Rare Benjamin Wilhoite Confederate Officer’s Knife from Gettysburg
Rare Benjamin Wilhoite Confederate Officer’s Knife from Gettysburg – This knife, an extreme and highly desirable rarity, represents one of only a handful of extant, Wilhoite, Type II, Confederate officer’s knives. This example was, apparently, an early battlefield pickup, as it retains a small piece of russet brown leather, affixed to the characteristically, S-shaped, iron cross guard, that says: “Gettysburg July 3rd Pickett’s Charge 1863” – painted in small, white letters. Wilhoite made and sold some of his knives to a small number of Confederate units that were actively engaged at Gettysburg and participated in Pickett’s Charge. Additional research could, most likely, pinpoint which one of these units were likely to have had Wilhoite knives. The style of lettering on the attached piece of leather, appears to be definitively of the Civil War period. The knife, itself, appears to have been exposed to the elements for a year or so; this exposure time must have been limited, as the original checkered, hardwood grips have never been beneath the ground and remain in solid shape, with the exception of a small segment of wood loss on one side of the hilt. Wilhoite knives are accurately described in the reference descriptors enumerated below; this example adheres completely to the characteristics of the Wilhoite Type II Officer’s knife. This knife is an extreme rarity, which is greatly enhanced by its Gettysburg provenance. Knife measures as follows: Overall length – 16.25”; blade length – 11.5”; Width of guard – 4.75”; Length of Hilt – 4 5/8”.
Tim Prince (author of: “The English Connection”, noted expert and appraiser on the “Antiques Roadshow”): A Wilhoite knife s is one of those rarely encountered examples of a locally made, and unmarked Confederate fighting knives whose maker and history has been identified. These knives are the work of Benjamin Wilhoite of Madison County, Virginia. According to the research on Wilhoite published in The Confederate Knives of Madison County by Harold Woodward Jr., and used in Confederate Bowie Knives by Josh Phillips, John Sexton & Jack Melton, Wilhoite established his blacksmith shop in Wolftown, Virginia, a village located about half way between the county seats of Madison and Greene. Wolftown is located about 30 miles east of Harrisonburg, VA and about 30 miles north of Charlottesville, VA, just on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Harrisonburg. According to Woodward, Wilhoite’s blacksmith shop included three forges, and was 40’x28’. Woodward further notes that three slaves assisted Wilhoite in his labors, but no slaves are listed as being owned by Wilhoite in the 1860 Census. According to the 1860 Census Wilhoite (spelled Wilhoit in the census records) is listed as a blacksmith, 48 years old with an estimated birth year of 1812. Wilhoit(e) was listed as having real estate valued at $4,000 and a total personal estate valued at $5,000. The census lists the other household members as his wife, Eunice (45) and four children: Benjamin W (male, 15), David S (male, 14), Jeme Mc (male, 11) and Betty K (female, 7). Further investigation into the Confederate Citizen Files (National Archives Record Group 109 / M346) reveals that with the coming of the Civil War, Wilhoite did business with the Confederate government, but as a blacksmith supplying horse shoes, nails and shoeing services, or as a source for supplies and fodder such as wood and hay. No mention in the 20 or so pages of records includes knives. However, wonderful research by Woodward and others who have family knives made by Wilhoite and passed down since the Civil War have allowed us to identify his work and for some of the units he made knives for. It appears that Wilhoite made the knives on a contract basis for the men going off to war, selling them individually and not to the state or Confederate government. Research indicates that men who served in five different locally organized units carried knives made by Benjamin Wilhoite. These units include the Greene Rough & Readies (Captain St. Clair Deane’s Artillery Company, later 34th VA Infantry), the Jeff Davis Guards (10th VA Infantry), the Madison Invincibles (Company C, 4th VA Infantry), Company F of the 13th VA Infantry and the Madison Home Guards. Three basic patterns of Wilhoite knives are known, categorized as Types I, II and III by Phillips, et al. The Type I knife was the basic enlisted man’s knife and two identified examples exist, both identified to Greene county Confederate soldiers. Three of the Type II or “Officer’s Knives” exist that are identified to officers who served with some of the above listed units. Finally a single example of a Type III knife is known, which is substantially different from the other knives, and was given to William Simms of Company F, 13th VA Infantry. It is believed that Simms, a tinsmith, made the scabbards for Wilhoite’s knives and received this special double D-guard knife as a token of appreciation for his work for Wilhoite. The Type I and Type II knives are fairly similar in overall design, with the Type II knives being somewhat more embellished for the officers who purchased them. In general they have extremely well made spear point blades of a quality that suggests Wilhoite was a skilled cutler in addition to being a blacksmith. The consistent quality in the blades overshadows the typical work of a blacksmith who was not well versed in blade making. The blades are all slightly hollow ground and tend to be slightly over 2” wide at the widest point, with a well-defined median ridge down the middle of the blade. The blades are fairly thick as well, normally around .40” at the ricasso and around .30” along the median ridge above the ricasso. The blade lengths vary to some degree, with the published examples of enlisted (Type I) knives varying form 11” to 13 ½” and the officer’ (Type II) knives varying between 11 3/8” and 12 1/8”. The massive 18” blade of the single Type III knife owned by Simms is probably an exception to the way Wilhoite constructed fighting knives and is certainly atypical. The guards are of iron and S-shaped. The hilts are typically of hickory and on the enlisted knives are secured with an iron, washer-style, pommel cap that is threaded on to the tang. The hilt of the enlisted knife is essentially octagonal in cross section, with left and right sides being wider than the other facets of the grip. The hilt of the officers’ knife is slightly S-shaped, with two checkered scales pinned to the tang. As previously mentioned, the scabbards were of tin, with the officers’ scabbards being covered in leather as well. It is generally believed that General George Armstrong Custer was directly responsible for putting Wilhoite out of business, as a troop of cavalry under Custer’s command burned Wilhoite’s shop on February 29, 1864, while raiding up and down the Shenandoah Valley, and near by areas. As noted above, no receipts for knives are found in the Confederate Citizen Files, only for general blacksmithing and supplies. I would argue that in addition to the knives being private purchase items, they were very early war products, and Wilhoite no doubt turned his attention to much more mundane manufacturing and blacksmithing activities once the initial war fervor was over, and the reality of surviving (and providing for a family) in a region that would be a war zone for the next four years set in.
Shannon Pritchard (author of: “Collecting the Confederacy”) - Knives manufactured by Benjamin Wilhoite of Madison County, Virginia, represent one of the finest manufacturers in the Confederacy. All Wilhoite knives exhibit hollow ground, spear-point blades, with perfectly formed ricassos; all are fit with oval iron cross guards and hardwood grips. According to Josh Phillips’ research there are three known patterns made by Wilhoite. The various patterns are documented in Confederate Bowie Knives, which presents a detailed discussion of the maker and his knives, as well as the men who carried them.