Results of the Condition Survey of George Washington's Sleeping Tent Exterior
Visitors to historic sites of the Revolutionary War period often hear that Washington slept here. The guide is usually talking about a house, such as the Potts’ House here at Valley Forge. General Washington did use this building as his headquarters during most of the six-month encampment of 1777-1778. Where did he sleep when he first arrived at Valley Forge, or during each year’s military campaign season, with frequent moves? As with all military officers, throughout much of the war he slept, worked, and dined in large, sturdy, cloth tents. Known as “marquees,” they received hard use.
One marquee that was likely still in use at the end of the war came down through the Washington family. In the early 20th century, a descendent sold pieces of the multi-part marquee to several historic organizations. Today, the Smithsonian Institution displays the exterior of the dining tent; Colonial National Historical Park owns the interior of the dining tent roof, the interior of the sleeping tent, and the poles of the sleeping tent; the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has the linen door to the sleeping tent and other pieces; and the American Revolution Center (formerly the Valley Forge Historical Society) owns the exterior of the sleeping tent; the poles of the dining tent; and a portmanteau.
In 1978, at the request of the Valley Forge Historical Society, a National Park Service conservation team studied, cleaned, and stabilized the sleeping tent exterior and built a special climate-controlled room in which to display the tent at the Valley Forge National Historical Park Welcome Center. In 2004, through a Save America’s Treasures grant, the National Park Service funded a conservation condition survey of the sleeping tent that included a textile analysis of the fabric and a study of the history of Washington’s tentage. The fabric analysis and study produced surprising results.
It had been assumed that the marquee pieces displayed at Valley Forge, Colonial, and the Smithsonian were those made early in the Revolution by Plunkett Fleeson, a Philadelphia upholsterer and merchant. If this were true, the Fleeson marquees could have been those used here at Valley Forge during the encampment.
In the autumn of 1775, Colonel Joseph Reed placed an order for His Excellency, George Washington, with Plunkett Fleeson. The bill from Fleeson, dated May 11th, 1776 itemized all the materials needed to make the tents, including 52 Yds red stripe ticken. There is, however, no listing of one of the most distinctive features of the surviving marquee pieces: the red woolen binding that borders a scalloped skirting on each piece’s roof. Nor is there a listing for the green wool fabric of the interior marquee roof. 1
The study concluded that the surviving sleeping marquee is made with blue stripped fabric, with a green wool lining, and is trimmed with red worsted wool. (At the same time, the Smithsonian staff undertook the conservation of the dining tent in their possession. They also found the dining tent to be made of blue stripped fabric.) 2 Since these materials do not match that of Fleeson bill, could the surviving marquees be of later manufacture?
Campaign marquees were ephemeral items. After a campaign season marquees would have mildew, rot, and rips in need of repair. Certainly, officers’ marquees were treated better than the tents of enlisted men, but all were in constant use. Any marquees—including those made by Fleeson—would have taken considerable punishment. It is unlikely that they could have survived throughout the eight-year war, or that they would be in as good a condition as the existing marquees.
Evidence of the short durability of Washington’s marquees can be found in the Letterbook of James Abeel, Deputy Quartermaster General for the Reading, Pennsylvania area and the Superintendent of all Camp Equippage and Quartermaster’s Stores during the Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778. Several letters to other quartermasters make clear his desperation in trying to find materials to finish the Markees we have to make for his Excellency before the summer campaign season began. In a June 9th letter he asks for 12 pieces of scarlet or red worsted binding to complete his Excellency’s Markees & cannot do without. 3 The red binding on the surviving tents is red worsted binding. The marquee which Abeel was struggling to procure, therefore, may be the surviving pieces now held by Colonial, the Smithsonian, and the American Revolution Center. Or there may have been subsequent tents made to serve Washington until the end of the war.
It could be possible that the surviving marquee pieces are the marquees Abeel mentions or even a later set. To date no documentation has been found noting any additional marquees being made for General Washington during the war. Therefore, these surviving pieces may be the ones ordered by Abeel in 1778 and delivered after the Valley Forge Encampment. As it was necessary to order new marquees, it is apparent that the surviving pieces were not the ones used at Valley Forge during the encampment of 1777-1778.
The only conclusion that can be drawn at this time is that the surviving pieces are of correct design for the period. Tents that look like these marquees, with red trim, are depicted in the background of Charles Willson Peale’s 1781 portrait of Walter Stewart, commander of the 2nd Pennsylvania. Through the study of historic documents, we also know that marquees in question were in General Washington’s possession at the end of the war, passing through the hands of descendents until sold to the current owners. Most likely, these surviving tents were the ones used at Yorktown, which in itself makes them extraordinary witnesses to the end of the Revolutionary War.
The sleeping tent exterior was on display at the park for many years until it was removed for conservation. The tent is part of the collection of the American Revolution Center.
1 George Washington Papers 1741-1799, Series 5 Financial Papers, Library of Congress.
2 Finkelstein, Loreen, Conservation Condition Survey of George Washington’s Sleeping Tent, December 20, 2003.
3 James Abeel Papers, Letterbook, Letter dated June 14, 1778 to Mathew Williamson, Library of Congress.