George Washington monument

The Secret Lives of Objects: George Washington's War Tent

Feb. 6, 2020 • Studies Weekly
The secret lives of objects: George Washington's War Tent

General George Washington used this tent throughout the American Revolutionary War. It is now in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The walls of this tent witnessed many of the highs and lows of the Revolutionary War.

George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During America’s War for Independence, Washington requested two oval canvas tents to serve as his wartime headquarters. He used the first tent for dining. The second one had sleeping quarters and an office, which Washington used for his command center and military headquarters.

R. Scott Stephenson, director of Collections and Interpretation at the Museum of the American Revolution, calls the office tent “the first Oval Office.” From this tent, the Continental Army leaders met, strategized, and planned.

“A Commander in Chief needs a quiet place to think,” Stephenson explained in a 2019 PBS broadcast. “When we started to read of how Washington would use this office tent, the images that popped into my head were very familiar ones — John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Bush after 9/11.”

According to information from the Museum of the American Revolution, “the tent likely was made in Reading, Pennsylvania in early 1778, while Washington was encamped at Valley Forge. It was used by George Washington from 1778-1783, and witnessed many dramatic moments during the War of Independence, including the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the war.”

Stephenson explained further in the PBS broadcast that Washington’s tent, also known as a marquee, was made of “flax linen specially woven to shed water.” It took soldiers some time to assemble the tent at each camp, as it had multiple iron wire loops that connected the ceiling to the walls.

Conservationists with the Museum of the American Revolution painstakingly spent hundreds of hours preserving and repairing the tent, which is now on permanent display at the museum in Philadelphia. As it stands today, the tent is about 23 feet long and 14 feet wide.

“Washington’s tent was his command center during the Revolutionary War, and tells the story of his inspiring leadership, unyielding determination, and steadfast devotion to his troops,” said Michael Quinn, president and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution at the time, in a 2017 press release about the exhibit. “It is a powerful symbol of American freedom, and one that we are thrilled to be able to preserve for future generations.”

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