Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Lee in Appalachia?

Wikimedia Commons

I ran across an interesting tidbit while reading Brian McKnight’s Contested Borderland, a book I heartily recommend.  In the fall of 1861, there was apparently a rumor floating around in some of the newspapers that Felix Zollicoffer, then in charge of the Confederate defense of eastern Tennessee, might be replaced with Robert E. Lee.

I’m not too familiar with this period of the war, and I don’t know if the rumors were simply that, or if there was some basis to them.  If I’m not mistaken, this was around the same time Lee took charge of the Georgia and South Carolina coastal defenses.  Was anybody in Richmond really thinking of sending Lee off to handle the situation near the Tennessee-Kentucky-Virginia border instead?

Even if the whole notion was just so much journalistic hogwash, it’s fun to ponder how things might have played out in the mountains of central Appalachia with Lee in command, especially since Confederate affairs here in this neck of the woods were about to take a turn for the worse.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War

Lee’s virtual office

Lee Chapel & Museum has added a neat feature to their website.  It’s a virtual tour of Lee’s office that allows you to examine each of its objects in detail, with explanations of how they fit into the larger story of his time at W&L.

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

Part shrine, part museum

Regular readers of this blog (God bless ’em) know that for the past few months I’ve been in the habit of posting brief reviews of the museums and historic sites I visit.  I debated long and hard whether to take a crack at Lee Chapel & Museum, located on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

It was one of my favorite stops from my recent Virginia trip, but it’s also as much a shrine as a place of historical interpretation.  These reviews are meant to be assessments of how well museums and historic sites present themselves and educate their visitors, based on the time I spent working in the public history business.  This approach just didn’t seem appropriate for a sacred space.    However, since W&L has constructed a kind of interpretive center in the chapel’s lower level, I’ve decided that it’s a legitimate subject for a review, so here goes.

This particular site owes its existence to the two figures who cast longer shadows across Virginia’s history than anyone.  On the one hand, you’ve got George Washington, whose donation to the college led to its being re-named in his honor.  On the other hand, you’ve got Washington’s relative-by-marriage Robert E. Lee, who became the school’s president after the Civil War.  It was Lee who directed the building of the chapel (1867-68) that bears his name, and who now lies in a vault below the sanctuary level.

By any measure, visiting the sanctuary itself is an incredibly impressive experience.  On the outisde, it’s a beautifully constructed nineteenth-century brick church; on the inside is an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500, which is still in use by W&L.  Two portraits, one on each side, flank the front of the sanctuary.  On the right is a painting of Lee in uniform, similar to some of the famous photographs taken of him during the war.  On the left is an absolute gem, the oldest portrait of Washington, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, which depicts him wearing his colonel’s uniform from the French and Indian War.  I had no idea the original was at Lee Chapel until I walked in the door, and seeing it was an experience that was hard to beat.

The sanctuary’s other highlight, though, comes pretty darn close.  When Lee died in 1870, he was buried underneath the auditorium, until the addition of a new section to the building in 1883.  Under the sanctuary, the addition contains the Lee family crypt.  Upstairs, it houses Edward Valentine’s magnificent recumbent sculpture of Lee, which rivals any monument or work of art I’ve ever seen in my life.  It’s an incredibly lifelike work of art, practically life-size, with a uniformed Lee lying in repose underneath a folded drape that looks far too natural to be made of stone.  (Here’s a photo that gives you the general idea, although it doesn’t do it justice.)  The one-two punch of this amazing sculpture and Peale’s famous Washington portrait in the same space is quite a thing to experience, and I don’t think I can convey the impression it makes on you if you’re a history enthusiast.  You just walk into the door and they’re right there.

Since the chapel area is meant to be more of a shrine than a museum, the interpretation upstairs is pretty discreet, as it should be.  There are a couple of interpretive panels near the sculpture with background information on Lee’s funeral and the construction of the addition.  During visiting hours a guide is on hand to talk about the chapel’s history and answer questions.

Most of the interpretation takes place in the “museum” of Lee Chapel and Museum, which is downstairs from the sanctuary.  In 2007 the college installed a beautiful new exhibit, “Not Unmindful of the Future:” Educating to Build and Rebuild a Nation.  Although it’s a relatively small display, you should plan on spending some time here.  There’s a lot of fantastic material to see.  The exhibit tells the story of the school’s founding, with an emphasis on Washington’s role and the inclusion of some of his personal items.  There’s a fine assemblage of Lee material here, too, including not only personal belongings from his years at the college, but also artifacts from his life before and during the Civil War. The exhibit also explores W&L’s evolution within the context of the history of American higher education (Lee, for instance, helped launch the inclusion of professional and practical programs of study in U.S. colleges) and the role the school’s students and alumni played in the Civil War.

Stepping outside the museum, you’ll see the Lee family crypt on your left.  Robert E. Lee isn’t the only famous American commander laid to rest here.  His father, “Light-Horse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame, is buried next to him.  Just a few steps away from the crypt is yet another grave, this one for Traveller, the horse Lee rode during the war and after.  (You know you’ve made it into the pantheon of heroes when your horse’s grave becomes a pilgrimage site.)

It’s a lot of history for one building, and well worth a drive to Lexington.  The collection and interpretation in the museum at Lee Chapel are both first-rate, and the sanctuary itself is not to be missed.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites