George Washington wanted a tent. The commander of the Continental Army had the impossible task of transforming his ragtag troops into a professional fighting force to match the mighty British. But to do so, he had to beg the fractious Continental Congress for funds and equipment. “I cannot take the field without equipage, and after I have once got into a tent, I shall not soon quit it,” he wrote to his aide in 1776. After an original set of tents wore out, Washington received another one in 1778, including a sophisticated, 300-square-foot flax linen structure made in Reading, PA, that provided the general with three separate “rooms” and two passageways between them. Throughout the war, it was where Washington slept, met with allies and staff, and plotted his strategy to defeat the British.
The not-so-humble Tent would go on to become one of the most hallowed relics of the Revolutionary War, a source of controversy during the Civil War, and the object of a legal battle that stretched into the early 20th century. Nearly 250 years later, it still survives and is carefully preserved and displayed during a multimedia presentation at the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR) in Philadelphia.
The centerpiece of New-York Historical’s Revolutionary Summer is a painstakingly detailed, hand-sewn replica of the Headquarters Tent that is on loan from MoAR and on display in our outdoor courtyard on select Fridays and weekends this summer, including July 4-7. (The original, of course, is far too fragile to travel.) As visitors embark on their journey back to the Revolutionary era, we wanted to share the fascinating story of how the Tent ended up at MoAR and—in spirit, at least—in the courtyard of New-York Historical.
Revolutionary Summer dramatizes a period towards the end of the war, when the Continental Army was ascendant, yet uneasy. After the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, British surrender seemed imminent. But British forces still controlled New York City and until the withdrawal was final, Washington had to both woo his French allies for continued support and prepare his restless troops for a prolonged campaign. In the summer of 1782, Washington and Army set up camp along the Hudson River at Verplanck’s Point, NY.
Our knowledge of this moment is enhanced by an artifact that’s almost as priceless as the Tent itself and is also on view at New-York Historical for Revolutionary Summer: a detailed, panoramic watercolor of the encampment by artist and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant that’s the only known eyewitness image of the Tent in the field. The painting itself has an incredible backstory of its own. Historians had not even known it had existed until 2017, when it was discovered by chance on an auction website by MoAR’s chief historian Philip Mead. “We have no photographs of this army, and suddenly here is the equivalent of Google Street View,” Mead told the New York Times. “Looking at it, you feel like you are walking right into the past.” MoAR snapped it up for a reported $13,750, and it’s on loan to New-York Historical for the summer.
For all of the Continental Army’s preparations that summer, the British surrender finally came in 1783, and Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789. His Tent returned with him to his home at Mount Vernon, VA, where it stayed until Martha Washington’s death in 1802. From there, its journey was a circuitous one down the branches of the Washington family tree: Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis inherited the Mount Vernon collection after her death and moved it to Arlington, the Virginia plantation he inherited along the Potomac River. There, he launched the tradition of pitching it every year at an annual event, and the Tent gradually became a sacred relic of the Revolution, with pieces of the cloth being snipped off and handed out to veterans (a generous practice that horrifies our modern-day curators.)
When the legendary Revolutionary War commander Marquis de Lafayette returned to the U.S. for a tour in the 1820s, one of Washington’s tents was pitched in Baltimore for him. According to the official MoAR timeline, the Commercial Gazette reported, “He entered, and there was a solemn grandeur in the moment, there was a cast about the place, and around those who were assembled, a reverential awe which language could but ill paint—the heart swelled and tears spoke what words could not utter.”
Ownership of both the Tent and Arlington passed to daughter Mary Anna Custis Lee and her husband Robert E. Lee—the same Virginian who’d go on to command the Confederate forces in the Civil War. A bitter irony? Perhaps, but it also symbolizes the original sin that was as old as the United States, a nation founded in part by slaveholders like Washington. (Those remarkable passageways in the Tent were often used by his enslaved valet William Lee to move about the structure.) When Custis Lee fled the plantation for Richmond, she left the Washington collection locked away, under the care of an enslaved woman named Selina Gray. The Union Army seized Arlington in 1862, and Gray, concerned about the fate of the heirlooms, alerted the general in charge to the Washington objects, which were transported to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., for safekeeping.
The Tent spent the next 40 years or so in D.C., first at the Patent Office and then at the Smithsonian Institution. As soon as the Civil War ended, it became the subject of a protracted legal battle when Mary Anna Custis Lee petitioned the federal government for the return of both Arlington and the Washington collection. An 1869 congressional inquiry concluded that “the property of the Father of his country, and as such are the property of the whole people and should not be committed to the custody of any one person, much less a rebel like General Lee.”
After her death, Lee’s descendants continued the legal fight, eventually securing payment for Arlington, which had since been turned into a cemetery for Union soldiers. Finally in 1901, President William McKinley agreed to return the Washington collection to the Lee family. Only a few years later in 1909, eldest Lee daughter Mary Custis Lee sold the tent to Rev. H. Herbert Burk, a minister from Pennsylvania, for $5,000, and it was exhibited and stored at a new museum of American history at Valley Forge. That collection became the core of MoAR, which opened in 2017.
As a historical artifact, the Tent is priceless. But it’s also still powerful for what it represented during the Revolution: Washington’s insistence on staying with his troops. “The Tent was the symbol,” MoAR president and CEO Dr. R. Scott Stephenson told CBS News. “He said, ‘I’ve never left your side, I’ve been with you through the entire war.’ And every one of those men knew that they had seen those candles burning late into night.”
Revolutionary Summer runs from July 4–September 15 and features programming in the courtyard on Fridays and weekends, a host of exceptional 18th-century artifacts in the Museum, and fun, fascinating programs for all ages throughout the week.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor