gladius and bore more resemblance to the US Model 1832 Heavy (Foot) Artillery Sword and the French sword that it was based upon, than any English cutlass. This same blade profile was used on a number of southern-made naval cutlasses, suggesting that Tennent may have provided a sample Thomas, Leech & Company or Cook & Brother cutlass to Mole as a pattern. The balance of the Mole-produced cutlasses were much more English in their design and construction. The southern-made cutlasses typically involved a cast brass hilt that was based upon the US M1832 Heavy Artillery Sword with the addition of a sheet brass basket guard. The Mole produced cutlass relied upon the tried and true English two-piece press-checkered multi-layer leather grip panels that were secured to the full-length blade tang that formed the base of the grip with a series of iron pins. Two forms of guards were used by Mole. The most common was a three-branch brass guard with an oval, forward-swept quillon at the top of the guard. The guard was essentially the same as the English Pattern 1853 Cavalry Saber guard, although the P1853 saber used an iron rather than brass guard. Interestingly, Mole produced a variant of the P1853 Cavalry Saber for the Confederacy that used a brass rather than iron guard. The less common variant of the Mole cutlass used a sheet iron basket guard that was typical of the British naval cutlasses of the period, but still used the checkered leather grip scales. An oval buff leather throat washer was included on the face of the guard as well. Both cutlasses were delivered with a brass mounted leather scabbard with a large button on the face of the throat to engage a belt frog. The cutlasses were marked MOLE on the upper spine of the blade, just forward of the guard and were stamped with the Courtney & Tennent mark on the reverse ricasso. So, the design essentially mated a traditional English pattern saber or cutlass hilt with a Roman inspired, southern-style blade. It is my belief that the much less common sheet iron guard Mole cutlasses were the first ones to be delivered at Tennent’s request, as they more closely resembled the southern-made cutlasses. I further believe that after these initial deliveries Mole offered to provide the cutlasses with the brass cavalry style hilt that he was using on cavalry sabers. This would make production sense for Mole as it simplified the process and eliminated the manufacture of the other pattern of guard. Mole more than likely offered to reduce the unit price of the cutlasses if the three-branch guard was adopted by Tennent. This rational helps to explain both the two patterns of cutlass produced by Mole and delivered by Tennent and why the sheet iron guard examples are quite scarce.
A search of available records of purchases and surviving receipts in both the files of Courtney, Tennent & Co and the Confederate Navy show no receipts or orders for Naval Cutlasses from Courtney, Tennent & Co. In fact, most of the receipts in the Confederate Citizen Files folder for the firm shows receipts for Confederate purchases of hardware, which was the primary business of the firm. These receipts cover everything from files to anvils, pad locks to nails and grindstones to sledgehammers, just to name a few of the items. In the Confederate Naval Files, receipts and orders for cutlasses from Thomas, Griswold & Company, Cook & Brother and Charles Wellford, among others are present, but none for, or from, Courtney, Tennent & Co. Admittedly the surviving files are far from complete, but the absence of the firm’s name is strange on the subject of cutlasses.
A clue may be found in a letter dated 10 July 1863 from Commander James H North, CSN to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. North was at the time writing from Scotland after a stopover in London to check on the progress of the construction of the would-be Confederate iron-clad Alexandra, as well as other ships, in the process of being built for the Confederacy. Halfway through the letter North notes that:
“As our Navy is now in its infancy, and thinking that it would be your wish to have a uniformity in everything, I have written to Mr. Tennent, a wholesale hardware merchant of Charleston, now in Liverpool, requesting him to obtain samples of everything we have ordered (rifles and pistols excepted), with the prices attached, so that I may send them to you by Lieutenant Whittle, if he should be able to take charge of them. I hope you may approve of these patterns, as we have gotten them up in much care. These patterns represent the articles ordered by Commander Sinclair and myself. (emphasis added) The swords and buttons are the same as used by Captain Semmes and his officers, and I think the same were carried home by Commander Pegram.” North continues later by saying, “I avail myself of this opportunity to call to the favorable notice of the department the obligations we are under to Mr. G.B. Tennent, of the firm Courtney & Tennent of Charleston and also to Mr. James Galbraith, of the house of Patrick Henderson & Co of Glasgow. These gentlemen have been untiring in their zeal and efforts to assist us in every way in the good cause that we are engaged in.”
From this correspondence it is clear that North was already procuring naval material from Tennent, in particular swords and buttons, although it is not clear if by “swords” he means cutlasses, naval officer’s swords or both. As a number of Confederate ships were built or repurposed in England and Scotland, it would make sense to procure their arms and equipment “on site” during the construction process. Thus, it seems likely that much of the material provided by Courtney, Tennent & Company was delivered to ships under construction or recently completed in Great Britain and was not shipped through the blockade for use, rather it was delivered directly to the ships prior to their putting out to sea. This may explain why there are no receipts or orders in the Confederate Navy files, as these orders may have all been made in Great Britain and the bills paid there as well. Certainly, the Confederate Navy was buying a substantial amount of equipment from Tennent and his partners, as North notes in the letter that the CS Navy should be cognizant of the “obligations we are under to Mr. G.B. Tennent, of the firm Courtney & Tennent of Charleston”. Clearly as of July 10, 1863, the Confederate Navy owed money to Courtney, Tennent & Co.
Offered here is a VERY GOOD condition example of the more commonly encountered of the two Robert Mole & Sons produced Confederate Naval Cutlasses, marked by Courtney, Tennent & Co. The spine of the cutlass is clearly stamped MOLE and the obverse ricasso is deeply and clearly stamped with a two-line boxed retailer’s mark that reads:
COURTNEY & TENNENT
The cutlass is of the pattern with a three-branch brass guard as used on the Mole variant Pattern 1853 cavalry sabers and retains its original scabbard. The blade is full-length and retains some of the original bright polish mixed with a duller pewter patina, making it somewhat difficult to photograph due to reflections. The blades shows scattered freckles and small patches of surface oxidation and dark age discoloration along its entire length on both sides with some small patches of minor surface roughness and a small amount of minor pitting which is primarily confined to the tip of the blade. The contrast between the brighter portions of the blade and the oxidized discoloration results in the photos making the discoloration appear to be worse than it is. In reality, a careful light cleaning would likely remove much of the discoloration along the length of the blade. The cutlass is in untouched condition and surfaced out west from an old family collection. The untouched brass guard has a thickly oxidized bronze patina with some patches of darker green verdigris. The blade is tightly secured to the guard and the peen at the rear of the pommel cap is completely undisturbed. The press-checkered leather grip scales retain fine, crisp checkering with old dust and dirt in the recesses of the checkering. The leather is in really nice condition and other than a few small surface handling marks and scuffs, remains in crisp, untouched condition. The original iron pins are in place, securing the grips and amazingly the grips have not significantly shrunk or warped, as they so often due over time. The original leather throat washer remains in place at the face of the guard and has a dark, untouched appearance as well. The original scabbard is only in about GOOD condition and has completely flaked, leaving only minute traces of the original black surface finish. Thankfully the remaining leather is relatively solid and strong, although very dry and potentially heading towards dry rot from long term storage in a particularly dry climate. The leather should be handled carefully and protected from further deterioration. All of the stitching is missing from the seam on the rear of the scabbard, but the seam remains fairly tight and has the appearance of being closed. Both of the brass mounts are deeply patinized with a rich bronze patina that matches the hilt of the cutlass very well. Both mounts remain attached by their original brass wire staples and are relatively secure. The original brass frog stud is in place on the face of the throat mount as well. Despite the condition issues of the scabbard, it is much better than not having a scabbard at all, as most examples that appear for sale do not retain their original scabbards.
Overall, this is very nice, and untouched example of fairly scarce and desirable Confederate Naval Cutlass produced by Robert Mole & Sons and sold to the Confederacy through the Charleston, SC firm of Courtney, Tennent & Co. This is a solid, completely authentic example that is 100% complete and correct, with the exception of the lost finish leather finish and stitching on the scabbard. This would be a fine addition to any collection of Confederate edged weapons, Confederate naval arms, or in particular a collection that focuses on Confederate imports from Great Britain or items related to Charleston, SC.