Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Meeting Notes: January 18, 2023

1/18/2023 – Washington’s Tent

The January 18, 2023 members’ meeting was hosted by the University of Richmond in conjunction with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond via Zoom.

Mark Lender announced Harry M. Ward Book Prize committee’s winner of the 2022 competition: A TIE! Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 by John Ferling, and Francis Marion and the Snow's Island Community: Myth, History, and Archaeology by Steven D Smith. Congratulations to both.

Tyler Putnam, Ph.D., manager of gallery interpretation for the Museum of the American Revolution, in Philadelphia, presented an object biography following General George Washington’s Revolutionary War marquee and headquarters tents.

Marquee tents were tents of unusual size and elaborateness. These officer's field-tents were large tents erected for temporary purposes, such as to accommodate a special occasion, or as temporarily housing for a commanding officer and providing personal space for command activities. Marquees were hard to come by throughout the war. After taking command of the Continental Army, Washington ordered two marquees from Philadelphia upholsterer Plunkett Fleeson which were used during the Valley Forge encampment. A second set, comprised of a dining tent and an office tent with a built-in smaller sleeping chamber, was ordered from James Abeel which survives today. As described by Putnam, Washington’s elaborate marquees were a metaphor signaling the importance of Washington’s leadership position. Today, the marquee is described as “the first Oval Office.”

During George Washington's military career, he owned a series of marquees. At war’s end, the tents were taken to Mount Vernon. After Washington’s death, the marquees were passed by Martha Washington eventually to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis. He passed them on to his daughter, Mary Anna Custis Lee, and her husband, Robert E. Lee. Their enslaved housekeeper, Selina Norris Gray, kept the tent fabric safe when Union Army soldiers ransacked Arlington House during the American Civil War. The tents and other related objects (exterior of the office/sleeping tent, poles of the dining tent, and a storage trunk) are owned and exhibited at the new Museum of the American Revolution. A complete history of Washington's War Tents can be found on the museum’s web site. An internet search of “Washington’s marquee tent” results in many interpretations of this important object.

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