Conservation experts from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on Tuesday removed books, money, ammunition, documents and other artifacts from a much sought-after time capsule found in the remains of a pedestal on the Monument Avenue in Richmond which once contained a statue of the Confederate General. Robert E. Lee.
For about two hours, the team sliced open the 36-pound copper box and meticulously disassembled and documented the wet contents inside. The box had been nestled in a foundational cornerstone of the massive – and now mostly deconstructed – Richmond Monument since 1887.
Opening the box and removing its contents was a welcome event for those involved.
“More than anything, my personal reaction is more to watch the audience embrace and care about history,” said Julie Langan, state history preservation officer and director of DHR. “That’s what really moves me. “
The time capsule had generated considerable interest at local and national levels, both because it had proved elusive in previous research and because historical documents had led to speculation that it might contain a rare photo of President Abraham Lincoln after his death. Ultimately, such a photo was not found.
Instead, the box contained a range of Confederate memorabilia and assorted items, including a bullet encrusted in a block of wood, a General Lee commemorative ribbon, and a printed image of an 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly d ‘a woodcut showing a grieving figure at President Lincoln’s grave.
The conservation team were able to identify many objects immediately when they were removed from the box, although some materials were warped by water damage and require further study. Experts were on hand to sort the artifacts.
“They were more saturated with water than we had hoped, but not as bad as it could have been,” said Kate Ridgway, Chief Conservator of DHR.
Ms Ridgway said there was some question as to whether calling the ship a time capsule was the most accurate terminology, as there did not appear to be a definitive date when it should have been opened.
“A cornerstone box is probably more precise,” she said.
The box was found on Monday, buried and sitting in the water, by workers from Team Henry Enterprises who were completing the removal of the pedestal from the statue of Lee.
Governor Ralph S. Northam ordered the removal of the enormous equestrian statue of Lee in 2020, amid the global protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Litigation pushed back plans and the statue was not removed until September, after a court cleared the way.
Other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, which belonged to the city, were removed in mid-2020.
Earlier in December, Governor Northam also ordered the pedestal removed from the Lee Monument, and teams working on the project began to search for the time capsule again. News articles from the late 1800s detailed the placement of the box in the cornerstone of the pedestal, but a lengthy search while removing the statue was found to be empty.
A different time capsule, made of lead, was discovered two weeks ago, sparking excitement. But hours of careful and ultimately anti-climatic scrutiny suggested that the artifact was placed by someone else, possibly someone involved in the construction of the monument.
The open box on Tuesday was finally found after a discussion between Team Henry and historians at The Valentine who provided the team with material that helped them locate the box, which was deeper in the ground and further away in the pedestal than previously believed.
“I’m just amazed at how intact things are,” said Devon Henry, owner and general manager of Team Henry Enterprises. “Over 130 years of being submerged and underground, and still a bit untouched and readable, it’s pretty, pretty cool.”
The measurements and copper material of the box opened on Tuesday match historical accounts, with the contents inside largely matching items listed in a newspaper article when the statue was erected in 1890.
Along with several waterlogged books, brochures and newspapers, the box contained an envelope of Confederate money, which the Conservatives carefully separated, and two carved artifacts – a Masonic symbol and a Confederate flag allegedly made from the tree that grew on General Stonewall Jackson’s original grave.
The Conservatives also removed Minié buttons, coins and bullets, a type of bullet used during the Civil War, from the box. A bomb squad had checked the capsule on Monday, in part to make sure there were no live ammunition inside.
While Ms Langan felt it was too early to tell if the box was meant to be Confederate propaganda, others had a different take on its meaning.
“The original copper box is a window into Confederation’s mindset for me,” said Dale Brumfield, local historian, author and journalist.
He pointed to the capsule’s placement decades after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 as evidence of a lingering animosity against him and the northern states, as well as the “still-alive wounds” years after the end of the war. civil war.
“I hope that by studying the materials of the capsule, we can get a clearer perspective on why these feelings have persisted for so long,” said Mr Brumfield.