Warriors of independence

Scott Stephenson of the American Revolution Center with a 1775 musket made by Thomas Palmer.
Scott Stephenson of the American Revolution Center with a 1775 musket made by Thomas Palmer. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Relics of the revolution can serve as "portals into the lives" of heroes.

Posted: October 19, 2012

When he speaks about the men and women who participated in the War of Independence, Scott Stephenson refers to them as the "First Greatest Generation."

What they accomplished in opposing the tyranny of Britain, securing freedom for the colonies, and establishing a new nation based on noble ideals is at least as impressive as the feats of those warriors who protected the United States from the imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan during World War II.

Unfortunately, the heroes of the American Revolution are so remote historically, and their achievements have become so mythologized, that figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have become "marbleized" - elevated to near-saintly status, scrubbed of humanity and such mortal characteristics as fear, doubt, frustration, and fatigue.

As director of collections and interpretation for the American Revolution Center, which is planning to build the Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets by 2016, Stephenson aims to change that.

"We think of George Washington as a mythical figure, but he was a human being who had his share of bad days," Stephenson says. "In fact, he had a lot of bad days. At times, it took tremendous tenacity to keep the Continental Army from dispersing."

Stephenson, 47, is an affable man whose passion is his work and whose work is his passion. He has a doctorate in American history from the University of Virginia, and has served as a consultant to Colonial Williamsburg as well as a variety of museums and historical societies.

His present responsibility is inventorying, cataloging, and boxing more than 3,000 relics of the revolution now stored in a climate-controlled industrial building (whose whereabouts are kept secret for security reasons). They include priceless works of art, manuscripts, and printed material, as well as weapons and military items. A recent British visitor compared their value and significance to the crown jewels of England.

The core of the collection was assembled by the now-defunct Valley Forge Historical Society, founded in 1918 by the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, who had grand plans to build a museum showcasing revolutionary artifacts. Burk in 1909 purchased Washington's marquee, or sleeping tent, from Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee and great-great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. The tent has been described as the "first Oval Office" because Washington often retreated there to make weighty decisions and pen important correspondence.

The linen tent, now being restored, is one of the museum's prized possessions and will eventually be showcased accordingly. (Its roof is missing a large patch of material. Recently, a swatch of fabric matching the missing piece was found stored in a drawer in the collection at Mount Vernon. Evidently, someone had cut it out as a souvenir.)

The other day, Stephenson showed some of the collection's treasures, which can be seen in an interactive timeline on the center's website, www.americanrevolutioncenter.org, and a special app for iPads available for free through the iTunes store (type in "American Revolution interactive timeline").

They include:

A bust of George Washington by William Rush, Revolutionary War veteran and founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Rush created this terra cotta piece for the academy's sixth annual exhibition in 1817. It is believed to be the most perfect existing likeness.

William Trego's iconic painting The March to Valley Forge.

A musket made by Thomas Palmer at Fifth and Market Streets, one of 40 ordered by Washington for the Prince William County Independent Company, a voluntary military organization in Virginia.

Two English holster pistols carried by American Brig. Gen. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Born in Trappe, educated as a Lutheran minister, he commanded a Virginia regiment of German-speaking recruits raised in the Shenandoah Valley. He was a member of the family after whom Muhlenberg College is named.

An original imprint of Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense," and a rare copy of the July 6, 1776, issue of the Pennsylvania Evening Post containing the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence.

A $3 bill of Continental currency issued in Philadelphia and bearing the Latin motto, " Exitus in dubio est" ("The outcome is in doubt").

Engraved powder horns, including one that depicts a detailed view of the Philadelphia waterfront at the time of the revolution.

A miniature portrait of young Pennsylvania militia officer Isaac Sidman painted by American artist Charles Willson Peale during the disastrous campaign of 1776.

A painted silk banner used in the Philadelphia procession welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette 47 years after he joined the Continental Army at 19 in 1777. Nearly 100,000 came out to salute him.

Solid iron round shot used to pound the hull of ships, as well as bar shot and chain shot, which tumbled through the air to topple masts and cut away sails and rigging.

Stephenson calls these items "authentic witnesses" to conflict. The center's purpose is to be the one place in the nation that tells the entire story of that epic struggle through state-of-the-art exhibits and dramatic presentations. That story will be told through many smaller ones, all provoked by artifacts in the collection.

"I see these artifacts as portals into the lives and experiences of the revolutionary generation," Stephenson says. "Many can be appreciated as works of art, but almost all are mnemonic devices for storytelling."

Objects from that era are donated to the museum almost every week, many from private individuals, collectors, and descendants, Stephenson says, and about 40 artifacts are on loan to Mount Vernon and a dozen or so to other institutions. Stephenson also hopes to exhibit items lent by other museums and private collectors.

"We're trying to create a visitor experience that's driven by personal stories," he said. "Unlike with the Civil War, we don't feel an emotional connection to this generation, because of the lack of photographs, and that's a challenge we take seriously. Our hope is that you'll come out of the museum feeling like you met these people, with a renewed sense of gratitude for both the strengths and achievements of this generation."

Michael Quinn, president of the American Revolution Center, is a historian with a master's degree from Yale in American art and architectural history. For 11 years, he was at Mount Vernon, five as deputy director. For 12 years after that, he was director at Montpelier, President James Madison's home in Virginia.

"The objects will be the foundation of the museum because they do tell stories," he says. "These are things that were created, and in many cases carried, just for wartime use, and certainly military use, from George Washington's tent to a simple wooden canteen carried by a lowly private. So they really bring to life the people of this era and this generation and convey their incredible courage in making the decision to break from Britain.

"They also convey the ideas that inspired them. When you see a rifleman's powder horn engraved with the words Liberty or Death, it's clear that the ideas of what America was going to become, the ideas that motivated the political discussion, were understood and upheld by the common soldier in the field. He wasn't doing it just because a sergeant was yelling at him. He was doing it because he believed the ideas were worth risking his life for."

Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com.

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