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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

Varina Ruritans honor students

The Varina Ruritan Club hosted the winners of its 2014 Environmental Essay contest at its monthly meeting March 11 in Varina.

The contest, in its eighth year, was for the first time open to students in grades 3-5 at Varina Elementary School. (It previously was open to Sandston Elementary School students.)

The meeting included the winners, parents of the winners, Varina Elementary principal Mark Tyler and several teachers who were in charge of the contest at the school. > Read more.

Baseball game to benefit Glen Allen Buddy Ball


For the fifth consecutive year, St. Christopher’s and Benedictine will play a varsity baseball game at Glen Allen's RF&P Park as part of a fundraising effort for the River City Buddy Ball program.

The game will take place Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m., and the teams hope to raise $3,000 through donations, raffles and other efforts. Admission to the game is free, but fans who attend are asked to donate funds for the Glen Allen Youth Athletic Association's Buddy Ball program, which enables disabled children and teens to play baseball. > Read more.

Highland Springs field to be dedicated in honor of longtime coach Spears

The Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Highland Springs Little League Majors Field in memory and honor of Rev. Robert “Bob” L. Spears, Jr., on April 12 with a ceremony at the field at 8 a.m.

Spears served the league as a coach and volunteer for 30 years and was praised as a pioneer for equality. His “Finish strong” motto embodied ethical perseverance on the field and in life. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


Do the Bunny Hop over to Meadow Farm on Saturday for an introduction to all the farm animals there! An introduction to “Global Sounds” – featuring Japanese, Indonesian, West African, Indian, and Brazilian music and dance performances – can be found at the University of Richmond. The University of Richmond will also host the annual Spider spring game, as well as the inaugural Spiders Easter Egg Hunt. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Restaurant watch

Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

A fun, fuzzy ride

‘Muppets Most Wanted’ worthy of its franchise

Do Muppets sleep? It’s hard to say.

They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.

As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.

Jim Henson’s beloved creations were back in a big way after 2011’s The Muppets, with fame and fortune and even an Oscar, a first for the group (“Rainbow Connection” was nominated, yet somehow failed to collect at the ’79 ceremony). > Read more.

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