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Rotary Helps Museum Acquire Birney Sword

Ron Bloomfield Curator
Bay County Historical Society Museum
shows Birney Sword to members
A historic Civil War sword, lost for 133 years, has been acquired by the Bay County Historical Society, with the help of the Rotary Club of Bay City.

The sword is said to have been presented by Gen. George A. Custer to Capt. James G. Birney IV, hero at the Battle of Gettysburg. Birney was the son of Judge James Birney, former lieutenant governor of Michigan and U.S. minister toThe Hague in the Netherlands, forerunner of the United Nations. He was the grandson of James Gillespie Birney, pioneer Bay Cityan and twice candidate for President on the Liberty Party (abolitionist) ticket.

Birney enlisted at age 19 from Hampton Township, Bay County, and served as a lieutenant in the Michigan Cavalry Brigade under Custer. On the third day of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, Custer's brigade defeated Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in a crucial clash at Hanover. Young Birney was wounded and captured but escaped almost immediately and resumed the fight, displaying the valor recognized by Gen. Custer.

Birney was among troops ordered west to fight Indians under Gen. Phil Sheridan, an assignment rescinded by Members of Congress who opposed the arbitrary posting and voted a $300 bonus so soldiers could return home.

After serving briefly under appointment by President Abraham Lincoln as deputy collector of U.S. Customs of the Port of Bay City, Birney was replaced by President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln's assassination. Leading citizens gave Birney a testimonial dinner complete with celebratory poetry. He re-enlisted and spent five years heading a company of "Buffalo soldiers," black troops, battling hostile natives. He died at Fort Davis, Texas, Jan. 15, 1870, reportedly of disease.

Mysteries remain about Capt. Birney, one of the greatest war heroes in Bay County history. After burial in San Antonio, Texas, his remains were disinterred and his final burial place has not been located. How his sword got to a basement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, also is unknown, although that was the hometown of his uncle, Gen. David Bell Birney, who is buried in a cemetery there. A wife and two children have been tentatively identified but a line of succession has not been verified.

The dress sword, finely made and with a silver handle and ornate scabbard, was worn by Capt. Birney during his western service. It was acquired through an Internet auction for $7,500, with the assistance of Chemical Bank. Funds to acquire the sword were raised by the Bay City Rotary Club in the community under chairmanship of Tony Dearing, editor, The Bay City Times. The sword was turned over to the Bay County Historical Society for display at the Museum of Bay County. Additional funds are sought for a display for the sword.