Acquiring the TentAugust 18, 2017
One of the greatest treasures in the Museum’s collection is George Washington’s Headquarters Tent. It was Washington’s sleeping and office quarters through most of the Revolutionary War — where he planned military campaigns, met with allies, and wrote his correspondence. Decisions that changed the course of history were made beneath its linen walls.
But the history of Washington's Headquarters Tent doesn't stop at the end of the war. You can read about the tent’s journey from Revolutionary battlefields to its seizure by Union soldiers during the Civil War to the Washington-Custis-Lee family’s decades long struggle to reclaim the tent in a five-part series here.
"This greatest of Washington relics"
After four decades, the Washington-Custis-Lee relics were finally returned to Mrs. Lee's three surviving children. Miss Mary Custis Lee acted as primary caretaker for these items, many of which remained in storage at the Smithsonian due to her life spent abroad. In 1906, she took the advice of her friend, Mary Johnson Brown Chew (her efforts preserved Independence Hall and her home, Cliveden) and advertised the tents for sale.
Lee pitched Washington’s tents for sale as a benefit to her charity, the Home for Needy Confederate Women in Richmond, Virginia. Lee had high expectations for which institutions would be good caretakers for Washington’s tent, and she felt that Burk’s patriotism, funds, promise of a fireproof case and proximity to Philadelphia and Valley Forge would be a suitable new home for the tent.
In a newspaper announcement about the sale, "Sacred Relics to Aid Charity," she stated:
“There is no place at which I should rather see at least one of the tents than in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, beside the Liberty Bell and its other historic relics.”
In 1907, Episcopal minister Reverend W. Herbert Burk purchased one tent, the smaller marquee or office and headquarters tent for $5,000 to be the centerpiece of his new Valley Forge Museum of American History, part of his other lifework, Washington Memorial Chapel. After months of back and forth contract negotiations with Lee, who was in Europe, Burk finally took possession of the tent and delivered "this greatest of Washington relics," to Valley Forge on August 19, 1909. The acquisition began a century of collecting – a collection which eventually came under the ownership of the Museum of the American Revolution.
Burk and Lee hoped that the tent would be displayed in a museum in the Philadelphia region to inspire rising generations of Americans to revere the memory of General Washington and the achievements of the nation’s founding generation. Today, the tent is seen by hundreds of people every day at its permanent home–the Museum of the American Revolution.