Lee letter comes home to Dabbs House
In his very first week as full-time site manager of the Dabbs House Museum, Sam McKelvey hit the jackpot.
A California resident, Dr. Paul Whyte, had called last January after reading about the museum in Civil War Traveler magazine. He was planning a visit to the Dabbs House and wanted some information about other Richmond-area attractions.
Part way through the conversation, Whyte mentioned casually that he owned a letter written by General Robert E. Lee during the time that Dabbs House served as Lee's Civil War headquarters.
This Thursday, just in time for the Sesquicentennial Civil War Commemoration that is part of Henrico’s 400th anniversary observance, Henricoans will be able to celebrate the letter's homecoming.
A century and a half after it rode out of the county in the hands of a mounted messenger, the letter has returned from California to take up residence in a specially-made display case with UV protection and high-tech security features. The museum display will open to the public at 9 a.m. September 22.
'Your obedient servant'
Dated June 21, 1862 -- just three weeks after Lee had assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia -- the letter is six lines in length, written on a ruled sheet of light blue paper with embedded watermarks typical of Confederate correspondence.
McKelvey first laid eyes on the letter at a meeting he arranged with Whyte in March, during his first week in charge of the museum.
Having worked previously as a collection assistant at the American Civil War Center at HistoricTredegar, McKelvey had seen Lee correspondence before. As soon as Whyte opened the box that contained the letter, McKelvey could see that the piece was probably authentic.
Not only did it feature Lee's distinctive handwriting -- penmanship was a point of pride with the general -- but it also bore Lee's trademark closing: "your obedient servant." The letter's authenticity has since been confirmed by the Museum of the Confederacy.
Whyte had acquired the piece through a historical auction house a few years before, and told McKelvey that he was not interested in compensation; he just wanted the letter to come home. He has since agreed to loan the artifact to Henrico County for five years.
McKelvey notes that the letter paper, which is made of a cotton fiber product rather than wood pulp, is in remarkably good condition considering its age.
"They don't make paper like they used to," he says, "which is probably what saved the letter."
And while it apparently was glued to a backing at some point, the letter is intact and free of tears.
"Whoever took care of this for 150 years," says McKelvey, "did a good job."
One of a kind
Asked if anything else in the Dabbs House collection can compare to the Lee letter, McKelvey answers with an emphatic "no."
In addition to being well-preserved, the letter -- which McKelvey calls the "cornerstone piece" in the Dabbs House exhibit -- is also significant for what it tells us about Lee. The fact that Lee wrote the letter himself, for instance, rather than dictating it or delegating it to a staff officer, indicates that the general considered his message important.
In the letter, Lee writes to Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph regarding one of his division commanders, Gen. John B. Magruder. He expresses surprise that Gen. Magruder has received orders to remain in Virginia, and dismay that he learned about these orders from Magruder himself instead of from the War Department. Asking Randolph to confirm the orders, Lee indicates that future orders for Magruder (and, it is assumed, for other commanding officers) should be communicated directly to him.
Over the years, says McKelvey, many historians have assumed that Lee transferred generals as discipline or punishment. Because Magruder was reassigned out west following the Seven Days Battles, in which he fared badly, some have speculated that Lee wanted to get him out of the way.
"Mississippi -- [that's] no man's land!" exclaims McKelvey, describing the long-time assumptions made about Magruder's reassignment. "But in reality, when we did some digging, we [learned differently]."
As it turned out, Magruder had made preparations to transfer to the Department of the Trans-Mississippi weeks earlier -- before Lee became commander. But when the fighting in Virginia heated up, Magruder requested that his orders be delayed. The transfer order was reinstated on July 2, after the immediate Union threat to Richmond had been subdued, and Magruder headed west.
While the Dabbs House letter is not the only historical artifact to indicate that assumptions about "transfers as punishment" were off the mark, it does shed some new insight and could alter perceptions regarding Lee.
"It's great for the museum to have such a piece," says McKelvey, pointing out that the letter underscores the notion of history as a living, evolving organism, rather than an immutable object.
"[The letter] shows that even [about] a subject as highly studied as the Civil War, we're always learning new things," says McKelvey.
"We're changing the way we thought before."
The Dabbs House Museum and the Henrico County Tourist Information Center are located at 3812 Nine Mile Road, next to the Eastern Government Center. The museum is open for tours 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, and by appointment on Monday and Tuesday. The Tourist Information Center is open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., Wed. through Sun. For information call 652-3406 or search keyword “Dabbs House Museum” at henricorecandparks.com.
Citizen Staff Reports 01/29/2015
The Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield this weekend will portray "Arnold's Raid on Richmond," which took place in 1781 when British General Benedict Arnold took his small British and Loyalist forces and raided Richmond as Governor Thomas Jefferson watched from the safety of Manchester.
The event will take place Jan. 31 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Period-dressed historical interpreters will occupy the bluff overlooking the James River.
Visitors are invited to join the American militia, British regulars, Hessians and Loyalists in camp. > Read more.
Hundreds of 'tweens' and their moms will attend the Secret Keeper Girl Crazy Hair Tour at West End Assembly of God on Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m., a popular Bible-based tour geared toward building and strengthening relationships between mothers and their daughters (typically ages 8 to 12).
The event will feature a full fashion show, oversized balloon sculptures and confetti cannons – all in the name of inner beauty, Biblical modesty and vibrant purity. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 01/15/2015
OutRVA and Say I Do! have collaborated to offer LGBT couples an opportunity to win an all-expenses-paid wedding at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Robins Tea House on March 7.
In September, Richmond Region Tourism launched OutRVA, a campaign designed to show people Richmond’s strong LGBT community and highlight the area as a travel destination.
The winning couple will say "I do" in a ceremony coordinated by event designer and floral artist Casey Godlove of Strawberry Fields Flowers & Gifts and marriage concierge, Ayana Obika of All About The Journey. The couple will receive wardrobe and styling, a custom wedding cake, florals, an overnight stay at the Linden Row Inn (including a suite on the day of the wedding for preparation), and a post-wedding brunch at the Hilton Garden Inn on Sunday, March 8. > Read more.
For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.
CAT Theatre will hold auditions for Quartet on Saturday, Feb. 21, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 22, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Auditions will be held at the theatre, located at 319 N. Wilkinson Road in Richmond. Quartet will run May 22 through June 6 and will close out CAT’s 51st season.
Director Laurie Follmer is seeking two males, ages 50-70 and two females ages 50-70. British accents are required for roles and are requested for auditions. There is no actual singing in the show. Singing ability and experience is not a requirement. Audition sides are available at http://www.cattheatre.com on the Audition Page. > Read more.
Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.
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