Washington’s Tent: A good Detective Story


Washington’s Tent: A good Detective Story The way the Museum of the American Revolution found the simply well-known depiction George Washington’s vacationing headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

Late one night previous springtime, Philip Mead, the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, was browsing auction listings on the web when he spotted 1 for a panoramic watercolor of the Continental Army encamped in the Hudson Valley.

The museum had opened a month earlier, complete with a lavish theater dedicated to its star relic: the canvas marquee tent that George Washington used as his headquarters for the majority of the war. And that night time Mr. Mead located himself pausing over a vaguely familiar speck in the watercolor.

“There is a marquee tent up on a hillside,” he recalled. “I considered to myself, ‘Could it end up being…?’”

Apparently, it was. And now, six months from then on “Where’s Waldo?” moment, the museum is normally announcing that it has obtained what it believes may be the only noted wartime depiction of Washington’s tent by an eyewitness.

That would be enough of a good coup. However the eyewitness was Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born armed service engineer and near future planner of Washington, D.C., who had rendered the picture with meticulous accuracy.

Image A detail of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s watercolor. The principle historian of the Museum of the American Revolution believed the tent on the hill appeared familiar. Credit Museum of the American Revolution

“We’ve no photographs of the army, and suddenly this is actually the equivalent of Google Street View,” Mr. Mead said. “Searching at it, you are feeling as if you are walking directly into the past.”

We spoke with Mr. Mead, who is also the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, and R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of selections, exhibitions and programming, about the detective work that went into determining the watercolor, which will be the centerpiece of an exhibition starting on Jan. 13.

The Big Picture

The watercolor, which was listed by Heritage Auctions, measures about seven feet longer and 14 inches high. It had been painted on six linens of paper, which had been pasted together and mounted into a e book. No artist was listed.

The curators knew that the Library of Congress owned a similar panorama by L’Enfant, showing the Continental Army encamped near West Level, in August 1782. Nonetheless it was the provenance info that provided a “Rosetta stone,” Mr. Stephenson said.

Image The watercolor is approximately seven feet lengthy and 14 inches huge and was painted about six linens of paper. Washington’s tent is on the much left. Credit Museum of the American Revolution

The auction listing identified the watercolor as coming from the papers of Thomas Digges, who was related to a prominent Maryland family that had housed L’Enfant by the end of his life. The watercolor at the Library of Congress had been acquired in 1920 from that same relatives. (Later, the museum’s researchers determined that a quick inscription on the back of the new watercolor matched L’Enfant’s handwriting.)

The museum paid $13,750 for the watercolor, including the buyer’s top quality. “We’re not supposed to discuss value, but hmmmm…,” Mr. Stephenson said. “Fortunately, no person else seemed to possess figured out it was by L’Enfant.”

Diplomacy in Action

The auction listing described the watercolor as internet dating from the Battle of Stony Level in July 1779. However the museum established that it actually depicts the Continental Army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point, just over the Hudson, in nov 1782.

Image This John Trumbull portrait of George Washington displays him at Verplanck’s Level with the Continental Army encampment in the backdrop. The curators now realize Washington is normally facing his tent. Credit Winterthur Museum, Present of Henry Francis du Pont

It was practically a year after the fight of Yorktown, however the end result of the battle remained unsettled. There is a possibility of renewed episodes from the British, who had been still in New York City, about 60 miles downriver. Washington had set up camp there to greet the French troops commanded by Rochambeau, which were passing through to establish sail from Boston.

“This encampment, with all its beauty, was a diplomatic act,” Mr. Stephenson said. “They knew they had a need to impress the world.”

The scene had been partially captured by the painter John Trumbull, who did a portrait of Washington and his horse at Verplanck’s that he later presented to Martha Washington.

The oval-shaped tent itself isn’t visible in Trumbull’s painting. “But now, because of this brand-new watercolor and the study we’ve done, we can tell it displays Washington standing right before the tent,” Mr. Stephenson said.

Reading the Map

The curators had a feeling of the overall appearance of the encampment from letters and diaries by modern day eyewitnesses, like one Uk traveler who described it as having “the most beautiful and picturesque appearance.”

Image Details shown in this map of the encampment at Verplanck’s Point in 1782 match those in the watercolor. Credit Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Sparks 158.1 (3)

The encampment’s layout and details, down to the number of tents, were also recorded in a map, now owned by Harvard University, which originated from the papers of Washington’s headquarters. The facts on that map exactly match those in the watercolor.

“The map was just like the key that unlocks the whole thing,” Mr. Stephenson said. “You can tell exactly where L’Enfant was sitting to get that particular perspective.”

Written accounts of the encampment identify the bowers that each regiment erected before their tents to supply shade and protection, with symbols indicating the regiments’ origins.

Image The bowers in camp included symbols of several regiments, like this anchor representing Rhode Island. Credit Museum of the American Revolution

Most are very difficult to make out, however the curators identified a little anchor in a single bower – the symbol of a regiment from Rhode Island known for its large numbers of African-American and Native American soldiers. (A similar anchor is visible on the hat of a dark-colored soldier in a prominent sketch by an associate of Rochambeau’s army.)

“You’re looking at an encampment packed with American symbols, through the eyes of the person who later designed Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Mead said.

The Tent’s Afterlife

After the Revolution, Washington’s tent was erected at various ceremonial occasions, including at Fort McHenry during the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant return to the United States in 1824. It seems never to have already been captured in its unfurled glory, though it does generate one odd cameo in 19th-century artwork history.

In 1853, Harper’s Magazine published an engraving of the rolled-up tent as part of a tale about Revolutionary War relics stored at the Virginia real estate of Robert E. Lee, whose wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.

Image The artist Benson John Lossing made this engraving of the rolled-up tent for an 1853 article in Harper’s about Revolutionary War relics at the home of Robert E. Lee, who married Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter. Credit

The standing tent is visible in a single historical photograph, from around 1909, when it was pitched in the snow at Valley Forge by Rev. W. Herbert Burk, the founder of the Valley Forge Traditional Society, who had purchased it from Lee’s daughter.

At the museum, which acquired the historical society’s collection in 2003, the elaborately restored tent may be the big reveal by the end of a dramatic movie.

Image A restored type of Washington’s tent may be the star relic of the new Museum of the American Revolution. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

But L’Enfant’s image displays something described in docs which has disappeared: the elaborate neoclassical wooden entrance erected before the tent at some encampments.

“This is the equivalent of the Oval Workplace on a lonely windswept hill,” Mr. Stephenson said of the tent as observed in the watercolor. “It combines private and public Washington, all in a single view.”

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