A Bit of Robert E. Lee in That State Up North

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger as two parts in December 2022 and January 2023.

On display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio are a number of outfits that were worn by iconic figures of rock and roll. Among these are the yellow military-style outfit that John Lennon wore on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, matching frilly-bottomed shapely dresses worn by the Supremes, a sleeveless jumpsuit with a plunging neckline that was worn on tour by Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley’s suit from his 1968 television special, a loose-fitting and suitably neon-colored outfit worn by Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket, a bright red outfit with broad pointed shoulders and a flashy blue and white lightning bolt that was worn by David Bowie, and, more recently, some outfits that were worn by Beyonce. It is a mark of prestige that Cleveland is the home of clothing that was worn by so many iconic figures of rock and roll. But a city in Michigan (or “that state up north” as it is known to Ohioans) is the location of an article of clothing that is the Civil War equivalent of the rock and roll outfits in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is because this article of clothing once belonged to the person who is unquestionably the most prominent military figure of the Confederacy.

The city is Grand Rapids, and the article of clothing is the sash of Robert E. Lee. Grand Rapids has this distinction because the person who came into possession of Lee’s sash, a man named Byron Root Pierce, was from Grand Rapids. Coming into possession of the sash of Robert E. Lee is, on its own, sufficient to make someone’s Civil War experience exceptionally noteworthy. But Byron Root Pierce, who was wounded five times during the Civil War, had a number of other remarkable wartime experiences, some of which are the sort of things that an author or moviemaker would be pleased to concoct as sequences in a fictional book or movie. However, for Byron Root Pierce, these were not creative and spectacular pieces of fiction. These were actual episodes in his life.

Civil War playing cards that were on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

I learned about Lee’s sash a few years ago when my wife, Karen, and I were visiting our daughter, her husband, and their two sons, who live in Holland, Michigan, which is near Grand Rapids. At that time the Grand Rapids Public Museum was featuring a display of toys from multiple generations. Because that display appealed to all of us, we visited the museum. The toys from my generation, many of which I had as a child, included Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, Mr. Potato Head, and (perhaps an omen of my later interest in the Civil War) Lincoln Logs. Among the oldest of the toys in the display was a set of playing cards from the Civil War, and this may have been a foretaste of what I was to discover after we had our fill of looking at toys and went into the rest of the museum.

One area of the museum has displays of various military items such as uniforms from different periods of U.S. history. This area also has a display case in which there are several items from the Civil War, including a couple of swords and hats as well as a gold sash. Inside the display case is a plaque that describes the sash as follows:

“Sword sash of General Robert E. Lee, ca. 1865
Gift of Mrs. Byron R. Pierce”

The display case containing the sword sash of Robert E. Lee

The plaque also gives a brief description of how the sash was captured. That description reads, “Union troops under General Byron Root Pierce overtook and captured a large train of Confederate baggage wagons in the closing days of the War, at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. Among the booty captured were personal effects of the great rebel leader Robert E. Lee. General Pierce mailed the sword sash back home to Grand Rapids where his wife donated it to the Kent Scientific Institute, forerunner of the Public Museum.” A web page on the museum’s website is not as definitive in identifying the sash as belonging to Robert E. Lee. The description on that web page, which accompanies a photograph of the sash, reads, “This is a gold-colored Confederate cavalry sash with fringe. It was obtained from a Confederate wagon train captured by Union soldiers under the command of General Byron Root Pierce. The sash may have belonged to General Robert E. Lee, his nephew Fitzhugh Lee, or another Confederate officer.” However, a postwar report about the capture of the baggage train indicates that after the train was captured, “The members of Gen. Pierce’s staff divided the spoils, and to him fell a rich silk sash, the personal property of Gen. Robert E. Lee.” This report lends credence to the identification of the sash as belonging to Robert E. Lee.

Byron Root Pierce

Byron Root Pierce, the Union general whose troops captured the Confederate baggage train, is not a well-known Civil War figure, certainly not remotely as famous as the person whose sash Pierce came to possess. Nevertheless, Pierce had a distinguished Civil War career, not simply because of the capture of Lee’s sash, but also because of a number of incredible episodes during the war. Moreover, Pierce’s life prior to and after the war was also quite interesting. Pierce was the kind of patriotic, devoted person who had only minimal pre-Civil War military experience, but who volunteered to go to war in defense of the Union and rose to a high rank due to his strong leadership skills and his heroism under fire. He exemplifies the type of front-line volunteer soldier on whom the outcome of the war rested, because it was these men who carried out the strategic and tactical plans that were devised by the upper echelon officers. The valor and accomplishments of these front-line soldiers are not nearly as well-known as those of the Civil War military celebrities whose names repeatedly populate history books. But without the front-line soldiers, there would have been no brilliant campaigns and no successfully executed battle plans. History has focused much more on the prominent figures of the Civil War and not paid as much attention to Pierce and the people like him who deserve much more acclaim than has been directed to them. Although Pierce is a relatively obscure Civil War figure, his contributions to the war and to the country deserve much more of history’s, and our, attention than they have received.

Byron Root Pierce was not a native Michigander. He was born on October 1, 1829 in East Bloomfield, New York, which is in the Finger Lakes region of the state, and which is still a small town, as indicated by the fact that it had a population of under 4,000 as of 2020. By 1850 Pierce worked for his father in a wool manufactory. After being educated in Rochester, he left his father’s industry and became a dentist. In 1856 Pierce moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is where his younger brother, Edwin, was living. Except for a brief time residing in Joliet, Illinois, Pierce lived in Grand Rapids for the rest of the time prior to the Civil War. After his move to Grand Rapids, Pierce joined with a Dr. K.R.E. Carpenter in a dental practice. A local newspaper, in a clever play on words, reported about this dental practice that “the two gentlemen propose to do the best of work, at the most reasonable rates, so that their praises may be in the mouths of all.”

In addition to establishing himself as a dentist in his new city of residence, Pierce also became involved in a local militia company known as the Valley City Guards. Many of the members of this militia company enlisted to serve in the Civil War. Pierce was elected first lieutenant of the Valley City Guards in 1858 and then captain in 1859 after the company’s captain resigned. One of Pierce’s first actions after taking command was to establish greater discipline in the company by implementing meticulous drill and target practice. This strict discipline was a preview of Pierce’s command style in the Civil War, and after several months of rigorous training under Pierce’s tight discipline, the Valley City Guards were rated one of the best militia companies in Michigan.

Unfortunately, the Valley City Guards suffered a serious setback late in 1859 when all of their arms were stolen by thieves who broke into the militia’s armory. Then in the winter, the armory was severely damaged in a fire that destroyed all of the equipment and supplies. Because the Valley City Guards did not have funds to replace the arms that were stolen and the equipment and supplies that were lost in the fire, the militia unit met to decide on disbanding. Due to local fundraising efforts and funds pledged by the state, the members of the Valley City Guards voted unanimously to remain in operation. When the Civil War began and men were needed to fill the ranks of the Union army, many members of the Valley City Guards enlisted. These enlistees were incorporated into the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment with Pierce elected captain of one of the unit’s companies. Byron Pierce’s brother, Edwin, also enlisted and became a member of the 3rd Michigan. On June 13, 1861 the 3rd Michigan departed Grand Rapids for Washington. After a train trip to Detroit, the regiment went by boat to Cleveland. The following day the 3rd Michigan left Cleveland and traveled by train to Washington, which it reached on June 16, 1861 and where it remained until it was sent to Bull Run.

A drawing depicting the 3rd Michigan marching in Detroit during their trip to Washngton

During the time that the 3rd Michigan was in Washington, an unfortunate incident occurred that involved Byron Pierce. In the first week of July 1861 a topographical survey was being done along the Potomac River for military purposes. As part of this survey, a signal flag was placed on a high and prominent location overlooking the 3rd Michigan’s camp. The men in the regiment mistook the signal flag for a secession flag and decided to send a detachment, led by Byron Pierce, to remove the presumed secession flag. Frank Siverd, a member of the regiment, wrote afterward that Pierce’s detachment was emulating Elmer Ellsworth, a Union officer who was killed by a staunch secessionist on May 24, 1861 after Ellsworth took down a secession flag in Alexandria, Virginia. Siverd further wrote that after Pierce removed the supposed secession flag, he then, “amid the cheers of his compatriots, carried it into camp and presented it to the Colonel.” However, the next day a member of the survey party that had placed the signal flags “came along in no very pleasant mood I assure you. He stated that after placing those signals, they climbed some six miles over rocks and hills in order to make their observations, but when they got to the position were nonplussed at not finding their signals. He requested the officer of the day to protect his flags from the assaults of over-anxious seekers after secession bunting.”

The 3rd Michigan’s camp along the Potomac River prior to the regiment’s action in the First Battle of Bull Run

Subsequent to this embarrassing if not amusing incident, the 3rd Michigan took part in the First Battle of Bull Run. The regiment marched into Virginia, camped for the night, and on July 18, 1861 participated in the action at Blackburn’s Ford, which was a prelude to the actual battle. The 3rd Michigan took position in preparation for a charge against the enemy, which would have been the unit’s baptism by fire, but this assault never happened. As the 3rd Michigan was about to charge, the Union lines broke, and the Union troops were in full retreat. Three days later, on the day of the battle, itself, the brigade that included the 3rd Michigan was positioned to protect the Union army’s flank and was not greatly engaged. As the Union army fell back, the 3rd Michigan and its brigade covered the retreat until the entire Union army was in Washington. Pierce depicted the inglorious situation of the retreat when he wrote that “everything was in confusion” and “the main army had been defeated and were retreating in broken order.”

The 3rd Michigan’s colonel resigned in October 1861 for medical reasons and was replaced, which led to Byron Pierce being promoted to major. The following spring, the regiment took part in the Peninsula Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, but it did not participate in the Battle of Antietam because it was on duty in the defenses in Washington due to the fact that the corps in which the 3rd Michigan was assigned (the III corps) was greatly understrength and was left in Washington to refit. During this time, the 3rd Michigan’s lieutenant colonel was promoted to command of the 21st Michigan Infantry, and Byron Pierce was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Michigan. The III corps, including the 3rd Michigan, rejoined the Army of the Potomac in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the corps was not heavily engaged. Shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 3rd Michigan’s colonel was promoted to brigadier general and resigned as the regiment’s commander. He was replaced by Byron Pierce, who was promoted to colonel, and Byron’s brother, Edwin, replaced Byron as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Michigan.

Upon his promotion to command of the 3rd Michigan, Byron Pierce had progressed from his inauspicious Civil War debut of leading a detachment that removed a topographical survey signal flag to leading an infantry regiment. After the embarrassing incident involving the signal flag, it is not hard to imagine soldiers, particularly officers, predicting a bleak and disastrous wartime future for Pierce. But with his promotion to command of the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Pierce was positioned to show his prowess as a military leader, and this is just what he did throughout the remainder of the war. His considerable bravery, notable military skill, and personal sacrifice culminated in his most memorable wartime deed at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. In so doing, Pierce went from ‘capturing’ a Union army topographical survey signal flag to capturing Robert E. Lee’s sash.

With Byron Pierce as its new commander, the 3rd Michigan, still part of the III corps (which was now under the command of Daniel Sickles), took part in the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville. It was at this battle that Pierce received his first two wounds of the Civil War, one in his left hand and one in his right arm, although both wounds were slight. The division commander, David Birney, noted in his report that Pierce distinguished himself for gallantry in the battle. Two months later Pierce and the 3rd Michigan participated in the Battle of Gettysburg. At this battle, the regiment fought in the Peach Orchard on the battle’s second day, and Byron Pierce was seriously wounded in his left leg. His brother, Edwin, replaced him as the regiment’s commander, but by late August 1863 Byron had recovered from his wound and returned to command of the regiment. After returning to the regiment, Byron Pierce was placed in command of a detachment consisting of two infantry regiments (the 3rd Michigan and the 5th Michigan) and a battery (the 2nd Connecticut) that was sent to Troy, New York to deter any violence associated with the draft.

The 3rd Michigan Monument at Gettysburg

Pierce and the detachment that he commanded rejoined the Army of the Potomac in October 1863 and took part in the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign. The following spring, the 3rd Michigan, with Byron Pierce still in command, participated in the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Prior to the Battle of the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized, part of which involved the dissolution of the III corps and assimilation of its units into other corps. As a result of this reorganization, the 3rd Michigan became part of the II corps. At the Battle of the Wilderness, the 3rd Michigan was in the thick of the action and was, as Pierce wrote in a letter to his father after the battle, “considerably cut up.” Likewise, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the 3rd Michigan was actively engaged and took part in the assault on the mule shoe salient on May 12, 1864. During the battle Byron Pierce was wounded once more in the left leg.

Pierce was officially promoted to brigadier general on June 3, 1864, but according to a story that was told after the war, he was verbally notified of his promotion a month earlier at the Battle of the Wilderness under breathtaking circumstances. Reputedly, Pierce “led a fierce charge and captured a bridge held by the enemy. The charge was witnessed by Gen. U. S. Grant, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and Gen. Birney, who from an eminence watched the battle. Shortly after the success of Col. Pierce’s charge and while the battle still raged, an Adjutant attached to Gen. Grant’s staff approached Col. Pierce and told him he had been promoted to the rank of brig. gen. ‘Can you give me the oath of office here? I’d like to die a brig. gen.’, Col. Pierce said. Stepping behind a great tree which stood there, he took the oath as bullets whizzed about their heads, and then dashed back into battle.” On June 4, 1864, the day after Pierce was officially promoted to brigadier general, he was given command of a brigade, the 1st brigade in the 2nd division (John Gibbons’ division) of the II corps.

Pierce continued to serve in this capacity throughout the remainder of the Overland Campaign. On June 18, 1864 at Petersburg, he led his brigade in a charge as part of an all-out Union assault on the Confederate lines. Pierce was wounded in the right shoulder during this assault, the fifth and last of his Civil War wounds. A Grand Rapids newspaper reported on June 20 that Pierce received the official document of his brigadier general commission just before that assault, and, as written in that newspaper report, “he was mounted and about to lead his command in a charge on the enemy. Taking the paper he stuffed it into his pocket and dashed off to the front, and in some 15 minutes thereafter, returned wounded in the shoulder. His wound was no sooner dressed, than he was ready mounted and again on duty.” On June 30, 1864 Pierce was placed in command of the 2nd brigade, 3rd division of the II corps, and he remained in this capacity for the Appomattox Campaign until the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse.

It was during the Appomattox Campaign at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek that Byron Pierce acquired the sash that is displayed in the Grand Rapids Public Museum. A postwar report states that Pierce’s unit “was following Lee’s army just before surrender. At 6 o’clock on the evening of April 5, his command suddenly came up with a Confederate division which was convoying the headquarters train of Lee’s army…Charges and countercharges were made, muskets rattled, sabres flashed, and overturned wagons, frantic mules and horses, the Blue and Grey mingled in the strife. The result was a victory for Gen. Pierce’s troops and the rich supply train fell to the federal forces. The members of Gen. Pierce’s staff divided the spoils, and to him fell a rich silk sash, the personal property of Gen. Robert E. Lee. This sash, which was of heavy yellow silk, the ends trimmed with cream-colored tassels, was long cherished by the general, but later given to the Kent Scientific Museum.”

The sash of Robert E. Lee that was captured by troops under the command of Byron Pierce

A soldier in Pierce’s brigade described the capture of the baggage train as follows. “The enemy now has fallen back and taken up a position near a brick house where they fight very wickedly as they are trying to get a large wagon train away from our reach. The rebels are posted at every window and keep up a vigorous fire on us. On the crest of a hill beyond they have a very wicked battery which they use right lively. Now we are exposed too much for nothing, and would much rather charge on them than stand their fire. So the order is given to forward and inside of two minutes the brick house is ours. The Johnnies who fired at us are pulled out of the windows and taken prisoners. The enemy’s battery still holds its position and pours in shell thick and fast, but we have good shelter now and wait for the rest of our lines to come up, which they do in a few minutes. All is ready now to go for the train and the order ‘forward’ is given once more; the rebel battery makes a hasty retreat, leaving about 250 wagons in our hands.” In one of those wagons was the sash that elevated Byron Pierce to a unique Civil War distinction. For his actions at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Pierce was promoted to brevet major general.

One other aspect of Byron Pierce’s Civil War career that should be gratifying to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is the horse that he used for a large part of the war. This horse bore the name Charger, the same name as the newsletter of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. When Pierce was in command of the detachment that was sent to Troy, New York, a local newspaper wrote about Charger and stated, “Ten or twelve horses, belonging to the officers of the regiment, reached here by Vanderbilt this morning. Among them is ‘Charger’, owned by Col. Pierce, who shared with him the dangers of the Peninsular and Potomac campaigns. Together with his rider, ‘Charger’ received honorable scars at Gettysburg, but they have not damped his spirit. He does not allow the approach of any other man than his groom, besides his gallant owner. ‘Charger’ is an institution.”

After his outstanding service in the Civil War, Pierce returned to Grand Rapids on July 27, 1865. A report about the returning hero praised him by saying, “The general has won the stars ornamenting his shoulders, and he can wear them in the proud consciousness that they have a meaning and are emblematic of glorious work done in behalf of freedom and the Union.” In 1866 Pierce moved to Mobile, Alabama and early in the following year became a planter in Wilcox County. Rather than being perceived as a carpetbagger, the Mobile Times wrote kindly of him and said, “General Pierce, at the close of the war, determined to share the fate of the Southern people, and settled in the midst of us, after having resigned the insignia of his official rank, and went to work as a planter in Wilcox County, in this state, where his modest, conciliating and courteous manners soon endeared him to his neighbors, who ceased to look on him as a former antagonist, and accepted him as one of the honest artisans of a reconstructed country and reviving prosperity.” But the newspaper evidently was not able to resist a nod to the Lost Cause by also writing, “General Byron R. Pierce has been a Federal officer of distinction, and although he has done all in his power to put down what we considered, and still consider, a just and righteous cause, his sole aim was the full restoration of the Union which the past had given such bright promises of becoming a blessing to future generations. If the end which he and many others had in view is today ignored, the fault is not with them, but with the fanatical fury which is now obscuring the bright sun of our national existence.”

Byron Pierce, later in life

Byron Pierce returned to Grand Rapids sometime during the 1870s and joined in a clothing business with two of his brothers, Edwin and Silas. Byron married Abbie Evans Jarvis on October 12, 1881. From 1880 to 1882, he was the commander for the Grand Army of the Republic’s department of Michigan. He later became actively involved in the creation of a soldiers’ home in Michigan, and he was instrumental in the home being located in Grand Rapids. The home was opened in 1887 with Pierce as its first commandant, a position that Pierce held until 1891. After this he became the proprietor of a hotel.

Pierce was also very active in the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association, a group dedicated to the veterans of the regiment in which Pierce first served in the Civil War. He was a regular attendee at reunions of the regiment, and on June 13, 1911, the 50th anniversary of the Third Michigan’s departure from Grand Rapids to fight in the Civil War, Pierce spoke at the unveiling of a monument to the regiment in Grand Rapids. Pierce said, “Crowded with memories mingled with pleasure and sadness. As we stand here among the vast assembly, to the survivors of the Third Michigan Infantry we seem to tread upon hallowed ground – it is indeed a sacred spot. Here in our young manhood, many of you had not attained that, with the spirit born of patriotism that roused us to avenge the nation’s traitorous blow, we swore allegiance in that flag whose every star retains its lustre and place upon its azure field…50 years ago this morning we responded to that call, each with knapsack and musket, we marched from here amid the waving of banners and plaudits of citizens, to the old D & M station, where the last farewells were spoken, and we left home and loved ones to share the dangers and horrors of war. Think you this day is not replete with memories to this little group of men, the remnant of the 1,040 who then formed this Regiment and went forth to do or die? Are they not a link between the past and the present?…I look with reverence upon every veteran before me, for they have been tried and proven true, their valor tested on every battlefield, their loyalty to the cause they represented, as steadfast then as now…May this memorial stand as long as time shall endure, telling present and future generations whence came the Regiments and companies that helped make a bright page in Michigan’s record in the Civil War.”

Byron Pierce died at the age of 94 on July 10, 1924. He was the last Michigan Civil War officer to die. Pierce was given a funeral befitting the local hero that he was, and the service was closed with the singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” One of Pierce’s obituaries declared that he lived “a life which played its full part in keeping the nation one.” Pierce is interred in the Fulton Street Cemetery in Grand Rapids.

Byron Pierce’s gravestone

Of all the courageous and consequential acts in the Civil War career of Byron Pierce, the capture of Lee’s sash is the act for which he gained a distinctive place in history. Yet he should be remembered for more than this one act. He should also be remembered for the valiant officer that he was. When a Grand Rapids newspaper reported the incident about Pierce leading a charge at Petersburg just after receiving his brigadier general commission, the newspaper said of him, “Glorious General Pierce; he is the kind of officer for the times.” Similarly, the soldier in Pierce’s brigade who described the capture of the baggage train at Sailor’s Creek said that Pierce “is as cool under fire as on parade and nothing daunted he leads his men in the midst of the battle and all are proud of our gallant general.”

Byron Root Pierce deserves to be remembered for more than the capture of Robert E. Lee’s sword sash. Nevertheless, the sash serves a valuable purpose which is articulated in the text in the sash’s display case. This text reads, “During the period following the Civil War, local veterans wanted future generations to remember their sacrifices. Many veterans donated objects to the Museum that symbolized their efforts. Confederate (Southern) General Robert E. Lee’s sword sash is one of the more remarkable items given.” As the text in the display case intimates, the items donated by Civil War veterans are tangible objects that aid “future generations” in remembering the sacrifices of those who fought in the war. We are those “future generations” who are mentioned in that text, the “future generations” who are being asked by the veterans of the Civil War to remember “their sacrifices,” the “future generations” to whom the veterans of the Civil War are speaking through the items that they donated for display. What better memento to remind us of “their sacrifices” than a relic of the indisputably most prominent and most important leader of the military effort to sever the United States, the man who personifies that heinous military effort? When we “future generations” look at Lee’s sword sash, we must not only keep in mind “their sacrifices,” but in these divisive and turbulent times that are so disturbingly reminiscent of the divisive and turbulent times that preceded the Civil War, we must also dedicate ourselves to ensure that the cause for which they sacrificed “shall not perish from the earth.”

Author’s note: A particularly useful source for this article was a short but detailed biography of Byron Root Pierce, which was written by Steve Soper and posted on The 3rd Michigan Infantry blog.