Two hundred years ago, in the summer of 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to America for the first time since he fought in the American Revolution. The Frenchman had become a major general in the Continental Army at the age of 19, was a close friend of George Washington’s and played a key role in the colonists’ conclusive victory at Yorktown. Now 67, Lafayette traveled by steamboat to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where a group of surviving officers from the Continental Army had assembled in Washington’s tent from the Revolutionary War. Entering the threadbare canopy for the first time in nearly half a century, Lafayette and others were overcome and shed “tears of glory, gratitude and joy,” as Secretary of State John Quincy Adams described them later that day.
Today, Washington’s war tent sits in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where it reigns as a “rock-star object,” as the New York Times has called it. Before seeing the tent, visitors watch a stirring 12-minute film about its history and significance. When the projection screens lift away and dim lights finally reveal the tent itself, “people have tears in their eyes, literally every single time,” says R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s president. The tent, then, has elicited tears for two centuries. To Lafayette, it was a “consecrated” object, as he put it—the sacred symbol of Washington’s peerless wartime leadership. Now this improbable survivor, nearly 250 years old, is regarded as a hallowed relic of the Revolutionary War, a symbol of the American republic—even, by some, as the first Oval Office.
Made of sturdy flax linen with red scalloped edges, and shaped like a long oval when pitched, it is a typical 18th-century marquee tent for high-ranking military officers. Its dimensions are approximately 23 feet long, 14 feet wide and 12 feet high—“not a huge space,” Stephenson says, and quite “spartan” in its decoration, compared with the war tents of 18th-century European monarchs, like George III or Louis XVI. It was made in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the Valley Forge encampment in the spring of 1778, as part of a replacement set for Washington’s initial campaign tents, which had worn out.
By electing to camp among his men and endure their hardships for the almost seven-year duration of the war, Washington was doing something highly unusual and calculated for effect. “He was very consciously trying to model what leadership of the army in a republic would look like,” Stephenson says. It was customary for military leaders to use buildings as their headquarters, and Washington attracted widespread attention for staying in his tent.
It also served as his sleeping quarters and office, where he would sit alone reading and writing letters by candlelight. Some soldiers later remembered his glowing tent as the last thing they saw at night and the first thing they saw in the morning. After the war’s end in 1783, the tent and the rest of Washington’s military equipment went into storage at his Mount Vernon estate. Following his death in 1799, the tent took on new roles. It became a family heirloom for his wife, Martha, and her descendants; for the young country, it was treated as a national treasure and regularly put on display, most notably for Lafayette’s visit in 1824.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of that occasion, the Museum of the American Revolution is opening a new exhibition this February called “Witness to Revolution: The Unlikely Travels of Washington’s Tent.” “It’s a kind of reunion,” says curator Matthew Skic. The museum has brought together tent-
related artifacts and artworks from many different collections, and all the known fragments of the tent that were cut off and given away as souvenirs. George Washington Parke Custis, President Washington’s step-grandson, was particularly active in this scissor work, handing out the scraps with notes identifying their provenance. The exhibition tells the stories of Washington’s companions in his war camps, including his enslaved valet, William Lee, who would dress him in the tent; three of his aides-de-camp; and the soldiers selected to guard the commander in chief.
The latter part of the exhibition follows the tent’s improbable journey through the 19th century to the present day. For two decades it was the treasured possession of another legendary military leader, Robert E. Lee, who acquired joint ownership by marrying Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter Mary Custis. The tent was kept in their home at Arlington House. During the Civil War, Arlington was taken by the Union Army, and the tent was carried away to Washington, D.C., where it was displayed as a symbol of the Union cause. Then it became the subject of a long legal battle between the Lee family and the U.S. government, which ultimately returned the tent to Robert E. Lee’s daughter. She sold it to the Reverend W. Herbert Burk of Norristown, Pennsylvania, to raise money for Confederate war widows, and the tent began a new career as a star object in museums, first at Valley Forge and then at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened in 2017.
Asked if he knew of a more storied item of American camping gear, Stephenson said, “Absolutely not! And we discover new things all the time.” The museum’s conservator Loreen Finkelstein, who preserved the tent through painstaking needlework, was at Mount Vernon on another project when she came across a piece of the tent that had been sitting in a drawer since the 1930s. And someone had just approached the museum with an item purchased at a Goodwill store—a small piece of linen with some red trim, now authenticated by the museum’s experts, and an old note in pencil that said, “Part of George Washington’s tent.”
“It was a mobile field headquarters that became a relic and then a symbol,” says Stephenson. “And that’s how it survived. Otherwise, who keeps an old tent around?”
The general’s trusty military assistants went on to shape the young country
By Sonja Anderson