Sunday, April 30, 2017

When an 18thc Tent Becomes a National Relic

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Susan reporting,

The new Museum of the American Revolution is filled with fascinating artifacts from the past, objects that tell stories, represent people, explain ideas, or are examples of exquisite craftsmanship. (See my earlier posts here and here.) But among all these treasures, there's only one that's a true relic on a national scale: George Washington's Headquarters Tent.

Quite simply, it's the real deal. From 1778 until 1783, this large (it's about twenty-three feet long) tent served as home and office to the commander-in-chief. While various houses were employed as headquarters during the war's many campaigns, Washington believed in sharing the same hardships as his troops. To be sure, the general's tent was more substantial than that sheltering the average soldier. His tent was supported and shaped by numerous poles and lines, and contained three small chambers: a central office, a half-circle sleeping chamber, and another small area for his luggage, and perhaps sleeping quarters for his enslaved African American valet, William Lee. But the canvas walls were the same, as was the damp or frozen ground beneath his feet. If the men were sleeping in tents through downpours, bitter frosts, and blistering heat, then the General did, too, and they respected him all the more for it.

Washington met with his generals and staff inside this tent, and major decisions about the war and the country's future were settled within it. Here Washington would also have experienced his most private moments, and the emotions that, as commander-in-chief, he was required to keep to himself: his longing for his home and family, his fears before a battle, his joy after a victory tempered by his grief for the men he'd lost, even his doubts about the war itself. If ever a single place carries the spirit of General Washington, then it's this tent.

After the war, the tent was packed into storage at Washington's home of Mount Vernon, but its role as a symbol was only beginning. The tent was passed down through the 19thc to Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Custis Lee, who was married to General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. When the Lee family fled the approaching Union troops, the tent and other Washington heirlooms as well as the keys to the house were entrusted to the care of Mrs. Lee's enslaved personal maid, Selina Norris Gray. Mrs. Gray had lived her entire life with the Lees, and recognized the significance of the Washington-related heirlooms. When she realized that occupying Union soldiers had stolen some of the pieces, she confronted them directly, and then alerted General Irvin McDowell. Thanks to her vigilance, the tent and the other heirlooms were sent to the Patent Office in Washington, DC for safekeeping. There the tent was displayed to the public, marshaling all the patriotic fervor of Washington's memory.

After the war, the tent was eventually returned to the Lees, who sold it to raise money to benefit Confederate widows and orphans. The buyer was Rev. W. Herbert Burk, an Episcopal minister who was collecting objects related to the Revolution with the intention of presenting them in a permanent setting. He raised the $5,000 to purchase the tent via contributions from ordinary Americans, and the tent was displayed first in the Valley Forge Historical Society, and then at Valley Forge National Park. Rev. Burk's dream of a more permanent museum devoted to the Revolution finally became realized over a hundred years later when the Museum of the American Revolution opened last month in Philadelphia.

But over the centuries, the tent had become a wispy shadow of itself. The canvas had deteriorated until it could no longer support its own weight, and a large piece had been cut from the side by another collector. Over five hundred hours of painstaking conservation work by Virginia Whelan, the museum's textile conservator, has preserved the tent for another generation. The structural engineering firm of Keast & Hood created an elaborate interior aluminum and canvas sub-tent to support the fragile tent, and yet give the appearance of draped canvas. The elaborate structure of ropes and poles is now strictly for show. (This brief video shows the installation in progress.)

Still, the delicate fabric can only withstand very limited exposure to light and other environmental elements, and the tent is carefully maintained in a 300-square-foot, climate-controlled display case. Faced with these limitations, the museum's multi-media presentation of the tent is an engaging and emotional experience. Long-time readers of this blog will recall the replica of the tent and its accoutrements hand-made at Colonial Williamsburg; that tent acted as a "stunt double" for the real tent in the accompanying film.

But it's Washington's headquarters tent that remains not only the star of the show, but of the museum. If you visit, be sure to attend the ten-minute presentation. At the end, when the tent is revealed, I guarantee you'll have a history-chills moment.

Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.


Unknown said...

In the late 1990s, I toured the American History Museum and was especially thrilled to see Washington's uniform and tent on display. What struck me most about the tent was what looked like the bloody imprint of a hand on the canvas next to the opening. I'll never forget it.

Martha said...

Missing from this otherwise very complete post is the role of Mary Anna Custis Lee's enslaved personal maid, Selina Norris Gray. When the Lee family evacuated Arlington House, Selina Gray was entrusted with the keys to the house and safeguarded the Washington heirlooms with which the Lee family had been entrusted. It was through Mrs. Gray's efforts that these heirlooms, including the tent, were sent to the Patent Office for safekeeping, and why it survived, through several owners, to be exhibited at the Museum of the American Revolution.

demit said...

I watched the video of the installation. I'm surprised that, the canvas being so fragile, the team assembling it wasn't wearing gloves.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Martha - Argh!! You're entirely right, and I can't believe I somehow neglected to include Selina Gray. (She is certainly part of the museum's telling of the tent's story.) I'm editing the post now to add her - thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. She deserves to be there.

Donna Hatch said...

How wonderful that this still exists!

John U Rees said...

The replicas of Washington's headquarters tents (the sleeping/officer marquee, the dining marquee, along with a storage tents), hand sewn and hand crafted at Colonial Williamsburg and owned by the Museum of the American Revolution, will be at Mount Vernon the weekend of May 6-7 2017. They will be fully furnished, and include the sleeping marquee's inner tents, as well.

HollyC said...

Thank you for sharing!

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