FBI set to reveal mystery of sword

1860s relic stolen from Naval Academy in 1931

Artifact to be returned today


January 12, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The mysterious disappearance of a Civil War-era ceremonial sword from the U.S. Naval Academy's campus in Annapolis in 1931 has long baffled federal agents and descendants of the Union war hero to whom it was awarded.

But no longer.

Today, FBI officials will clear up the mystery of the Worden Sword's theft as they return the ornate Tiffany & Co. sword to the academy.

"We're extremely excited about having this coming-home," said academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons.

For members of the Worden family, news of the sword's recovery brought back long-buried memories.

Robert L. Worden, a great-grandson of the admiral's first cousin and researcher of the family's history, recalled his father taking him on a tour of "Worden Corner" in the academy's Bancroft Hall as a child and telling of the theft.

"It's part of the family lore that this had been stolen," said Worden, 58, of Annapolis. "We never thought it could be recovered."

"I'm really pleased that it ... can go back to its home at the Naval Academy," he said.

Then-Lt. John Lorimer Worden received the sword from the state of New York after staving off the Confederate naval fleet in a pivotal 1862 battle - the first between two ironclad ships - that ushered naval warfare out of the age of wooden vessels.

Worden was in command of the USS Monitor during a four-hour showdown March 9, 1862, with the CSS Virginia, formerly called Merrimack, at Hampton Roads, Va. In the battle, Worden was wounded by an exploding shell from the Virginia and temporarily lost his sight.

Neither ship sustained substantial damage, and the encounter ended in a stalemate, according to Navy historical accounts.

A resolution passed in April 1862 by a grateful New York Assembly conferred the sword on the Westchester County native "as a slight testimonial to his bravery in the late naval engagement at Hampton Roads." It cost the state $550, according to a New York state Civil War centennial commission.

The 37-inch-long sword had a gold-mounted hilt decorated with ships and a figure of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. It was presented along with a gold-plated scabbard and gold-embroidered belt, according to a description provided by academy officials to Marine Col. Waite W. Worden, a family member who tried to locate the sword in the 1960s.

After recovering from his injuries, Worden oversaw the construction of "monitors," armored warships named for the ship he had commanded. He went on to command the European Squadron and served a stint as the academy's superintendent, rising to the rank of rear admiral by the end of his career.

Worden died in 1897, leaving the relic to his son and grandson. They donated it to the academy's museum in 1912.

The Worden Sword was among hundreds of ceremonial swords crafted for the military by Tiffany in the 19th century.

A Tiffany spokeswoman did not know the sword's value. A sword by the same maker that belonged to a Civil War colonel - stolen several years ago from a museum in Fitchburg, Mass., but later recovered - was valued at $250,000, according to published reports.

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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