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The office and sleeping tent that General George Washington used during the Revolutionary War was both his home and headquarters. Throughout the war, the tent served as his private office. After the war, the tent and Washington’s military equipment became national relics. By 1861, the start of the Civil War, the tent was owned by Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During the war, Union troops occupied Arlington House, the Lees’ home in Virginia. Selina Gray, the enslaved housekeeper of the property, alerted government authorities to the historically significant artifacts.

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. Again, the tent becomes a symbol when officials place it on display in the nation’s capital, claiming the once headquarters of George Washington for the Union cause. The Custis-Lee family pushed to have the relics returned to them, but were denied by the United States Congress.

The Tent Returns to the Custis-Lee Family

At the start of the 20th century, the Custis-Lee family continued their fight to regain ownership of Washington’s tents and military equipment. Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of Mary Anna Randolph Custis and Robert E. Lee, took up the case. As a descendant of Martha Washington, Mary Custis Lee felt she was the best person to determine the future of Washington’s relics and advocated for their return among her political contacts. In 1901, President William McKinley agreed to return the artifacts to the family. As a result, Mary Custis Lee was dedicated to making sure as many people as possible would be able to see the Washington relics while expanding their geographic reach and raising money for charity. Many people wondered how she would make that happen.

The Tent at Valley Forge

In 1906, Mary Custis Lee advertised to sell Washington’s sleeping and office marquee and its inner chamber separately. Her goal was to raise $10,000 by selling the marquee for $5,000 and inner chamber for $5,000. She planned to donate the money to support the care of widows of Confederate soldiers in Richmond, Virginia, a cause she cared deeply about. She decided to allow Washington’s larger dining marquee to remain with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where she hoped it would be displayed for future generations.

Episcopal minister Reverend W. Herbert Burk of Norristown, Pennsylvania, was deeply interested in Washington’s tents. In fact, two years before Mary Custis Lee advertised for the sale of the sleeping and office tent and inner chamber, Reverend Burk had begun writing letters to her about buying one of Washington’s tents. Burk’s vision was to make Washington’s tent the centerpiece of a museum about American history, specifically the American Revolution. He sparked her interest. Lee liked the idea of selling the tent to Burk for several reasons. She wanted as many people as possible to see the tent and believed Burk’s plan would allow for that. She believed that Valley Forge, once the winter encampment of George Washington and the Continental Army and a short distance from Philadelphia, was the perfect place to display the tent.

Although she could have sold the tents to a wealthy buyer, Mary Custis Lee sold one of the tents to Reverend Burk for $5,000. Burk chose the marquee tent as it looked more impressive and was in better condition. Because he could not pay all of the money upfront, he agreed to pay Lee $500 as a first payment and then pay the rest over time. If the remaining balance was not paid off within 5 years, ownership of the tent would transfer back to Mary Custis Lee. To pay his debt, Reverend Burk started a grassroots fundraising campaign, bringing in just a few dollars and cents at a time. Burk then exhibited the tent and sold admission tickets to pay off the remaining $4,500.

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?
Reverend Burk combined his religious training with his passion for American history. He established both the Washington Memorial Chapel and the Valley Forge Museum of American History on the grounds of the Continental Army’s famed encampment.

Reverend Burk considered Washington’s tent to be the “supreme relic of Washington.” He believed that the tent would be the most important object in his planned history museum at Valley Forge. The museum was to be located next to an under-construction stone chapel dedicated to George Washington. In 1909, soon after Burk brought the tent to Valley Forge, he placed it on display in the up-andcoming Valley Forge Museum of American History.

As more and more people visited the Valley Forge Museum of American History, Reverend Burk organized the Valley Forge Historical Society in 1918. The society was established to manage and expand the Museum. Burk wanted it to carry on his vision of preserving artifacts and documents from America’s founding era. The society continued to expand its collection over many decades, until it closed in the 1990s. In 2003, the society’s collection was transferred to the American Revolution Center, which is now called the Museum of the American Revolution.

Out of the thousands of tents used by the Continental Army, only Washington’s tents — his sleeping and office marquee and his dining marquee — survive. Still, their rarity as historical artifacts is only a part of their story. They have witnessed American triumphs and tragedies: independence and slavery, civil war and times of peace, celebration and exclusion. Yet, the fragile tent, like the United States, has endured.

The Tent Today

Today, preserving, displaying, and interpreting the story of Washington’s sleeping and office tent is a key part of the Museum of the American Revolution’s mission. The history of the tent and the diverse people who interacted with it helps the Museum share stories about the complex events that sparked America’s ongoing experiment in liberty, equality, and self-government.

However, figuring out how to safely display the tent so it can continue to inspire visitors for generations to come was not easy. When the Museum started thinking about ways to display the tent, they had to consider its condition. After its many years on display in Valley Forge, the tent was dirty and faded. And because people had taken pieces of the tent as valued connections to George Washington, there were many holes in the outer walls. It would need to be repaired before it could be displayed again.

In 2015, the Museum began working with textile conservator Virginia J. Whelan to repair the tent. Whelan and her intern Joanna Hurd focused on fixing the 350 holes in the roof and 230 holes in the wall so they would not become larger. They created patches with similar material as the original tent, that went on both sides of each hole. Virginia J. Whelan had to carefully push her needle through the original fabric of the tent to avoid damaging it further, which was very tricky. Whelan spent 525 hours conserving the tent. She also oversaw how it was set up at the Museum.

Displaying Washington’s sleeping and office marquee was a challenge. It needed to be supported and mounted in a way that would allow visitors to feel like they were seeing the tent set up in the field during the Revolutionary War. The Museum of the American Revolution worked with the engineers who helped build the Museum. They came up with an idea to create an aluminum, umbrella-like structure that the delicate fabric could rest on top of. Reproduction ropes were threaded through the original tent’s grommets and attached to the metal structure. This gives the feeling that the original marquee is being pulled tightly by ropes, the way it would have appeared in an encampment during the war.

The Museum also had to make sure the tent would be in an environment where the temperature and humidity were consistent and where it wouldn’t receive too much light. All of these factors help to protect the fabric. The tent also needed to be in a fire-safe environment. After carefully considering these things, the Museum installed a temperature and humidity control system and an advanced fire suppression system. The Museum also installed retractable screens in front of a glass case that limits damage to the tent from prolonged exposure to light. The screens lift during a film to reveal the tent to guests, then lower once again to block out harmful ultraviolet rays.

The Museum is the latest in a line of caretakers for the centuries-old tent. It is dedicated to ensuring that the tent, like the American experiment, survives, and reminds us of the ideals of the Revolution and how we have fought for them and continue to fight for them today.

The First Oval Office Project

The White House is the home of the President of the United States, who is also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States. The Oval Office is perhaps the most important room in the White House. This room is the president’s office, where many meetings take place and big decisions are made about the country. When the Museum of the American Revolution decided to make a replica of Washington’s sleeping and office marquee, they chose to name the project the “First Oval Office Project.” Though Washington was not yet president during the Revolutionary War, he was Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. In this role, he made historic decisions for the army and the new country while in his tent.

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 Museum also created a Virtual Tour of Washington’s Field Headquarters, using the hand-stitched replicas and other materials. Users can explore elements of a Continental Army encampment and even go into Washington’s tent to examine his office, baggage chamber, and sleeping area. They can also learn about the groups of people that would have contributed to the success of Washington and the Continental Army and would have been present alongside the tent.

The “First Oval Office Project” was a joint effort between the Museum and Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades people, including weavers, tailors, carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and cabinet makers studied and then created replicas of the sleeping and office marquee, inner chamber and dining marquee. As a result, the Museum was able to answer many questions about Washington’s tents. How were they constructed? How were they set up? How easy were they to transport? Did they keep Washington dry in the rain? The replica of the sleeping and office marquee also helped the engineers develop the complex mounting system for the tent’s display at the Museum.

Each year, the hand-stitched replica tents are pitched outdoors at historic sites as part of an interactive education and outreach program. Visitors can go inside the sleeping and office marquee, inner chamber and dining marquee, touch replicas of Washington’s camp equipment, and interact with museum educators to learn more about the experiences of both Washington and the people who lived in and operated his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

The Museum of the American Revolution is proud to be the home of Washington’s original sleeping and office tent and to be able to tell its story to learners at the Museum and around the world. The tent’s journey from the Revolutionary War to the Museum is a story of leadership, conflict, patriotism, and preservation. Today, Washington’s tent helps us tell the American story.

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