Un­cov­er­ing His­tory Rem­nants from the past

Se­cret Revo­lu­tion­ary War items mov­ing to Philadel­phia mu­seum

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - DAILY LOCAL NEWS - By Eric Devlin ede­vlin@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Eric_Devlin on Twit­ter

Un­til re­cently, in­side an unas­sum­ing brick ware­house along the 300 block of Mor­gan Street sat a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts that tells the story of how Amer­ica was born.

Revo­lu­tion­ary War mus­kets, can­nons, paint­ings, sculp­tures, uni­forms and much more were housed in se­cret in Phoenixville for the past 17 years. Next year they will be seen by mil­lions.

This trea­sure trove of his­tory has been packed up and moved to its new home at the Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, set to open April 19, 2017, at 3rd and Ch­est­nut streets, just blocks from In­de­pen­dence Hall, in Philadel­phia.

R. Scott Stephen­son, the mu­seum’s vice pres­i­dent of col­lec­tions, ex­hi­bi­tions and pro­gram­ming, of­fered a sneak peak at some of the items that came straight from the bor­ough that will be on dis­play open­ing day. Among them in­cluded Gen. Ge­orge Washington’s lug­gage bag, a Revo­lu­tion­ary War sol­dier’s foot locker and a pen­sioner jacket from the 1812 era worn by a Revo­lu­tion­ary War vet­eran.

Through the care­fully cu­rated col­lec­tion, Stephen­son said the new mu­seum’s goal is to tell a story that will help vis­i­tors feel like they’ve been trans­ported back two cen­turies in time. The mu­seum will be­gin by ex­plain­ing how colo­nial Americans be­came rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the first place. Then it will move for­ward in time to look at what kind of na­tion was cre­ated and what it looks like to­day. The ar­ti­facts on dis­play will be an in­te­gral part of that ex­pla­na­tion.

“They’re de­vices to get you into these hu­man sto­ries,” he said.

Stephen­son se­lected a few items from the col­lec­tion to talk about dur­ing a brief tour of the ware­house, that of­fered a glimpse at the types of things that will be on dis­play. Ge­orge Washington’s brown leather port­man­teau, ac­quired in 1909 will be one of them. The bag, still in great con­di­tion, was used to store his lug­gage through­out the war.

“It’s very mod­ern, it’s kind of like a camp­ing stuff sack,” Stephen­son said.

Other items in­clude an Amer­i­can of­fi­cer’s wooden foot­locker, ac­quired this year. It be­longed to Lt. James Grant, a Scot­tish man who served dur­ing the French and In­dian War. Grant set­tled in New York colony after that con­flict, liv­ing right on the bor­der be­tween Bri­tish oc­cu­pied New York and the revo­lu­tion­ary con­trolled area, Stephen­son said.

“(The foot locker) is a great piece,” he said. “It al­lows us to talk about the sto­ries of peo­ple who — he was too old to serve in the Revo­lu­tion­ary War, he wasn’t a loy­al­ist or on the pa­triot’s side. He was stuck in be­tween a sit­u­a­tion, like so many other peo­ple were.”

An­other item in­cludes a linen coat from the War of 1812 era worn by a Revo­lu­tion­ary War vet­eran named Ja­cob Latch. Latch, a Philadel­phia na­tive, served un­der Washington dur­ing the bru­tal winter at Val­ley Forge in 1777 and the Philadel­phia cam­paign.

“He be­came a pen­sioner, so he re­ceived a pen­sion, so we know a lit­tle bit about his ser­vice,” Stephen­son said.

Be­gin­ning in 1818, there were a num­ber of pen­sion acts es­tab­lished by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment as a penance for how poorly Revo­lu­tion­ary War veter­ans were treated.

“To see these Revo­lu­tion­ary War veter­ans beg­ging was a real na­tional em­bar­rass­ment,” Stephen­son said. “After the War of 1812, the Era of Good Feel­ing, there were these pen­sion acts.”

An un­in­tended con­se­quence though was the fact that sol­diers would have to prove they

ac­tu­ally served in the war. Records from the war were badly kept, he said. Veter­ans would have to re­count sto­ries of their ser­vice to a court and could bring wit­nesses to sup­port their claims in or­der to re­ceive a pen­sion.

“That pro­duced re­ally the first oral his­tory archive of an Amer­i­can con­flict,” Stephen­son said. “There’s some­thing like 80,000 pen­sion de­po­si­tion files in the Na­tional Archives that give us an oral his­tory of the na­tion’s found­ing.”

Keep­ing a se­cret

Hous­ing the items in Phoenixville was only sup­posed to be tem­po­rary. In 1999, the ware­house served as the stor­age fa­cil­ity for the items, which

orig­i­nally be­longed to the Val­ley Forge His­toric Society. It was never open to the pub­lic and the pol­icy was to keep quiet about the fact that the ar­ti­facts were in­side. Stephen­son af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to the build­ing as the “fortress of soli­tude.” The items were kept in the space by the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tors and ed­u­ca­tors with the in­ten­tion of only stay­ing for a year be­fore they would be moved into the new mu­seum once it opened. That just took a bit longer than they orig­i­nally planned.

Stephen­son came on the pro­ject in Jan­uary 2007 and said see­ing the mu­seum fi­nally start to come to fruition has been an amaz­ing jour­ney.

“So sel­dom does some­body have the op­por­tu­nity in their ca­reer to cre­ate some­thing from scratch,” he said. “So that’s been re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

Bill and John Dav­i­son, who pur­chased the for­mer knit­ting mill in 1999, sub­di­vided the build­ing and rented the space to the Val­ley Forge His­toric society.

“As land lords it was an awe­some re­spon­si­bil­ity to have them here,” Bill said. “They wanted to be anonymous. They didn’t want peo­ple to know that they were here. But to be around so many ded­i­cated peo­ple and to see the end re­sult of their hav­ing their own mu­seum on Ch­est­nut Street in Philadel­phia, it is quite an ac­com­plish­ment. We’re proud to have our lit­tle part in the process.”

“They’ve been ex­cel­lent to work with,” John said. “Hardly ever saw them. Very quiet in and out. We’ll miss them.”

PETE BANNAN — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

R. Scott Stephen­son, vice pres­i­dent of col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, looks at Ge­orge Washington’s port­man­teau, a suit­case used dur­ing the Revo­lu­tion­ary War. It is printed with “Height Dorch­ester 1775” and “Bat­tle of York­town 1781” from the Rev­o­lu­tion.

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