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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.
Sam McKelvey with the Lee letter

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.


Community

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden raises admission $1

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s admission has increased by $1 across all categories. Admission is now $12 for adults; $11 for seniors ages 55 and older; and $8 for children ages 3–12. Admission remains free for children ages 3 and younger and for members.

The last price increase was in 2011, before the Garden consistently hosted Butterflies LIVE! (which is included with admission). > Read more.

Garden tails

The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.

Western Henrico Rotary helps fund Midwives For Haiti Jeep


Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.

The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


Take in a show at several locations this weekend! West End Comedy will provide laughs at HATTheatre; the production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” will close Sunday; and the youth theatre company CharacterWorks will present “Footloose” at The Steward School. Another show perfect for the kids – “Despicable Me 2” is playing at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center tonight. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Is there an Echo in here?

‘Earth to Echo’ aims to become this generation’s ‘ET’
It’s no secret that all found-footage genre movies are the same. Grab a couple of characters, give one of them a camera, and expose them to something supernatural that’s content to lurk just off-screen until the last five minutes. Everything else will just fall into place.

But that formula isn’t particularly family friendly, if only because that thing waiting a few feet to the left of the cast is usually plotting their violent doom.

That’s what sets Earth to Echo apart from the pack. It, too, follows a group of characters armed with a camera and a tendency to encounter unknown life forms. But all those familiar parts have been rearranged just enough to make it suitable for a much younger audience. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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Innsbrook After Hours will present Gavin Degraw, Matt Nathanson and Andrew McMahon at 6:30 p.m. at the Snagajob Innsbrook Pavilion. Gates open at 5 p.m. General admission is $20. For… Full text

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