April 2, 2013

The First Oval Office

Between June 1775, when he accepted command of the Continental Army, and December 1783, when he returned to civilian life after resigning his commission to Congress, George Washington spent only ten days at his beloved Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. For eight years—the longest war in American history until the late twentieth century—Washington remained in the field with his army, through scorching summer heat and bitter winter chill.

Dozens of historic structures from Massachusetts to Virginia can claim that “Washington slept here,” but for long stretches of each campaign, the general lived under canvas in a field headquarters composed of a suite of tents. One of these tents, a large, oval-shaped “marquee” served as the sleeping and office tent for the first commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces. George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s adopted grandson and the builder of Arlington House near Washington, D.C., later recalled (in 1824):

There are most interesting reminiscences attached to the sleeping tent. The headquarters, even during the summer season, were located, in a great majority of instances, in private dwellings, the sleeping tent being pitched in the yard, or very near at hand. Within its venerable folds, Washington was in the habit of seeking privacy and seclusion, where he could commune with himself, and where he wrote the most memorable of his dispatches in the Revolutionary War.

As Washington’s private retreat and sanctuary from the distractions of his bustling headquarters, the marquee may be considered the “First Oval Office.” This tent is now owned by the Museum of the American Revolution.

When General Washington resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon in December 1783, his tents and other military equipment were carefully packed and put into storage. By the terms of his will, five of Washington’s swords were bequeathed to his nephews following his death in 1799: most of the remaining items (including the tents) remained at Mount Vernon until Martha Washington’s death in 1802.  Many of these items were inherited or purchased at a private sale, and over the following two centuries have become scattered in public institutions and private hands.

The First Oval Office project is a multi-year, interdisciplinary collaborative effort to locate, document, preserve and reconstruct the elements of Washington’s Revolutionary War field headquarters—the other home of George Washington. Gathering storylines from the many people and institutions involved in the marquee replication, The First Oval Office blog will collect and present engaging updates on our ongoing work, from thread counts and archival discoveries to exhibition planning and public programs. The First Oval Office blog will provide updates from three parallel tracks:

From the Archives shares stories and questions from research in historical documents, newspapers and other sources.  Here, you’ll learn about (and hopefully contribute to!) our efforts to document the history of Washington’s field equipment and its use during the War of Independence; the descent and use of these items by subsequent generations; and the present location of the surviving elements.

From the Lab shares discoveries from our ongoing scientific and engineering studies of the marquee and related items from Washington’s field equipment.  Here, you’ll learn about the insights that conservators, scientists, and engineers bring to our understanding of the First Oval Office.

From the Tent Shop shares news from a team of historic trades interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg, who will construct a full scale, working replica of the First Oval Office over the coming months. We hope to answer a number of research questions about the original appearance and function of various elements in the marquee through this project, which you can also follow on the First Oval Office Facebook page, a live webcam, and by visiting Colonial Williamburg between May 14 and August 14, 2013.