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Time Capsules Found in Base of Robert E. Lee Statue

Historians expected one box – the second was a surprise.

By:  |  January 3, 2022  |    662 Words
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A time capsule found in Massachusetts (Photo by Rick Friedman/rickfriedman.com/Corbis via Getty Images)

A time capsule is an interesting item that lets people from the past speak to those in the future. Anything can be put into one of these treasure collections, such as books, jewelry, toys, newspaper articles, and so on. The trick is to make sure the contents stay protected so that time and the elements do not destroy what’s inside. Finding one of these is like a treasure hunt, only a little sweeter because you get to see and touch items that someone left just for you to find.

Recently, two time capsules were found in the pedestal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia. Lee was a Confederate general and overall commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. His side lost the war, but the general was recognized in southern states with statues depicting his likeness. Recently, these statues have become more controversial because of Lee’s connection with the Confederate states and slavery.

Robert E. Lee statue (Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images)

The 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse was removed in September after protests. Historians believe the time-capsule boxes were placed under the figure on October 27, 1887. They contain about 60 items donated by the city’s residents, mostly related to the Confederacy. Modern researchers got their clues from the Richmond Dispatch newspaper, which in October 1887 published a list of what the capsule was supposed to have in it. One of the things people were most excited to find was a picture of President Abraham Lincoln in his coffin.

The first box was found December 17, 2021. Its size did not match the newspaper’s description and there was no image of the 16th president, it did contain a few items, even if most had been damaged by time and water. Inside the first capsule were an 1875 almanac, a silver coin, and a couple of books, including a novel written by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn. Burgwyn was an engineer for Richmond who worked on the plans for the statue. This led researchers to believe the first box was given by those who designed and built the Lee monument.

The second time capsule was found days later, and this one matched the size described by the Dispatch perfectly. The box did not have the inscription on the outside that the newspaper said it would, but that could have been worn off over time. There were plenty of historical goodies in this second capsule, yet the elusive promised photo of Lincoln was not among them. Instead of a valuable photo of Lincoln in his coffin, the picture was just a copy of a wooden engraving published in 1865.

Sarah Driggs, a historian and author of the book Richmond’s Monument Avenue, described the excitement of finding the capsule:

“The Indiana Jones archeology side of all this is fun to watch and hard not to get caught up in, but the important thing to remember is that this is exactly what the people who placed the box hoped for. That their version of history would continue to be pored over and discussed—131 years later.”

The contents of a time capsule buried in Massachusetts (Photo by Rick Friedman/rickfriedman.com/Corbis via Getty Images)

Manuscripts, coins, books, and much more were discovered in the box. There were even a battle flag, and a square and compass made from the tree over Stonewall Jackson’s grave. There were also Confederate treasury notes, uniform buttons, and a copy of Robert E. Lee’s family tree of ancestors.

It will still take some time to carefully remove, clean, and preserve all the items, but researchers are excited by the discovery and may look into digging up other reported time capsules along Monument Avenue, where there is supposedly more hidden in the pedestals of other statues.

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