The General’s Original War Tent is the Star of the show in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia
By Richard Varr
There’s a shadow cast upon the canvas wall – a figure of a man strolling about against what seems like flickering candlelight.
Maybe it’s the spirit of George Washington, I wonder, as I watch a theatrical presentation with a movie and dim stage lighting, finally yielding to a rising curtain and lights up full to reveal the star of the show – likely the most famous tent in America.
Yes, it’s in fact General George Washington’s Revolutionary War Tent, the actual sturdy shelter where he slept and commanded his often meager Continental Army, serving as his living quarters and office that followed him across battlefields from 1778 up to the 1781 war-ending Siege of Yorktown.
And it seems the tent has found the perfect home at the recently opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, directly across the street from where Alexander Hamilton once worked within the First Bank of the United States fronted by its massive Corinthian columns, and a few blocks from the President’s House Site where Washington lived as the country’s first president.
“The tent is like seeing a tangible connection to the past when General Washington was sitting on his camp stool and writing correspondence – when writing in moments of triumph but also in the some of the darkest moments when it looked like the American Revolution wasn’t going to succeed,” says Matthew Skic, the museum’s Curator of Exhibitions.
“This tent was witness to that – an emotional thing when thinking about the decision-making that was going on in that tent.”
With dioramas and an arsenal of artifacts including 18th century muskets, letters and personal diaries, the museum traces the tumultuous events leading up to the 13 Colonies revolting against England and the timeline of the war – the Boston Tea party, for example, the harsh winter at Valley Forge, and capturing Fort Ticonderoga from the British.
But Washington’s War Tent is by far the biggest draw as it’s housed within its own theater with hourly presentations.
The History of the Tent
Adding to the intrigue is the tent’s history. Ownership passed down from Washington eventually to the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee when George and Martha Washington’s great granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Lee in 1831 – a bit of irony perhaps considering Washington fought to establish a new nation while the Confederacy’s aim was to split it apart.
“When Robert E. Lee’s photograph appears on screen in the tent theater, for some people it’s a record-scratch moment – you know like wait, what?” says Skic. “Who knew that happened, but it sure did.”
Each show begins with a 12-minute movie projected on a partially see-though screen in front of the tent, followed by dim lights revealing the tent’s outline until the lights are turned up full for just a minute or two.
That’s when visitors get a clear look at the off-white tent with its ascending roof that drops down to a decorative valance with edges of red worsted-wool binding.
Keeping lights low for most of the show is to preserve the heavy-weight linen canvas, explains Skic. “It’s in quite good shape for being just about 250 years old and that’s why we feel comfortable displaying it the way we do.”
Half the Walls Survived
The dramatic effect of an inside moving shadow is possible because one side of the tent’s walls is a reproduction of thin fabric designed for such a light projection.
The replica walls were created because only half of the tent’s original walls survived along with most of the roof. “So at one point you’re able to see inside the tent to see what it looks like and get a glimpse of an inner chamber,” adds Skic.
An upcoming museum exhibition entitled “Witness to Revolution: The Unlikely Travels of Washington’s Tent” opens February 17, 2024 and runs through January 5, 2025. It will detail tent ownership and how it survived through the years, including it being packed away at Washington’s Mount Vernon home in Virginia after the Revolution and later purchased by his grandchildren after his death.
The tent became the property of Robert E. Lee’s family as previously mentioned, and during the Civil War was confiscated by the U.S. Army when occupying Lee’s Virginia home, Arlington House, part of Arlington National Cemetery.
Lee’s family eventually retrieved the tent and his daughter sold it in 1909 to raise funds for widows of Confederate soldiers.
In recent decades, the Valley Forge Historical Society was the steward of the tent before it was moved to the Museum of the American Revolution which opened in 2017.
Exploring the rest of the museum, dioramas with life-like figurines showcase some tense moments during the war years. They include a fully uniformed General Washington breaking up a street brawl in Harvard Yard, and another with figurines of Oneida Nation Native Americans debating whether to side with the Americans or British.
One display depicts American soldiers dragging captured cannons from Fort Ticonderoga through snow and mud for 300 miles, to later use them to plunder British troops occupying Boston.
Another catching my eye is where colonial protestors – fired up by a first reading of the Declaration of Independence – prepare to topple a replica statue of England’s King George III in New York City.
“This is a pretty dramatic act that happened and we want to sort of immerse our visitors in that moment to get a feeling what it may have been like to be in that crowd,” says Skic. “Most of the statue was melted down and turned into 42,000 musket balls to fire back at the British,” he adds. “One newspaper account called it ‘Melted Majesty.’”
Old City Philadelphia: Like an Open Air Museum
It’s easy to trace the footsteps of Washington and other founding fathers in this compact city district. Just a block from the museum, Independence Hall runs daily tours highlighting its historic chambers where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed.
The Constitution Center
In the nearby Constitution Center, I walk amidst the bronze statues of the document’s 39 signers and 3 dissenters – George Washington standing tall behind a desk, Alexander Hamilton with a walking cane and a finger-pointing Benjamin Franklin seated at a table surrounded by fellow delegates.
A short walk away on a cobbled colonial-era street leads me to Carpenters’ Hall, where talk of revolution simmered during the first Continental Congress held there in 1774, attended by representatives of 12 of the 13 Colonies.
Other historic sites include the home of flag sewer Betsy Ross, and the reconstructed City Tavern where politicians once debated and businessmen struck deals. The columned, Greek temple-like Second Bank of the United States now houses portraits of founding fathers and others by the likes of artists Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale. And don’t forget the Liberty Bell, across from Independence Hall.
Georgian-style Christ Church is where Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers attended services, with plaques marking the pews where each worshipped.
The church’s cemetery, just a few blocks away, is the final resting place of five signers of the Declaration of Independence including Franklin whose grave is at the corner of Arch and 5th streets, where passersby toss coins onto it. In a twist of sorts, Philadelphia’s U.S. Mint directly across Arch Street has the capacity to pound out up to 32 million coins a day.
Elfreth’s Alley: The Oldest Street
My last stop is Elfreth’s Alley, the nation’s oldest residential street, where modern-day Philadelphians still reside in the more than 200-300 year-old brick rowhouses. “This was a completely working class street for most of its history, which means people lived and worked right in their homes,” says Jennifer Boch, a staff member with the alley’s two house museums with their narrow stairwells and low ceiling rooms.
“We were very close to the docks, so people arriving in Philadelphia would come to these businesses.”
“They were dressmakers, shoemakers, bakers and other types of artisan occupations,” she continues. “They built Philadelphia.”
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A former television and newspaper reporter, Richard Varr now follows his passion and writes about destinations around the world – whether off the beaten path or on it. Richard has written for cruise magazines for more than 20 years as a frequent contributor to Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine and the onboard magazines for major cruise lines. He’s been published in TravelWeekly.com, London Telegraph and USA Today online, Dallas Morning News as well as in Good Sam Club RV and AAA magazines. He’s also the author of the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide to Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.