by Matthew M. Morris
(this was first published on Matt’s blog – The North Eastern Corner – and is published here with his permission)
Along a side wall in the anteroom of the lodge, sitting behind a time worn couch, lies a very unassuming glass case. It is nothing fancy, just a simple painted box with two sliding glass doors and a few glass shelves filled with dusty relics of almost two hundred and fifty years of Brotherhood.
It is lined with pictures of Grand Masters who came from the lodge, centennial commemorative plates, bicentennial plates, invitations to grand balls, histories, commemorative trowels, pins, a sprig of Acacia brought back from Israel, and all sorts of Masonic knick-knacks. If you look hard enough you will find laying across the very bottom of the case, tucked up against the front edge, a tarnished sword.
It’s an officers saber in a decorated scabbard, with a hard to read inscription that barely scratches the surface of the incredible story that goes along with this treasure. The sword was a gift from the lodge to an esteemed Brother and Past Master of the lodge upon his entry into the Army to fight for theUnion in the Civil War, his name was Albert H. Wilcoxson.
Albert was initiated into Freemasonry as an Entered Apprentice onApril 24th 1856the very same day his petition was voted on by the Brothers of St. Johns Lodge. In what can certainly be considered a very short period of time, he was passed to the degree of Fellowcraft the following week and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason a week after that. He attended every meeting of the lodge after that and by the fall of 1856 he even acted as Junior Warden for a meeting. In December of the same year he was appointed officially as Senior Deacon of the lodge and continued to step up into various officers chairs during degrees and meetings.
The next three years were spent on every committee the lodge assembled, and the two Wardens chairs in the lodge, on his way toward the oriental chair in the East. He was a true Brother Mason in every sense of the word and was very devoted to his nearly one hundred year old Freemasons lodge. After his year as Worshipful Master he did not idly pass onto the sidelines as some Past Masters do, but continued diligently working for the Order he loved. He attended most meetings and sat in various officers chairs when needed. He was serving the lodge again as Senior Deacon when he was forced to resign his position on August 21st 1862. He had to leave his friends and family to answer President Lincoln’s call for “300000 more” troops for the War and muster with the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry in Bridgeport and head South.
He fought and survived in the great battles of Chancellorsville ,Gettysburg, and Folly Island, SC but it was while the regiment was in North Eastern Florida, an area with little Confederate presence, that the Lt. Col. would get into trouble. Wilcoxson was commanding raids on farms that supplied the Confederacy, when his company was ambushed by a small company of Rebels led by Captain J.J. Dickison at Braddocks Farm. Wilcoxson and his men were caught off guard with ten wagons of cotton and other captured items when the Confederates called for them to surrender. Lt. Col. Wilcoxson mounted his horse and charged the enemies with his pistol drawn and blazing, after his ammunition was spent he drew his sword for one final push towards Capt. Dickison the rebel leader, who took aim and shot the Col.from his horse. Wounded and bleeding from the bullet that passed through his shoulder and other wounds Wilcoxson was approached by the rebel Captain and asked why he threw his life away, to which he replied “Don’t blame yourself. You are only doing your duty as a soldier. I alone am to blame.” The surgeon of the rebel camp, a Brother of the mystic tie, tried to save him but it was too late, he died of his wounds in a Confederate prison camp a few days later.
But that was not the end of the story.
What followed after the battle exemplifies how men of the Masonic order can rise above the normal and shine as honorable gentleman. The following are two letters between the widow of Albert Wilcoxson and the man who captured and killed him.
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. March 23, 1865
Captain J.J. Dickison:
SIR: I have heard that you are a most kind and honorable gentleman and a Freemason. Believing this to be a fact, I, as the widow of an honored Mason and brave soldier, appeal to you for a great favor.
The sword which by my husband, the late Lt. Col. Wilcoxson, wore at the time of his capture by you, was presented to him by his brothers of the “Mystic Tie”, members of the St. John’s Lodge, of Norwalk, Conn., in token of the high esteem in which they held him. If you are a Mason, you will understand the value which he placed upon the gift, and why I so strongly desire to possess it, in order that I may re-present it to the lodge.
Is it possible for you to return it to me? Or if it has passed out of your immediate possession, can you in any way effect restoration of it to me? The centennial celebration of the St. John’s Lodge takes place May next. Earnest have been the entreaties of brotherhood that the colonel would make an effort to be with them at that time in spirit, without doubt. What would I not give to be able to place in their hands the sword which, though it passed from my husband’s hands in such a manner, has never been dishonored!
MRS. ALBERT H. WILCOXSON
CAMP BAKER, WALDO, FLA. March 31, 1865
Mrs. Albert H. Wilcoxson, St. Augustine, Fla.
MADAM: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 23rd instant, which reached me a few days ago by a flag of truce.
Previous to the receipt of your letter, at the request of your husband, I had concluded to send you the sword which was worn by him at the time of his capture. It is unusual, in time of war, to return captures of this description, but, in this instance, I will deviate from that course, on account of the feelings I entertained for your husband as a brave officer. With this, I send you his sword, trusting that it may reach you safely.
I am, madam, yours respectfully,
Captain Commanding Forces
The sword was indeed returned to her and she presented it to the men who lost a friend and brother along with this letter on the Centennial Anniversary of the lodge.
Norwalk May 18th 1865
To the W.M. Wardens and Brothers of St. Johns Lodge,
I take this opportunity of forwarding to you the sword which was presented by the Brethren of St. Johns Lodge to my husband the late Lieut. Col. Wilcoxson at the time he entered military service.
The accompanying copies of letters will explain to you the manner in which the sword came into my possession after my husband’s capture and death and will also prove my intentions regarding the gift which has all too soon passed into a relic. I was induced to make this request of Capt. Dickison on account of the great value my husband placed upon the sword and also that I might by returning it to the lodge give to the fraternity some acknowledgement of the deep respect which I entertain for the order of Free Masonry and of my appreciation of the manner in which you expressed your confidence in and esteem for my husband.
My heart’s desire and prayer is that every mason who looks upon this sword either in tender memory of the departed brother or in mere curiosity may be as true to his God his Country and his fellow man as was my dear brave husband Lieut. Col. Albert H. Wilcoxson.
Mrs. A.H. Wilcoxson
The Brothers of St. Johns Lodge No. 6 F.&A.M. upon receipt of the sword and letter from his widow entered into their records the following.
Whereas it has pleased Almighty God in his inscrutable providence to swell the number of our fallen Brothers who have gone forth in defense of our Union and our Countries flag by removing from this lodge by death our Brother P.M. Albert H. Wilcoxson and
Whereas it is due to his memory that we shall place on our records our appreciation of his character as a Brother and a well skilled craftsman of the order. Therefore be it be resolved that in the loss of P.M. Wilcoxson we deeply and sincerely mourn a Brother who by his intimate knowledge of Masonry has become a credit to our Lodge and an ornament to the Fraternity.
Resolved that we shall ever gratefully remember him as a kind and charitable Brother and honest and trustworthy and an associate possessed of qualities of character that alike honored his head and heart.
Resolved that we tender our heartfelt and Brotherly condolence to the widow of our departed Brother and invoke for her the protection and tender care of him who does not willingly afflict the children of men.
Years passed and the “tender memory” of Albert Wilcoxson faded, and the story of how a Civil War sword ended up in the bottom of a dusty glass case was forgotten until a “mere curiosity” found the story again. Perhaps this time we can live up to Mrs. Wilcoxson’s heart’s desire and prayer and have it remind us to be as true to our god, our country, and our fellow man as was my dear departed Brother.