by Seth Isaacson
ROCK ISLAND, ILL.—A significant pair of revolvers presented to Civil War general and 18th president Ulysses S. Grant sold May 13, 2022, at Rock Island Auction Company for a record $5.17 million during the company’s three-day May Premier Auction. Grant’s revolvers led the way in the $28.2 million auction, the second largest in the company’s history.
The magnificent, cased set of Remington New Model Army revolvers was estimated to sell for $1 to $3 million. Bidding started at $800,000. Grant’s Remingtons soared past RIAC’s previous top seller, a garniture of six arms presented to Napoleon Bonaparte that realized $2.875 million in the company’s December 2021 Premier Auction.
“We are seeing remarkable prices in the collectible firearms market, and this is a tremendous example,” RIAC President Kevin Hogan said. “It’s an honor to be the company that people come to with their elite and historic firearms; last year we sold Napoleon’s garniture, Alexander Hamilton’s Revolutionary War flintlock pistols, and John Wayne’s Colt single action army.”
Grant’s Remingtons, numbered 1 and 2, are arguably the most significant firearms from the Civil War. The set is covered with the artistry of L.D. Nimschke, one of the most renowned 19th century master engravers. The pistols feature grips carved with Grant’s portrait and come nested in their original rosewood case with their full complement of accessories.
Grant’s Remingtons are being called an American treasure and drawing comparisons to President Abraham Lincoln’s gilt and engraved Henry rifle and President George Washington’s flintlock pistols. They were likely presented to Grant after he captured Vicksburg July 4, 1863, and thus secured the length of the Mississippi River for the Union.
Grant is one of the most famous Americans of all time and certainly of the 19th century thanks to “Unconditional Surrender Grant’s” important victories during the Civil War that started with the capture of Fort Donelson and ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Grant’s historic role as President Abraham Lincoln’s hand-picked overall commander of the Union armies during the War established him as a national hero. Lincoln liked Grant as a commander because he was aggressive and got results whereas other generals were seen as too cautious or too reluctant to fully commit their forces when necessary to secure victory. After many called for Grant’s removal as commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee, Lincoln is famously reported to have remarked, “I can’t spare this man—he fights.” After the war, Grant was rewarded by becoming the first living “General of the Army;” his immense popularity propelled him to the White House as the 18th president. As president, Grant worked to bring the country back together while also struggling to protect the rights of freedmen and women in the South, including using federal military force to protect the rule of law. His autobiography, a true American classic, was completed in 1885 just before his death and published by his friend Mark Twain for the benefit of the Grant family. It helped solidify Grant’s enduring legacy as the hero who led the Union to victory. In it, he offers frank commentary on the Mexican-American War and American Civil War and defended his actions during the latter as necessary for victory and to ultimately reunite the country. He concluded that the Confederate cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” On the other hand, he also recognized his former adversaries truly believed in their cause; Grant’s terms of surrender for Robert E. Lee ultimately saved Lee from execution for treason.
Ulysses S. Grant’s historic presentation engraved Remington New Model army revolvers are two of the most historically significant and valuable Remington firearms of all time and certainly must be considered a “Holy Grail” for Civil War collectors. They were hidden from public view for over a century and a half until they surfaced when put on display at the 2018 Las Vegas Antique Arms Show.
The set and their history were discussed in detail in the article “General Grant’s Magnificent Set of Lost Remingtons” by the late firearms author S.P. Fjestad published in the National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman that September. The author writes, “Without a doubt, these cased Remingtons constitute the most elaborate and historically significant set of currently known revolvers manufactured during the Civil War.” The revolvers themselves are true works of art on “steel canvases.” While no signature has been found on this pair of revolvers, we do know the identity of the engraver, iconic 19th century Master Engraver Louis D. Nimschke of New York.
The barrel engraving on Grant’s revolvers also matches the designs from Nimschke’s pull-book as shown on page 25 of L.D. Nimschke Firearms Engraver by R.L. Wilson. The barrels include borders at the muzzle and breech ends, scroll patterns with punched backgrounds on the sides, entwining bands and floral motifs at the center on the sides and repeated three times on the top, and entwining line motifs on the upper side flats at the breech. The bulk of the engraving on the revolvers consists of Nimschke’s exceptionally well-executed scroll engraving patterns with punched backgrounds. Among the scroll patterns are floral accents such as blooms on the left side of the frames at the breech and among the scrollwork as well as checkerboard and dot patterns on the right side of the frames and butts. The recoil shields have floral and fan patterns. The top straps have twisted or entwining rope patterns along the sides sighting grooves. Columbia’s shield is located behind the hammers followed by “FROM YOUR FRIENDS/O.N. CUTLER. W.C. WAGLEY.” down the back straps.
The left grip of both revolvers features an excellent raised relief carved eagle, flags, and Columbia shield patriotic motif that was also used on the grips of the Alexander II revolvers. The right panel of the first and left panel of the second feature the significant and beautifully executed raised relief carved bust of General Ulysses S. Grant. The choice of Remington’s New Model army revolvers is also notable. They began production in 1863 and became the second most issued Union Army sidearm during the War. As the latest in martial sidearms, they were an excellent choice for presentation to the Union’s greatest military hero. Serial numbers “1” and “2” respectively are marked on the bottom of the barrels, inside the grips, and on the grip frames. The trigger guards were not removed out of caution and immense respect for this historic pair but are clearly original and likely also have “1” and “2” on the rear spurs. The left side of both grip frames have “1” in addition to the respective “1” and “2” on the right side. Whether these are the first two Remington New Model army revolvers off the production line or have special custom order numbers is not known.
Regular production began around serial number 15000, a continuation from the 1861 Army range. The revolvers have the “pinched” blade front sights. There is a full blue finish, aside from the silver trigger guards and casehardened hammers.
Grant’s uniform on the grips displays the insignia of a major general. Grant attained this rank in the volunteers after he captured Fort Donelson in 1862; he then became a major general in the regular army in the fall of 1863. Grant was promoted on March 2, 1864 and became the country’s second lieutenant general, after General George Washington. After the war, he became the first living four-star general, the designation for the General of the Army of the United States/Commanding General of the U.S. Army, on July 25, 1866, a position he held until he resigned upon being elected president in 1869. The ranks and dates, plus this model’s 1863 introduction suggest the revolvers were presented in the latter half of 1863 or early 1864.
The exact date, location, and circumstances of the set’s presentation remains unknown, but the inscription on the back strap matches inscriptions on a pair of Colt Model 1861 navy revolvers (#s 11756 and 11757) manufactured in 1863 and presented to General James B. McPherson who was killed July 22, 1864. Given the evidence available, it is likely the revolvers were presented to Grant sometime in the second half of 1863 or early 1864.
The pair was presented by Otis Nelson Cutler and William C. Wagley, both veterans of the Mexican-American War. Wagley was a 2nd lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoons; Cutler was a captain in the Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers. Cutler enlisted as an orderly sergeant in the 1st Mass. Volunteers in 1846 and was later promoted to captain. He formed a company of men to explore for gold in California where he met with success. He later built a home on the family farm in Lewiston, Maine. Contracted for building the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad in Missouri, he moved to Hannibal and became the superintendent of the railroad. At the end of the Civil War, Cutler was assigned duty as a special treasury agent stationed at New Orleans. Wagley remained active in the Louisiana river trade after the War and is recorded as commanding steamboats running to Mobile and Montgomery in 1865 and 1866.
Fjestad concluded this cased pair was “a ‘thank you’ for a wartime cotton-smuggling scheme” and that Cutler and Wagley most likely ordered these revolvers through Schuyler, Hartley & Graham of New York City, the largest dealers in the country at the time. The retailer then contracted L.D. Nimschke to execute the embellishment on the guns. “The overall cost of the extravagant gift was no more than $400, with the revolvers’ original value at about $12 each. The set could have either been picked up or delivered to a specific location as per Cutler and Wagley’s request.” While period sources including newspapers, Senate records, and Grant’s own papers link Grant and McPherson to Cutler and Wagley via 1863 cotton trading, Grant’s participation is not as nefarious as Fjestad’s comments imply. Regardless of whether or not Grant’s involvement in the trade was legal, truly disinterested, or evenhanded, these beautiful presentation revolvers certainly smack of a bribe much in the way other gifts during his presidency were later called out as evidence of Grant’s supposed corruption. Like the claims of corruption that dogged him as president, the truth is more complicated and unlikely as dark as his detractors suggest.
By 1863, Grant was already a Union hero following his February 1862 Fort Donelson victory and the victory at Shiloh in April 1862. After New Orleans was captured in May 1862, the Union controlled the northern stretch of the Mississippi River and its mouth, but the Confederacy still retained control of Vicksburg. The fortified Mississippi River city became the main target for Grant and had the potential to end the war.
The Mississippi River was the region’s key mode of transportation, including the lucrative cotton trade. While cotton was a key cash crop in the South, it was also a crucial raw material for northeastern industry. Grant established programs putting runaway slaves to work in camps picking cotton that could be shipped up river and sold to fund the Union war effort and produce needed supplies. Moving the cotton out of the South under Union contract also helped prevent the South’s most valuable cash crop from being used to fund the Confederate war effort. The escaped slaves were compensated for their work under this plan, and some proceeds were used to provide their food, clothing, and shelter. This plan was approved by President Lincoln.
The cotton trade in Union controlled territory was regulated by Union officers and agents of the U.S. Treasury. Grant and his officers were in charge of granting trade licenses for his district. The legal trade provided cover for illegal trade, and there were widespread reports of bribes, corruption, and illegal trade. The Secretary of War was told, “Every colonel, captain or quartermaster is in a secret partnership with some operator in cotton; every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.” Though many Union officers were corrupt and profited through involvement in both the legal and illegal cotton trade during the War, evidence shows that Grant found the whole business to be an annoying distraction from his primary military objective, capturing Vicksburg.
Grant’s father was involved in these affairs and came down river with two businessmen intent on getting a contract for cotton and splitting profits. Had Grant been inclined to corruption and self-dealing, he certainly could have played along. Instead, he was furious and sent the men back north as soon as he learned their plans. In response to the corruption surrounding cotton in his district, Grant also gave his most controversial order in late 1862: General Order No. 11. Under this order, Jewish residents were expelled from Grant’s district because blamed them in part for the illicit cotton trade. Lincoln eventually reversed the order after an outcry, but not before many Jewish residents had been expelled. Frustrated with the cotton trade, Grant moved significantly to curtail it all together. News reports from the period provide important evidence both for Grant’s efforts to limit the cotton trade and his connection to the men who presented the revolvers.
The Daily Missouri Republican on February 18, 1863, noted: “It is unfortunately too true that many of our officers have been unable to resist the wonderful temptation of the cotton trade. The demoralization has been well nigh checked below by the orders of Gen. Grant, which will not allow any cotton to be shipped North, nor even bought, until Vicksburg is taken.” Coincidentally, this article appears next to an advertisement for “Remington’s Army & Navy Revolvers” noting they had been approved by the U.S. Board of Ordnance. The Nashville Daily Union on April 25, 1863, directly referenced both Grant and one of the men who presented these revolvers. The article noted that Grant announced he would not allow cotton to go upriver until Vicksburg was taken but that some cotton was being shipped nonetheless. “A Breckenridge Democrat, whose loyalty is like that of the Enquirer, has had a contract for picking and bailing cotton in the vicinity of Lake Providence, - This gentleman, Wagley by name, who hails from Warsaw, Ill. Has most emphatically ‘struck ile.’ How much cotton he has sent North, I do not know, but I do know that five hundred bales are now awaiting shipment at Lake Providence and Berry’s Landing. It is a matter of comment that his cotton has been gathered already baled, from the plantations in the vicinity, and that not one-tenth of it is really picked and ginned under his superintendence. Another individual of the same stripe had nearly succeeded in getting a similar contract for the region in the vicinity of Gen. McClernand, but his plan was overthrown by that officer himself. He is now endeavoring to obtain an order from Gen. Grant over Gen. McClernand’s head, and it is feared that he will succeed.”
Page 328, “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant” is included with the set and provides more details of direct cooperation between Grant, McPherson, and Wagley: “On April 1, USG wrote to Capt. Ashley R. Eddy. ‘The cotton detained by you one half of which was for Government and the other for Mr. Wagley is a part of some cotton abandoned in the field and picked by Mr. Wagly [sic] under an arrangement made with him by Genl McPherson. The one half can be released to Mr. Wagley.’…When William C. Wagley wrote that Col. William S. Hillyer, provost marshal at Memphis, threatened to seize his cotton, Rawlins endorsed the letter. ‘This contract was made by with Mr. Wagely [sic] in the utmost good faith and must be respected. You will therefore not interfere with shipment of cotton by seizures or otherwise, unless you pass satisfactory evidence of a violation of the contract on Mr Wagely’s [sic] part, mere suspicions will not suffice.’” This clearly provides a link between Grant, McPherson, and Wagley’s roles in the cotton trade, but what about Cutler?
“Senate Documents, Volume 254” includes an important report for the context of this cased set that ties all four men together. It notes “The Committee on Claims, to whom was referred the claim of O.N. Cutler, have examined the same and submit the following as their report:” It states that William C. Wagley, later identified as a citizen of Illinois had a March 5, 1863, contract signed by Assistant Quartermaster John G. Klinck “for picking, ginning, and bailing of cotton then growing on the lands about Lake Providence, in the State of Louisiana, which had been abandoned by the rebel owners and occupants, and then lately brought within permanent Union lines by the advance and occupancy of the federal forces. This contract was approved by Major General McPherson, commanding that district.” The report notes that half the cotton was government property and the other half Wagley’s and that Wagley would be allowed to have his cotton shipped by the government to Memphis. On April 3, Wagley assigned his interest over to O.N. Cutler of Hannibal, Missouri. Cutler then delivered “a large amount of cotton” at Lake Providence and took his assigned half. General Grant had his quartermaster seize Cutler’s cotton and used it to protect the machinery on the steamer Tigress for a run past the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg. Captain B.F. Reno recorded this amounted as 268 bales. Cutler claimed they weighed 113,900 pounds and had a total value of $62,645. The report concludes with a recommendation that $50,000 be appropriated by Congress to pay for this seized cotton. This evidence clearly demonstrates that Grant and McPherson were involved in at least one valuable contract for southern cotton that also netted Wagley and Cutler considerable profits. It also shows that Grant actually seized at least one shipment of cotton as part of his efforts to capture Vicksburg.
Grant’s revolvers may have been specifically presented in response to his capture of Vicksburg which gave the Union command of the Mississippi River and opened the river up to more trade, reducing risks for men like Wagley and Cutler who were shipping cotton and other goods on the river. Unfortunately no documentation has been found detailing when and where Grant and McPherson were presented their respective sets, but the information certainly suggests that Wagley and Cutler presented the Union generals their revolvers as a thank you for assisting in the cotton trade.
After Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant’s forces, Grant was promoted by President Lincoln to major general in the regular army and given command of the new Division of the Mississippi on October 16, 1863. His decisive November victory in the Chattanooga Campaign opened the South up for attack and earned Grant more national fame. He received his famous horse Cincinnati in response to this victory.
On March 2, 1864, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all the Union armies. Grant was formally commissioned by Lincoln on March 8 in a cabinet meeting and worked closely with the president for the remainder of the war. With Grant in charge, Lincoln expected Union forces to relentlessly pursue and defeat the Confederates and finally bring the War to a close. Grant directed the Union armies against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, working to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond.
After Petersburg and Richmond fell into Union hands on April 3, 1865, Lee retreated to fight another day, but the ultimate Union victory was close at hand. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House less than a week later on April 9. Grant gave Lee and his men rather lenient terms, including parole and a guarantee that the men were “not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” Grant saw this as the end of the war. As such, the former Confederates were now their countrymen and not the enemy. He even allowed Confederates to keep their sidearms and horses and provided Lee’s bedraggled men with much needed provisions. The final surrenders were completed by May.
By securing victory for the Union, Ulysses S. Grant provided the basis for national reunification and established himself as a national hero. He remained commander of the armies as the country began reconstruction. He was honored on July 25, 1866, when Congress promoted Grant to the newly created rank of General of the Army of the United States. Grant broke with President Johnson over the latter’s lenient policy towards the South. Congress had guaranteed Grant’s control of the U.S. Army by passing the Command of the Army Act. After Secretary of War Stanton was illegally fired by Johnson, Grant was appointed as interim Secretary of War, but when Congress reinstated Stanton, Grant stepped aside infuriating the president who was soon impeached in relation to the whole affair but narrowly not convicted. In 1868, Grant was unanimously nominated by the Republican National Convention as the party’s candidate for president and won the election. As president, he oversaw both reconstruction and reunification and the Indian Wars. Grant also signed legislation that established Yellowstone National Park.
Though he succeeded in winning a second term in office, claims of corruption and other scandals diminished Grant’s power; renewed conflict undermined his peace efforts in the West. In regards to the latter, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to the Great Sioux War and Custer’s famous defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Grant initially declined to run for a third term and instead returned to civilian life in 1877 for the first time since the outbreak of the Civil War, but he made a run for the Republican nomination again in 1880. Many of his post-presidential business ventures ended in failure, destroying his finances, and he sold many of his valuable Civil War artifacts to pay his debts, but as laid out in Fjestad’s article, the Remington revolvers remained with the Grant family.
Grant may have already given the pair to one of his sons. They are believed to have been brought to California in the late 19th century by either Ulysses Grant Jr. or Jesse Grant II. The two brothers ran the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego in the early 20th century. Jesse Grant II was the last surviving child of General Grant’s and died in 1934. Many U.S. Grant artifacts were eventually passed on to Ulysses S. Grant V, but not these pistols. They were reported to have been given as payment to a handyman who worked on the Jesse Grant home around the time of the Great Depression. That man kept the revolvers for many years. But the family was eventually convinced to sell the guns after many years of pursuit by a collector.
A notarized statement from Richard Hatch dated January 6, 2022, accompanies the set and notes that his father had been pursuing these revolvers in the early 1960s when they were in the possession of Mel Reynolds of San Diego. His father stayed in regular contact with Reynolds after learning of the revolvers around the 1950s and reminded him of his interest in the revolvers. He purchased them in 1976. Reynolds was the son of the handyman who had received them from the Grant family. Per the statement, they were payment for work on “the ‘Grant House’ near the Park. The Park was Balboa Park in San Diego. Years later I found out by the ‘Grant House’ he meant the Julia Dent Grant House at 6th and Quince.” Hatch indicates he drove his father on December 26, 1976, to purchase the guns at Bill Reynold’s house in San Diego. As documented in an included sales receipt dated “Dec. 26, ‘76,” Bill and Mel Reynolds “Received from Frank L. Hatch $1,500 for a pair of engraved Remington pistols.” It appears Reynolds did not know the revolvers had been presented to General Grant during the Civil War.
Hatch, a resident of San Diego, kept his new treasures guarded, but he began researching the men whose names are inscribed on the back straps, but with few results as demonstrated by his included correspondence with the Smithsonian, West Point, the U.S. Army History Institute, NRA’s American Rifleman, and R.L. Wilson. Through these sources and his own research, he was able to find some details about the men who presented the revolvers, including their service in the Mexican-American War. Perhaps the most important information he uncovered came from pages in “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant” in the early 1980s that provided clues about the connection between Grant, Wagley, and McPherson relating to cotton.
When he died in 1987, the revolvers remained with his wife until she moved into a care facility in 2002. They transferred into the possession of their son Richard who inherited the guns when his mother passed in 2013. RIAC received subsequent confirmation of this pair of historic revolvers’ provenance from the Grant family in the form of an April 20, 2022, letter from Millard W. Grant of Republic, Missouri. It states: “RE: The cased pair of engraved Remington New Model Army revolvers presented to U.S. Grant – #1 and #2 My father, Ulysses S. Grant V, mentioned many times over his life that he had viewed ‘a pair of highly engraved revolvers with highly ornate grips and wooden presentation box’ which were given to his great-grandfather and namesake President U.S. Grant. Having myself known about these revolvers’ existence for many years, I have been waiting for them to reappear. My father had viewed these revolvers at his grandmother Elizabeth Chapman Grant’s house on 6th & Quince in San Diego, known as the Julia Dent Grant House. Elizabeth Chapman Grant was the first wife of Pres. Grant’s son Jesse R. Grant II, and remained in the house until her death in 1945, even though she had divorced from Jess Grant II, who died in 1934. My father eventually received many items of Pres. Grant’s that had passed down, but these revolvers were already out of the Grant family. I was also aware of a handyman that worked at the Grant House during Elizabeth Chapman Grant’s time there. I myself visited the house on 6th & Quince many times in my youth, after Elizabeth Chapman Grant had already passed.”
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