The Civil War is chock-full of tales of tragedy narrowly averted, often in the form of a bullet being stopped by a bible residing in the chest pocket of some fortunate soldier. However, such occurrences aren’t always accompanied by documentation to substantiate their authenticity, making this sword belt worn by Lt. William Paist of the Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry an especially intriguing artifact.
A native of Ohio, Paist moved to Saint Paul in 1855 and started a real estate business, which prospered until the financial panic of 1857. In 1862 he enlisted as a private in Company H of the Eighth Minnesota, which served nearly two years in the U.S.-Dakota War until the unit was transferred to the Civil War’s Western Theater.
In December, 1864 the Eighth Minnesota Regiment participated in the Third Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where they fought against Southern troops for the first time. On December 7, William Paist, now a lieutenant, was leading his company in battle when he was wounded. Like many Civil War soldiers, Paist was a prolific writer and penned this account two days later in a letter to his family:
“I was struck once with a grape shot – it is a cast iron ball about as large as a small walnut. My belt plate saved my life as it struck it & bent & mashed it all up…could not speak for 10 minutes & when I did come too supposed the ball was in my belly but a faithful corporal by the name of Josiah Lothrop was beside me with the ball in his hand. I have it now & intend to string it to my sword.”
Lt. Paist survived the war and returned to Minnesota where he became a successful farmer and a founding member of the North Star Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. The Minnesota historical Society holds the papers of William Paist and his family, and now the ball and sword belt from that fateful day in 1864.
Adam Scher, senior curator