Now referred to as the nation’s “first Oval Office”—the tent was a critical mobile meeting place for the commander in chief from the encampment at Valley Forge through the siege of Yorktown. After a long journey to the heart of the nation’s founding, it is now on display for public view at the newly-opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Inside and under these linen walls, Washington, together with key staff and generals including Alexander Hamilton, plotted the eventual triumph of the Continental Army over formidable British forces.
Throughout the American Revolution, the oval-shaped field tent, known as a “marquee,” served as both Washington’s office and his bedroom, particularly when other housing and meeting places were unavailable. The tent is about 23 feet long and 14 feet wide, and was likely ordered by Washington during the bone-cold 1777 winter at Valley Forge when his previous tent was rotting.
Marquee tents were hard to come by throughout the war, but Washington managed to secure one at Valley Forge. It consisted of an office, a sleeping chamber for Washington, and a luggage area and sleeping quarters for the general’s enslaved valet, William Lee. (Lee is credited with contributing to the revolution in many ways and was the only slave Washington freed outright in his will.) The tent was the site of many epic moments in the Revolution up through the transformative concluding battle at Yorktown.
When the war ended, the tent’s pieces were returned to Mount Vernon and they eventually fell under the care of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. (He was rumored to have given away small pieces of the tent as souvenirs.) Custis passed the tent on to his daughter Mary Anna, wife of General Robert E. Lee.
When the Civil War broke out, Union soldiers ransacked Arlington House, the Lee home. It was the Lee’s enslaved housekeeper, Selina Norris Gray, who protected the tent and other Washington artifacts. Union troops later confiscated the tent and kept it in federal hands. It was put on display temporarily during the Civil War, and then stored at the U.S. Patent Office, which also served as a barracks and hospital for Union soldiers.
The Lee family petitioned to have the tent returned to their custody 40 years later, eventually taking their claim all the way to the Supreme Court to secure its return. Episcopal minister Rev. W. Herbert Burk purchased the tent from Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Robert E. Lee. She sold the tent to Burk for $5,000 in 1909 to raise funds for Confederate widows.
Burk was determined to use it as a key piece in a museum dedicated to the nation’s founding story. He is said to have collected small donations from hundreds of everyday Americans to purchase the tent. Burk founded the Valley Forge Museum of American History and he tried to recover the tent’s original poles, ropes and tent pins.
The tent was on display off and on at Valley Forge before making its way to the Museum of the American Revolution. As the future crown jewel of its collection, the tent underwent a rigorous and remarkable conservation effort to repair and restore it as much as possible to its original state.
Over the years, small holes in the yellowing cloth made the tent vulnerable. (One substantial piece of missing fabric had been recovered in 2007.) Virginia Whelan, a textile conservator, devoted more than 500 hours to conserving the tent. Her process included using thread thinner than human hair to secure its fiber. Conservators also used digital inkjet printers to recreate tiny amounts of new fabric to match the original.
In addition to the conservation efforts, a team led by structural engineering firm Keast & Hood developed an innovative system to protect the tent from tension once installed at the museum. An umbrella-like aluminum structure, invisible to visitors, was established to allow the tent to keep a natural drape while further safe-guarding it from deterioration.
An elaborately-designed “stunt double” tent was also constructed to give the public the ability to get closer to the historic artifact and imagine the storied conversations, debates and plans that unfolded inside its walls. This replica tent will continue to travel to different locations throughout the country.
Together, the tent and its replica will extend the experience and immersive story of this treasured artifact to millions of people for generations to come.
To learn more about this story and other objects related to the American Revolution, visit the Museum of the American Revolution website.