RICHMOND, Va. — We now know the mundane truth of what literally drove this city’s grand monument to General Robert E. Lee: Confederate pride, local commerce, and plenty of Masonic tradition.
That was the preliminary message from dozens of items recovered Tuesday from a copper time capsule that had been buried at the monument site in 1887. Chamber of Commerce directories, Masonic regulations, Civil War artifacts, a pamphlet from a local real estate office (with a phone number: 114) all packed in a copper box that has stood up to 134 years surprisingly well.
The big win alluded to in media coverage at the time – a “photo of Lincoln lying in his coffin” – turned out not to be an ultra-rare photograph. Instead, an engraved double page taken from Harper’s Weekly of 1865 depicting a grieving woman at Lincoln’s casket had been folded and buried under the Confederacy’s beloved Lee.
That didn’t seem to dampen public interest in Tuesday’s event, which was broadcast live and drew media coverage from around the world. The time capsule marks an intriguing epilogue to the story of Lee’s statue, which was transformed last year by protesters and graffiti into an internationally recognized icon of the racial equity movement.
Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered the statue removed in September. The workers then searched for the time capsule but did not find it. Another time capsule surfaced earlier this month as the statue’s 40ft stone plinth was being dismantled. This turned out to be a vanity project placed by several men who designed parts of the monument. Every attempt to find the official capsule seemed to heighten public interest – almost as if its contents somehow resolved the public debate about how to accommodate racial history. Whatever the reason, state historical resources director Julie Langan said the widespread fascination with the time capsule’s story was “the most emotional part for me.”
Restorers carefully unpacked the box on Tuesday in front of a swarm of media cameras. Although many items were wet and stuck together, they were mostly intact.
“We thought it would all be soup, and it’s not soup, so that’s great,” said Kate Ridgway, archaeological curator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Work crews digging the foundation for the pedestal discovered the box on Monday, sitting in a pool of water in a recess cut into the granite.
Ridgway speculated that the box’s copper material acted as a fungicide and biocide to kill microorganisms that might otherwise have eaten the paper items inside. Ridgway came on Tuesday to prepare the 36-pound box for its public reveal. She cut three edges of the lid and looked inside. At 1 p.m., with a host of state officials at hand, Ridgway peeled back the plastic bag and, using a Dremel rotary tool, opened the fourth edge of the lid. She lifted it, removed the blotter and exposed the contents to the open air. Top – a Minié bullet, or Civil War bullet, and a button that appeared to bear a seal of Virginia.
Restorers took them away to soak them in silica gel to stop the oxidation process.
Next, Ridgway and Sue Donovan, a curator at the University of Virginia library, took turns using small Teflon spatulas to separate the damp books, pamphlets and envelopes. One of the first books released: The Lee Camp Constitution and Bylaws for Confederate Veterans, which once occupied the grounds where the Historic Resources Laboratory and the State History and Art Museums are now located.
Eventually, the tight pile of items was too swollen and stuck together with moisture to separate. The restorers decided to cut off one side of the box for better access.
As the artifacts emerged, observers compared them to a published inventory at the time of approximately 60 items contributed by community members. Most were on the list.
There was a shrapnel fragment from the Battle of Fredericksburg and a cloth ribbon commemorating Lee.
At least two items appeared to be books but were wrapped, tied with twine, and labeled for mailing, with a message to the local postmaster to contact a William B. Isaacs—a local Masonic leader—if no one told them. picked up.
There was a guide to Richmond merchants and manufacturers and two volumes of annual reports from the local chamber of commerce; copies of the local Daily Dispatch newspapers, at least one from 1868; a book entitled “Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia”; a commemorative volume on the Army of Northern Virginia; a small Bible with an 1883 penny stuck on the cover; and an 1881 Richmond city guide.
Dale Brumfield, a local historian and author who had researched the time capsule extensively, was asked what he thought the people of Richmond – crossing the Gulf from years of a moment of division and social reckoning to another – were trying to communicate.
He rolled his eyes and mimicked a snore.
“I’m not surprised by the photo of Lincoln,” Brumfield said, noting that it would have been extremely unlikely that such a photograph existed and survived. But he said he was fascinated by two small woodcarvings – one of a Confederate battle flag, the other a Masonic compass – which contemporary accounts say were made from the remains of a tree that once grew on the grave of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson’s widow had wanted to chop down the tree around 1884, Brumfield said, “and there were cries of sacrilege from the veteran Confederate types.” A compromise was reached and the wood from the tree was used to make walking sticks and other souvenirs prized by Jackson admirers.
Otherwise, however, most of the objects looked surprisingly impersonal – although it will take time for conservators to catalog and preserve them. Many paper items will be frozen and then slowly dried using silica gel and blotters.
Ridgway said the objects were probably not intended to send a message to future generations as there is no record that anyone expected them to be unearthed. In that sense, she says, the collection is not technically a time capsule.
“Calling it a ‘cornerstone box’ is more accurate,” she said.
State officials were unclear on Tuesday about the items’ eventual fate. Northam has suggested they be displayed in a museum, but no official plans have been announced. That leaves the artifacts in limbo similar to the memorials protesters placed around Lee’s statue last year, commemorating black and brown victims of police violence and brutality.
These much later artifacts were collected by state officials and are stored in boxes in a warehouse outside Richmond.
Meanwhile, workers continue to dig the foundation for Lee’s memorial pedestal on Monument Avenue. Devon Henry, owner of the company hired to remove most of Richmond’s Confederate memorials, said Tuesday his employees were always on the lookout for unexpected new Lee time capsules.
“Devon, you promised me – no more, right?” Ridgway said as Henry watched her sweat over the last artifacts in the box.
“Have I got?” he said.
“Yes,” she answered. “Say it!”
“We’re still working,” Henry said.
“Arrrgh, you’re killing me,” Ridgway said.