The Saga of General William R. Terrill's Sword

    In the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, Sergeant Charles Van Houten of the 121st Ohio stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime battlefield trophy. As Van Houten examined the battlefield near the wreckage of Lieutenant Charles Parsons’ Battery, he spied a sword and scabbard laying on the ground. Upon the blade he saw engraved two names: Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle and Brigadier General William R. Terrill. Van Houten had inadvertently found the sword General Terrill was carrying when he was wounded. It was a tremendous battlefield trophy, and the Ohioan decided to send the sword back to his home in Pleasant Twp., Marion Co., Ohio. In the meantime, he scratched his name into the handle and quietly packed the sword into a box for shipment.[1]

The Battle of Perryville as depicted by Harper's Weekly. General Terrill was struck down when a Confederate artillery shell exploded over the guns of Lieutenant Charles C. Parsons battery; the jagged shell fragment struck the Virginian, tearing most of his chest open. He died around 2 a.m. that night from the wound. 

William Rufus Terrill was born April 21, 1834 in Covington, Virginia to William Henry Terrill and Elizabeth Terrill and came of age in Warm Springs. His father was a prominent and wealthy attorney who served in the Virginia legislature. In 1849, the elder Terrill secured an appointment to West Point for his son, as remembered by James Terrill, William’s younger brother. “When the appointment arrived, he [William Terrill, Sr.] called the family together and presented it to him with a copy of the Constitution and the New Testament and extracted a pledge before us all that he would never prove false to either,” James said.[2] The Virginian graduated from West Point in 1853 with great promise; he proved to be a bright and disciplined cadet and came back to the Point to serve a year as an assistant professor of mathematics. “He was a great draughtsman and a fine officer, and an amiable, intelligent, and courteous gentleman” his obituary noted. In the late 1850s, he served on the U.S. Coastal Survey and as Civil War drew near he was on duty with the Regular Artillery in Poughkeepsie, New York. [3]


When Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861, Terrill made the difficult choice of remaining loyal to the United States against the earnest wishes of his home state and his family. As remembered by his brother James, “when General [Robert E.] Lee resigned his commission, father wrote to brother and urged him to resign and come home and enter the Confederate service, but my brother reminded him of the pledge he had made and declared his determination to stand by the cause of the Union.”[4] The 28-year old lieutenant wrote his widowed father (Elizabeth had died in 1858 at age 53) that “the Union cause to which I have devoted my life has nothing but honor to endear it, and it has no terror but that of death which a soldier must always expect. The rebellion, however, offers nothing but dishonor and disgrace and I shall adhere to the flag of the Union and give my life if necessary in support of the legally constituted Government of the United States.” [5]


Brigadier General William R. Terrill
Encyclopedia of Virginia

The elder Terrill was “overwhelmed by the position that you have taken. It is the bitterest cup that has ever been commended to my lips. How it makes my heart bleed to think that while Virginia’s sons are rallying to the defense of her firesides and homes that my son is found playing the part of Benedict Arnold. All your brothers and even your father whose years would exempt him will be in the fight and can you be so recreant and unnatural as to aid in the mad attempt to impose the yoke of tyranny upon your kith and kin. Do so, and your name shall be stricken from the family record and only remembered in connection with your treachery to the country that gave you birth.” Both the elder Terrill and James Terrill went on to serve with the Confederacy, James being killed in 1864 at the Battle of Bethesda Church, Virginia. William Rufus Terrill would meet his end wearing the blue uniform of the Union.[6]


Terrill reported to the War Department in Washington, D.C. where he was soon promoted to the rank of captain and tasked with raising what became Battery H of the 5th U.S. Light Artillery. At some point prior to this, he married Emily D. Henry. The couple settled in Reading, Pennsylvania where Captain Terrill recruited volunteers for the battery; Mrs. Terrill continued to live in Reading she remained until his death in 1862. The Virginian made a good impression with his new neighbors, the Reading Times commenting favorably that Terrill “has about him all the marks of a true soldier. There is no bluster, no boasting, no display; but in place of these we find a quiet confidence, a modesty, and gentlemanly bearing.”[7]


In November 1861, the battery of four 12-pdr brass Napoleons and two Parrott rifles was assigned to the Army of Ohio and under Terrill’s leadership earned its laurels at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Terrill’s tough discipline and competence earned him much notice and by August 1862, he arrived in Louisville, Kentucky as a man marked for great things. They soon arrived in the form of a brigadier general’s commission signed by President Abraham Lincoln. It was while in Louisville that I believe that General Jeremiah T. Boyle, then the military governor of Kentucky, presented the newly minted General Terrill with one of Boyle’s swords which was then engraved with Terrill’s name. This was the sword that Terrill carried into action at Perryville which was later recovered by Sergeant Van Houten.


At Louisville, General Terrill was given command of the 33rd Brigade of General James S. Jackson’s 10th Division, the brigade being comprised of Charles C. Parson’s battery of eight guns, a detachment of Kentucky cavalry, the 80th and 123rd Illinois, 101st Indiana, and the 105th Ohio regiments.  These were all newly raised troops, fresh out of their mustering camps and in a woeful state of training and discipline. Terrill worked diligently to rough them into shape, but his harsh discipline led to some complaints from the troops, one soldier of the 105th Ohio complaining that Terrill was “a drunken old tyrant and deserves to be shot by his own men.” But Terrill’s “pet project” was Parson’s battery, which Terrill devoted much time to equipping and manned it with volunteers from his infantry regiments.[8]


Battle of Perryville between 3 and 4 p.m. (Map by Hal Jespersen,

At heart, Terrill was an artilleryman it is perhaps a bit ironic that it was an artillery shell that killed him at the Battle of Perryville. Terrill became engrossed in directing the guns of Parson’s battery to the neglect of his infantry, Terrill dispatching the raw 123rd Illinois against George Maney’s brigade of tough, veteran troops to hold off a threat to Parsons’ position. The result was predictable: the 123rd was driven off the field with heavy losses, as was the 105th Ohio which had been sent to its support. Terrill himself was struck down around 4 p.m. while trying to rally his broken rookie infantrymen. “He was killed by a shell within five feet of me,” remembered Major James A. Connolly of the 123rd. “I was the only one with him; I raised him to a sitting position and saw that nearly his entire breast was torn away by the shell. He recognized me, and his first words were ‘Major, do you think it’s fatal?’ I knew it must be, but to encourage him, I answered, ‘Oh, I hope not, General.’ He then said, ‘My poor wife, my poor wife.’ He lived until 2 o’clock the next morning.”[9] General Terrill was carried off the field about two miles and was attended to by Surgeon Robert McMeens of the 3rd Ohio, but the injuries sustained by the shell were just too severe.[10] In the shock and confusion of battle, perhaps no one noticed or took the time to retrieve General Terrill’s sword and there it lay near the guns of Parsons’ battery until Sergeant Van Houten discovered it the following day.


Detail of Terrill's sword
It is unclear when this photo was taken so this
may not have been the sword he was carrying at Perryville.

Eventually, the story of Sergeant Van Houten possessing General Terrill’s sword made its way to his company commander Captain Marshall Blair Clason, an ambitious Ohio Wesleyan trained officer then angling for a position on the general staff. On April 2, 1863, Captain Clason wrote a letter to General Boyle telling the whole tale and stating that Van Houten knew the sword belonged to Terrill but “he surreptitiously forwarded the sword to his home as a trophy of a battle in which he acted as a most egregious coward.” General Boyle forwarded the matter along to Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the District of Ohio, who referred the matter to the U.S. Marshal’s Northern District of Ohio office. Marshal Earl Bill, Jr. of Cleveland was given the job of traveling to Marion County and recovering the sword which he did in mid-April 1863. Marshal Bill made a grisly discovery on recovering the sword. “The sheath, which is of iron, is spattered with General Terrill’s blood which had rusted on. Marshall Bill will transmit the sword to the widow of General Terrill as soon as he can ascertain her whereabouts.”[11] This had to be a sad task for Marshal Bill- the previous fall he had lost his son Horace Harper Bill at the Battle of Antietam.


Captain Clason’s motives in ratting out one of his subordinates seem mixed. By April 1863, Van Houten had been commissioned a lieutenant and Clason may have viewed him as a rival. He also may have been trying to cover up his own tracks. In a letter to his mother in law written in May 1863, Clason thanked her for taking care of ‘the gun matter” as apparently Clason himself sent home a battlefield trophy. “Everybody took a trophy from the field and I took that gun. It was a very small matter, but I wanted to take care my enemies had no handle on me,” he wrote. He reminded her of his role in getting Terrill’s sword returned and commented that his letter “occasioned considerable fluttering in certain quarters and I anticipated trouble and prepared for it.”[12] Captain Clason would meet his demise during the assault on Kennesaw Mountain the following year; Charles Van Houten survived the war, eventually rising to the rank of captain before being discharged for physical disability in December 1864.


As for General Terrill, his body arrived in Louisville on October 10th at 9 o’clock in the evening along with the bodies of his division commander James S. Jackson and Jackson’s other brigade commander, Colonel George Webster of the 98th Ohio. “General Terrill’s widow was in Cincinnati yesterday at which point she received intelligence of the General’s death,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.[13] Where to bury General Terrill was a knotty problem; there was no way the body could be returned to his home in Virginia (not that his family would have even received it if asked), so his widow Emily decided to return to their home in Reading, Pennsylvania and have her husband buried at Charles Evans Cemetery. They arrived in Reading on October 15th and the funeral was held at Christ Church the following day, the services officiated by the Reverend Alexander G. Cummins. In his eulogy, Cummins praised Terrill’s steadfast purpose and devotion to the Union “Nothing could swerve him from his conscientious duty. No rank or honor could tempt him from his allegiance. Like a rock amid the lashing of storm-tossed waves, he stood nobly by the old state ship, which was riding almost rudderless upon the angry sea of revolution,” Cummins said. “But the severest trial was to see the love of parents and friends changing into hatred. He loved not Virginia alone, but his whole country. The oath which bound him to serve his country he viewed as a high and holy thing- as made unto God, and not with men.”[14] The following November, General Terrill’s body was exhumed and sent to West Point where his remains are today. When Emily died in 1884 at age 43, she was also buried alongside her beloved husband at West Point.

[1] “General Terrill’s Sword Recovered,” Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), April 20, 1863, pg. 3

[2] “Gen. Wm. R. Terrill,” National Tribune, March 23, 1893, pg. 4

[3] “Gen. Wm. R. Terrill, Killed,” Staunton Spectator (Virginia), October 21, 1862, pg. 2

[4] Terrill, National Tribune, op. cit.

[5] “General Terrill,” Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), October 18, 1862, pg. 1

[6] “General William Rufus Terrill: The Civil War Officer That Reading Adopted,” Gary L. Shugar, Historical Review of Berks County, retrieved September 20, 2020

[7] Reading Times, September 3, 1861 as quoted from Shugar

[8] “Artillery: Sticking to His Guns: Lt. Charles Parsons at the Battle of Perryville,” Kevin Pawlak, June 19, 2018. Emerging Civil War blog

[9] Connolly, James A. Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland: The Letters and Diary of Major James A. Connolly. Indiana University Press, 1987

[10] Cleveland Morning Leader, November 14, 1862, pg. 2

[11] Sword Recovered, op. cit.

[12] Clason, Marshall Blair. “Letter from Marshall Blair Clason to his mother in law.” (1863) The Letters of Marshall Clason. Digital Commons of Ohio Wesleyan University.

[13] Louisville Courier-Journal, October 11, 1862, pg. 3

[14] Address at the Burial of Brig. Gen. William R. Terrill, October 16, 1862. Rev. Alexander G. Cummins. Philadelphia: C. Sherman & Son, Printers, 1862.


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