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, with 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 house was captured by Union troops, the tent was sent to Washington, DC. There it 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 hope of one day displaying them in a museum. He raised the $5,000 to purchase the tent via contributions from ordinary Americans who shared his dream - a dream that nearly a hundred years later finally became the new museum that 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 skilled 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.
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
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Commercial advertising seldom veers into nerdy history, but a new advertisement from Pedigree dog food features a little-known historical incident involving two gentlemen, a lost dog, and the Revolutionary War. The advertisement is part of Pedigree's series with the tag line that "dogs bring out the best in us," and this advertisement proves exactly that.
I won't ruin the spot with spoilers, but what's shown really did happen. The draft of the note, below, now in the Library of Congress, was written to accompany the dog. The message is from the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, writing to the commander of the British Army, General William Howe. Washington was himself a great dog lover (there's an entire page on the Mount Vernon website devoted to his dogs), and did in fact return his enemy's lost pet, one gentleman to another. As was his practice, Washington dictated the note to a aide-de-camp. In this case, the aide was a young lieutenant colonel named Alexander Hamilton, who, despite his unquestionable devotion to the American cause, was still sufficiently dazzled by Howe's title that he first addressed him as "Sir William" instead of "General."
Of course, the advertisement doesn't *quite* get things historically correct. The Battle of Germantown took place on October 4, 1777; there was a heavy fog for most of the battle, and not a trace of snow. Washington was only forty-five at the time, not the craggy icon shown here. As for Colonel Hamilton - the real Hamilton in 1777 was barely out of his teens, a slender, fair-skinned, red-haired college drop-out.
Not until I read this entry about Portland Place did I know there was such a building as Foley House, or the rules that once existed about building in the vicinity. Not surprising. So many great London houses have disappeared, some with virtually no trace. However, I did manage to find an old engraving online (please scroll down), from Old and New London, one of my oft-consulted Victorian guidebooks to London’s history (complete, apparently, with various Victorian myths).
Portland Place is still an impressive street, though you will see more than a couple of carriage rattling around on it these days. And the road is paved, yes.
This elegant - and adaptable - gown is on display in the Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home exhibition (currently at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum of Colonial Williamsburg through 2018; see other articles from the exhibition I've mentioned here, here, and here). The photo, right, shows the dress as it appears in the exhibition, and gives you an idea of just how much other printed gorgeousness is on parade in this amazing exhibition.
There are several features that make this dress unusual. First is the fabric itself, a block-printed cotton that was intended to mimic lapis, reflecting the era's interest in nature as inspiration for design. The fabric was printed with a curved hem border design (called "to form" or "a disposition") to be incorporated into the garment's finished design when made up. Also of interest is the fact that the dress has a pair of matching long sleeves or mitts to offer extra options to the wearer.
Here's the collection's placard:
"This small-scale spotted pattern was printed especially for a gown of this style. The red borders outlining the hem of the curved train and the skirt front are printed to the finished shape, not stitched on separately. The remaining red trimmings around the sleeves and neckline are cut from the printed yardage and stitched in place. The red and blue printing technique is usually known as the "lapis style," named for the semiprecious stone with a blue ground. The printing method involved printing a mordant (color fixative) for red in with a resist paste before dyeing in indigo blue.
This graceful gown exemplifies the neoclassical style with a raised waistline and skirt falling close to the body. The bodice closes by means of a drop panel fastening in place at the proper right shoulder. Removable matching mitts could be used to cover the arms down to the wrists for warmth or protection from the sun."
The dress is also proof that not every woman in early 19thc Britain - an era much-beloved for the costumes shown in many Jane Austen-inspired films - dressed in plain white cotton muslin. Prints and color were available for ladies who wished to stand out from the crowd, and those who understood the practicality of a dark print and its ability to mask a bit of dirt between laundering.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.