Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thomas Cate’s Civil War Sword (Manuscript 37)

The State Library of Massachusetts has a number of small collections, each with its own fascinating story. For archival collections the archivists create a “finding aid,” a record listing the collection’s contents and information about its origin. I work as an intern with the Special Collections department and uncovered the story of one particular collection - the “Papers relating to the Lt. Thomas Jackson Cate Civil War Sword” (Manuscript 37) - as I created its finding aid.

Thomas Jackson Cate was born in 1829 in Effingham, New Hampshire. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and joined a volunteer militia at the start of the Civil War, becoming a lieutenant in Company F of the 6th Regiment. On April 19, 1861, his regiment marched through Baltimore, MD and was attacked by rioters, suffering the first four casualties of the war. One of the fallen, Sumner Needham, was a personal friend from Lawrence.

First and second page of Cate's notarized document willing the sword to
his male descendants bearing his name
Cate’s experience as a mason made him invaluable to the Union Army and he was tasked with building the first ovens that baked bread for soldiers’ rations. He told his story in a 1905 article for New England Magazine, transcribed by J. Rodney Ball.

Major McDowell called for men who could build ovens to bake this flour into soft bread. I was experienced as a mason, and went on the detail prepared to lay brick. Looking over our materials, it was found that there were no castings for the ovens, and it was feared that we should have to continue to subsist on hardtack.

“Is there a man here,” asked Major McDowell, “who can build an oven without castings?”

I thought of the oven in the old house in New Hampshire where I was born, and its construction with a plank for a door, and I volunteered to take the responsibility of building such ovens. (p. 347)

Cate went on to become a first lieutenant of the 36th regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, and was accorded the rank of brevet major for his service. After the war, Cate returned to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he worked as a bricklayer, contractor, and builder. He died there in 1912.

Channing Cox, Massachusetts state governor
from 1919-1921, signed this letter acknowledging
receipt of the Cate Sword. 
In 1895, at age 66, Cate decided to draw up a document that would will the sword he carried during his Civil War service to his male descendants bearing his full name. Should the line end, the sword would be given to the State of Massachusetts to be placed with other relics of the “Old Sixth.” His grandson, Pvt. Thomas Jackson Cate, 2nd, died while fighting in World War I, and as he had no children, the sword was given to the State by his widow in 1921.

The collection no longer includes the sword; although it was once on display in the Senate Reception Room of the State House, its current location is unknown. What we do have, however, are the original legal document that Cate created and the letters written between the governor, Channing Cox, and the Sergeant-at-Arms regarding the donation. It was exciting for me to piece together the life of Lt. Cate using a magazine story and town directories, and create a sense of a real person - a veteran, a builder, and a father and grandfather - who wanted his memory to live on.

Katie Seitz
Special Collections intern