A few years after Mama’s death, I received the sword, and an explanation that the rifle had been destroyed. I cried for the loss of the rifle and the survival of the sword. I spent hours cleaning the sword and applied a light coat of oil to it. I shined the guard until it was clean and the number 41 could be clearly read. Then I hung the sword in the most conspicuous spot on our living room wall. I felt that my grand-uncle’s story and the reason for my grandmother’s reverence for him lay within the history of this sword. Now my quest was to find out all I could about the sword.
I started by calling a local military supply unit and spoke with a person utterly astonished by my questions about an ancient sword. After he satisfied himself that I was sane, his curiosity was engaged and he cheerfully became part of the process by directing me to the Smithsonian Institute. I found out that the sword was a Union Army Medical Staff sword worn by medical officers of the Union Army during the Civil War. This particular sword was made in 1860, but there were no records of who was issued number 41. I had hoped to find a name and then attempt to trace the sword to Johnny Sanders.
Years later, in a conversation with an aunt who remembers visiting with her Uncle Johnny Sanders and his wife in Brunswick, Georgia when she was a little girl, I found out that he was a soldier and fought in the Spanish-American War. They didn’t have children, so in the summers, his nieces would spend time with them.
The military was segregated then. I needed to find out which black regiments were assigned duty in Cuba. A book I read on the rise of Theodore Roosevelt has a picture of a troop of black volunteer soldiers in Florida. Further research revealed that four black regiments were among the first units ordered to Cuba. The army only totaled 26,000 men back then. The most experienced combat troops were the men who had served out West during the Indian Wars. Some 3,000 black soldiers comprised the four black regiments of combat-experienced troops shipped to a staging area near Tampa, equipped with weapons from the Civil War. These units were called “immune” troops under the mistaken belief that blacks would not contract the tropical diseases that plagued the white troops in Cuba. This notion led to the recruitment of other black volunteers. Nineteen-year-old Johnny Sanders was among this group.