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Old South Military Antiques

Published, Identified 42nd Alabama, Leech & Rigdon Sword
Item #: OS-7578

  Lt. Earnest Portis

The maker of this beautiful sword is Leech & Rigdon. Thomas S. Leech, had moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1854 to establish a cotton dealership. It was financed by his partners: his brother John B. Leech, Thomas Harrison, Sir Arthur Forwood, and Sir William Bower Forwood of Liverpool, England. Leech opened the firm of Thomas Leech & Co., Cotton Broker, at 35 Front Row Street in Memphis. As war became imminent, Leech formed a new partnership with S.B. Carver and J. F. Frank. They began to expand their business to include war material. The Military items were sold under the name of "Memphis Novelty Works Thomas Leech & Co.” Under this name the company manufactured Swords, Side Knives, Belts, Buckles and Pistols. Leech later formed a partnership with Charles H. Rigdon and renamed the partnership Leech & Rigdon in 1862.

With the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in the spring of 1862 and the subsequent fall of the state of Tennessee into Union hands, Leech and Rigdon decided to relocate their business to Columbus, Mississippi and build a factory adjacent to the Confederate Briarfield Arsenal. It was at this time that Colonel John W. Portis, 42nd, Alabama Infantry purchased this sword for his son, Earnest A. Portis.

The sword is suitable for either foot or staff officers use because L&R took a standard foot officer pattern, and added a CS to the downturn of the guard, making it technically a F&S. The beautifully etched blade has a presentation panel which reads: "LIEUt. ERNEST PORTIS 42 ALA. REGT” in ornamental French script.

Earnest Portis was born to John W. and Rebecca Portis in February of 1843. He was only eighteen years old when he enlisted in Company F, 42nd Alabama, September 6th, 1861.[i] Sometime that fall he was promoted 2ndLieutenant by brevet. He was transferred to Company K, (Bull Mountain Invincibles) on April 18th, 1862 at Suggsville, Alabama, under his father, Colonel John W. Portis, when the 2nd Alabama consolidated into the 42nd Alabama.

The 42nd Alabama mustered into Confederate service on May 16th, 1862, at Camp Hardee[ii], near Columbus, Mississippi. Of the 904 members of the regiment, 202 members were veterans of the 2nd Alabama. These 2nd Alabama veterans formed the regimental leadership and Companies A, B, and D of the 42nd Alabama. Generally, each company consisted of four officers, four sergeants, four corporals, and the remainder privates.[iii]

Earnest Portis was elected and regularly commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant of Company K, on June 1st, 1862. At this time, his father, Colonel Portis purchased two swords and belts and at least one, and probably two, revolvers from Leech & Rigdon, which had recently relocated to Columbus, Mississippi.[iv]

With the exception of a short stay in the hospital, Lieutenant Portis served with his company until the Battle of Corinth on October 3-4, 1862 in which the 42ndassaulted Battery Robinett. There can be little or no doubt that he waved this sword as he marched into that near suicidal charge on Robinett. Both he and his father, Colonel Portis, were severely wounded in the charge.

On November 1st, 1863, Col. Portis writes that Co. K had been reduced from 125 men by death, wounds, disease and desertion to only five men and three officers, one of the remaining being Lieutenant E. A. Portis, the Colonel’s son. He goes on to say that Lt. Portis still suffers from wounds received at the storming of Battery Robinett, and requests his transfer to the conscription bureau. Lieutenant Portis’ wound was in the ankle, and he was still suffering with it when the War ended, because it would not heal correctly. Yet, he was still with or back with his regiment at the end.

Over eight months later, on July 8th, 1864, the Medical Examining Board finally declared him unfit for field service due to the pain and discomfort from the continued non-healing of the ankle wound received during the Charge on Battery Robinette, however he was still with his regiment, when it was stationed near Mobile, Alabama.

On April 12th 1865, Lieutenant Portis was captured just north of Mobile, at Claiborne, Alabama by General T. J. Lucas’ cavalry forces; this being the same day that Mobile fell. The location of his capture means he was likely either making his way home, or perhaps already at his home at the event of his capture.

He was paroled by General Canby at Mobile, Alabama, still being listed as with the 42nd Alabama, on April 21st, 1865.

Lieutenant Portis survived the War, afterwards graduating from the University of Louisiana medical school. He eventually made his final home in Vancleave, Mississippi, becoming a local doctor. He died on June 20th 1903, at the age of sixty years old.

The Lieutenant’s sword is in beautiful condition. The guard, with its prominent "CS” still remains tight and the leather grip wrap and twisted brass wire wrap remain complete, original and tight. The throat washer appears to be original. The blade is completely smooth and bright but mottled with carbon staining; this is not rust or pitting, but merely the carbon in the poor grade steel discoloring.

By fortuitous chance, renowned etcher Jacob Fraser was working in Columbus, Mississippi at the time that this sword was produced, and the finely executed work on this blade is clearly his art.

The sword is still sheathed in it’s original Leech & Rigdon scabbard. The scabbard has the company’s higher grade scalloped drag and mounts. One of the sword belts snap links is still attached to the lower ring. The leather remains strong and pliable and retains a smooth surface patent.

Lieutenant Portis’ sword was selected by author Daniel Hartzler as a worthy subject for his wonderful, (though black and white) 1988 edition of Confederate Presentation & Inscribed Swords and Revolvers, and is published on page 220 and 221.

This quote is from John Sexton's written description of the sword: "This sword in our opinion is the finest example of a Leech & Rigdon foot officer's sword known, especially with such provenance and condition."

[i] Colonel Portis to Gen. S. Cooper, Richmond dated Nov. 1, 1863. This was in actuality the 2nd, Alabama, the nucleus of which became the 42nd.

[ii] R. A. Lambert, "In the Mississippi Campaigns,” Confederate Veteran, (1929)

37, 292.

[iv] Portis family archive

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