Washington’s Tent: A Detective Story

Washington’s Tent: A Detective Story


Late one night last spring, Philip Mead, the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, was browsing auction listings online when he spotted one 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 most of the war. And that evening Mr. Mead found himself pausing over a vaguely familiar speck in the watercolor.

“There was a marquee tent up on a hillside,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Could it be…?’”

Apparently, it was. And now, six months after that “Where’s Waldo?” moment, the museum is announcing that it has acquired what it believes is the only known wartime depiction of Washington’s tent by an eyewitness.

That would be enough of a coup. But the eyewitness was Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born military engineer and future planner of Washington, D.C., who had rendered the scene with meticulous accuracy.

A detail of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s watercolor. The chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution thought the tent on the hill looked familiar.CreditMuseum of the American Revolution

“We have no photographs of this army, and suddenly here is the equivalent of Google Street View,” Mr. Mead said. “Looking at it, you feel like you are walking right 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 collections, exhibitions and programming, about the detective work that went into identifying the watercolor, which will be the centerpiece of an exhibition opening on Jan. 13.

The Big Picture

The watercolor, which was listed by Heritage Auctions, measures about seven feet long and 14 inches high. It was painted on six sheets of paper, which had been pasted together and mounted into a 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 Point, in August 1782. But it was the provenance information that provided a “Rosetta stone,” Mr. Stephenson said.

The watercolor is about seven feet long and 14 inches high and was painted on six sheets of paper. Washington’s tent is on the far left.CreditMuseum 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 at the end of his life. The watercolor at the Library of Congress had been acquired in 1920 from that same family. (Later, the museum’s researchers determined that a brief 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 premium. “We’re not supposed to discuss value, but hmmmm…,” Mr. Stephenson said. “Fortunately, no one else seemed to have figured out it was by L’Enfant.”

Diplomacy in Action

The auction listing described the watercolor as dating from the Battle of Stony Point in July 1779. But the museum determined that it actually depicts the Continental Army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point, just across the Hudson, in the fall of 1782.

This John Trumbull portrait of George Washington shows him at Verplanck’s Point with the Continental Army encampment in the background. The curators now realize Washington is facing his tent.CreditWinterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont

It was nearly a year after the battle of Yorktown, but the outcome of the war remained unsettled. There was a possibility of renewed attacks from the British, who were 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 set sail from Boston.

“This encampment, with all its beauty, was a diplomatic act,” Mr. Stephenson said. “They knew they needed 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 is not visible in Trumbull’s painting. “But now, because of this new watercolor and the research we’ve done, we can tell it shows Washington standing right in front of the tent,” Mr. Stephenson said.

Reading the Map

The curators had a sense of the general appearance of the encampment from letters and diaries by contemporary eyewitnesses, like one British traveler who described it as having “the most beautiful and picturesque appearance.”

Details shown in this map of the encampment at Verplanck’s Point in 1782 match those in the watercolor.CreditHoughton 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 came from the papers of Washington’s headquarters. The details on that map precisely match those in the watercolor.

“The map was 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 describe the bowers that each regiment erected in front of their tents to provide shade and protection, with symbols indicating the regiments’ origins.

The bowers in camp included symbols of different regiments, like this anchor representing Rhode Island.CreditMuseum of the American Revolution

Most are hard to make out, but the curators identified a tiny anchor in one bower — the symbol of a regiment from Rhode Island known for its large number of African-American and Native American soldiers. (A similar anchor is visible on the hat of a black soldier in a famous sketch by a member of Rochambeau’s army.)

“You’re looking at an encampment full of American symbols, through the eyes of the man 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 been captured in its unfurled glory, though it did make one odd cameo in 19th-century art history.

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

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 one 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 Historical 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 is the big reveal at the end of a dramatic movie.

A restored version of Washington’s tent is the star relic of the new Museum of the American Revolution.CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

But L’Enfant’s image shows something described in documents that has disappeared: the elaborate neoclassical wooden entrance erected in front of the tent at some encampments.

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

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