Bucks County Herald

Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

A tent that has endured

George Washington’s campaign tent (without leather header) is preserved behind glass at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

The following column is reprinted with some revisions from the Oct. 30, 2014 issue of the Bucks County Herald. Revisiting the column was inspired to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving weekend.

The original “oval office” was merely a tent, 22 feet long and 15 feet wide. It was a grand tent as tents go, with a fringed leather band across the roof and a scalloped valence piped in red, around the perimeter.

But a tent, called a marquee, was home for Commander-in-Chief George Washington for eight years of war, before he was elected first president of the United States.

A reproduction of that tent was erected on the lawn of the David Library of the Revolution in Washington Crossing. It was destined for a permanent home in the new Museum of the American Revolution when it opened in Philadelphia in 2016.

The tent’s story, said R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s director of collections and interpretation, is like the fabled tale of the Red Violin, an odyssey of chance tied in with history. The first tent used in the early years, through New York, New England and the crossing of the Delaware, was discarded. The long enduring second tents, one for office and sleeping, the other for dining, were probably made in Reading in early 1778, at the end of the Valley Forge encampment.

In December 1783, after he resigned his commission, Washington returned to his home in Mount Vernon with his tents and military equipment. Following his death and the death of his wife, Martha, in 1802, Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, bought the tents at auction.

He treasured the tents and was known to ferry guests across the Potomac to view them as they were displayed at his home, Arlington House. When he died, in 1857, his daughter, Mary Custis, now married to Robert E. Lee, inherited the house and its contents.

When Mary left Arlington House during the Civil War, in the face of the Yankee advance, she gave the keys to her slave, Selina Norris Gray, and left all of Washington’s possessions behind. Gray is credited with saving the historic treasures, including the tents, from marauding Union soldiers. While Union Army units occupied Arlington House during the Civil War, the U.S. Patent Office took them into federal custody.

Early in the 20th century, the elements of Washington’s field headquarters were returned to the family through Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife. According to an account in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1907, she sold the collection for $5,000 to the Rev. Burke in 1907.

Years later, Betty Lovell Washington Lewis, who said the tent had descended in her family, presented it at Valley Forge.

It had been displayed at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907 and at Lafayette’s visit to Baltimore in 1824. At that event is was festooned with garlands to mark the joyous occasion.

Elements of Washington’s field headquarters are now held by institutions including the Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of American History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the National Park Service.

The replica tent that was erected at the David Library was fashioned to exact measurements and designed from 250 yards of linen in Colonial Williamsburg’s Weave Room. The fabric had its origin in Belgium, was bleached in Yorkshire and was woven in Northern Ireland.

Neal Hurst, a tailor in Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg, who worked on the project, was at the David Library to help interpret the artifact.

“By the 18th century, no tailor in America was making tents,” Hurst said. “but when the American Revolution began, Williamsburg’s many tailors became deeply involved in supplying uniforms, flags, and tents. A couple of thousand tents were made by the capital city’s tailors.”

Historians are still piecing together the strands of the tent’s history and making the functional furnishings. Joiners in Williamsburg are working on a replica bed to fit in the tent’s shape.

The Sunday program was a private showing of the tent for the Friends of the David Library, the organization of the library’s most loyal donors. The Friends are invited to special events throughout the year.

Washington’s original tent was planned to be displayed behind glass at the completed Museum of the American Revolution (as it is in 2017). It was painstakingly reproduced by Historic Trades tailors as part of a partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and the museum.

The museum uses the replica today for museum outreach programs as it did in advance of the 2016 opening.

Ground was broken Oct. 9, 2014 for the museum at 3rd and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. National and local dignitaries, politicians and museum leadership marked the occasion with the ceremonial dedication of America’s Liberty Tree, to H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, founding chairman.




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