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During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s sleeping and office tent had been an important symbol of the type of leadership many revolutionaries wanted: someone who would share in their struggles and not place himself above them. After the war, the tent continued to be a symbol for many in the new nation. As the people who experienced the war passed away, a new importance was placed on the items that had belonged to George Washington. When the nation experienced its greatest challenge, the Civil War, both sides remembered the legacy of Washington and the ideals of the American Revolution.

A Symbol of the Founding

At the start of the 1800s, the new nation expanded its borders and its population grew. George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson and the owner of many of Washington’s relics, hoped that a new generation of Americans would be inspired by Washington’s tents. He believed that people would see the tents as touchable witnesses to the founding of the United States and began to display them around the country. In 1812, for example, when the nation’s political parties (Federalists and Republicans) battled over whether to go to war with Britain again, Custis pitched the tents in the District of Columbia. Even though he was a Federalist, Custis supported the War of 1812 and hoped the tents would remind Americans, who were divided about supporting the new war effort, of the sacrifices and determination of the Revolutionary generation.

Custis also wanted up-and-coming political leaders, especially war heroes such as Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor, to follow General Washington’s precedent of putting the country over their own self-interests. Custis looked for opportunities to pitch the tents for politicians and at civic events. Under the canvas, he believed that Washington’s inspiring leadership would become more real to those who visited the tent.

Lafayette's Return

One of the heroes of the Revolutionary War, and an important aide to General Washington, was the Marquis de Lafayette. At the age of only 19, he traveled from France to volunteer as an officer for the Continental Army. Lafayette earned Washington’s respect on the battlefield, becoming a general and a close advisor. He later helped convince the French to join the war in support of the United States. Washington and Lafayette developed a close friendship. Washington thought of the young Lafayette as one of his most trusted generals. By the end of the war, Lafayette considered Washington to be a father figure.

For many years after the war, Lafayette was a beloved hero of the Revolution in the hearts of many Americans. In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette, now an aging French nobleman, to tour the United States. As part of the country's 50th anniversary, Monroe hoped Lafayette’s visit would help the country reflect upon the founding of the nation. Lafayette accepted his invitation and was welcomed by celebrations in all 24 states. During his travels, Lafayette had an emotional reunion with Washington’s tent at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. George Washington Parke Custis had arranged to set up both of General Washington’s marquees (the sleeping and office tent and the dining tent) for “the Nation’s Guest.” As Lafayette entered Fort McHenry, there before him stood Washington’s tent. It was the first time he had seen the tent since the final years of the Revolutionary War. Tears rolled down his cheeks as the tent reminded him of Washington’s inspiring leadership.

The Civil War and the Tent

In the middle of the 1800s, the nation expanded west and continued to struggle with conflicts over the institution of slavery. During this time, Washington’s tents were passed down to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. Lee was the daughter of George Washington Park Custis (Washington’s step-grandson). Mary’s husband, whom she married in 1831, was a respected United States Army colonel named Robert E. Lee. In 1861, the Custis-Lee family faced a difficult challenge. After decades of disputes over states’ rights and the institution of slavery, Southern states began to break away from the United States in the hopes of forming their own country. Robert E. Lee chose to fight for his home state of Virginia after it seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, otherwise known as the Confederacy.

This graphic depicts a lightbulb and, by clicking, will provide you with short essays that put the stories of Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, and London into historical context.

Did You Know?
In 1864, the United States designated parts of the Custis-Lee family’s Arlington estate as a federal military cemetery. The cemetery has been expanded since then, now encompassing more than 600 acres and over 400,000 final resting places. The National Park Service opens Arlington House for tours. As one of the most revered places in the United States, Arlington National Cemetery draws visitors from all over the world.

Mary, who had previously spoken in support of the United States, chose to be loyal to her husband, despite her beliefs. And because their family home, Arlington House, sat just across the Potomac River from the United States capitol of Washington, D.C., and the Union soldiers stationed there, the Custis-Lee family knew they couldn’t stay at home. They decided to leave. Left behind and locked away were Washington’s tents. When the Union Army seized control of Arlington House soon after the Lees fled, Washington’s tents and other objects were in danger of being stolen or damaged.

As the Civil War raged, both sides of the divided nation felt that the legacy of Washington’s tents belonged to them. The United States considered Washington to be the father of their country. The Confederacy also believed Washington was an important founder of their proposed country, especially because he was from Virginia. Selina Gray, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee’s enslaved housekeeper, was the keeper of the keys to Arlington House’s attic. Gray did not choose to be the caretaker of Washington’s tents. In a time of war and uncertainty, she was forced to balance the interests of the family who enslaved her and those of her own family, enslaved at the property. When Union soldiers abused the house and grounds, Gray alerted government authorities to the historically significant artifacts that were threatened.

As a result of Gray’s actions, in early 1862, the United States government took the Washington relics and brought them across the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. to keep them safe. The items were first stored at the United States Patent Office (now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum). They were displayed in private and public exhibits. Through these actions, the United States claimed to be the rightful owners of Washington’s legacy. Newspapers described how hundreds of people per day came to the patent office to witness “the only purely authentic souvenirs of the greatest man in modern times.”

This graphic depicts a lightbulb and, by clicking, will provide you with short essays that put the stories of Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, and London into historical context.

Did You Know?
In recent years, Selina Gray’s descendants have shared oral histories of their ancestor’s importance. They have made powerful contributions to historical storytelling at Arlington House, now a historic site operated by the National Park Service.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, began working to have her family’s belongings returned. President Andrew Johnson agreed to return the objects in 1869 but was overruled by Congress. They believed that the relics were “the property of the Father of his country, and as such are the property of the whole people.” Some congressmen also felt reluctant to return the objects to a family that had supported the Confederacy. But the Custis-Lee family did not give up the fight.

In 1876, Washington’s tents were featured at the Centennial International Exhibition, a world’s fair held in Philadelphia. On loan from the Patent Office, one of Washington’s tents was draped above his uniform and camp equipment, reminding visitors of the country’s “Founding Father.” Being able to personally experience how Washington lived during the Revolutionary War encouraged visitors to think about his leadership and the fight for independence. From May 10 to Nov. 10, 1876, almost 10 million people visited the fair and were able to see one of Washington’s tents, his camp equipment, and his military uniform. The centennial celebration strengthened the symbolism of the Washington relics in the hearts and minds of many Americans.

There is certainly no exhibit in the entire exposition which is so calculated to rouse our feelings of national pride and to thrill our hearts with memories of the days of '76 as is this one.
Frank Leslie's Historical Register of the United States Centennial Exposition

After the fair in Philadelphia, the United States government transferred the popular Washington relics to the Smithsonian Institution. The objects filled major gaps in the Smithsonian’s growing history collections. Before they obtained the objects, the Smithsonian primarily collected natural history artifacts and specimens.

In 1883, soon after the Smithsonian Institution opened the National Museum on the National Mall, curators placed Washington’s uniform and camp equipment on public view. The general’s tents remained in storage as they were too big to display. Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee and Robert E. Lee visited the National Museum to see these items, which she believed had been taken unfairly from her family. She restarted the case to legally reclaim them.

This graphic depicts a lightbulb and, by clicking, will provide you with short essays that put the stories of Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, and London into historical context.

Did You Know?
The Smithsonian Institution was created with funds from British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829). He wanted to create an institution in the United States for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, the United States Senate passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Today, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and the National Zoo. It opens its doors to the public free of charge.

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