Time Capsule: Newspapers, Ammo, and a Handful of Coins Under the Statue of General Robert Lee | International


Sue Donovan, Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library, and Kate Ridgway, Curator of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, remove one of three books found in a time capsule recovered from the monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.
Sue Donovan, Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library, and Kate Ridgway, Curator of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, remove one of three books found in a time capsule recovered from the monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.JAY PAUL (REUTERS)

When Virginia authorities decided last September to remove the iconic statue of General Robert Lee from downtown Richmond – the wartime capital of the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 – historical preservation experts knew they had work to do. Under one of America’s largest Confederate monuments, a time capsule was buried 134 years ago. In mid-December, when the workers removed the pedestal, a box appeared with a series of objects, but they were not those described in a newspaper of the time. This Tuesday they managed to find that box. Inside, they have found covered with water, newspapers, a magazine from 1865 with the image of someone crying over Lincoln’s coffin, a bible, bullets and objects related to the Freemasons and the Confederacy, among other relics.

The statue of General Lee was the subject of debate for years, but it was not until the anti-racist demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, which led to a review of the past and the meaning of monuments in the United States, that the local government of Virginia decided remove it. Historians were aware that under the 6.4 meter tall statue, erected in 1890 on a granite pedestal almost twice as tall, was a time capsule, according to a newspaper article from those years, in which detailed dozens of objects placed in the buried box. “We found quite a few of them,” said Sue Donovan, curator of special collections at the University of Virginia Library.

Many of the artifacts found in the copper box were damp and brittle, so conservators at the Virginia Department of Historical Resources (DHR) did a meticulous job of removing and preserving them in the best possible way. before historians can examine and catalog them. “Honestly, we’re still not sure what we have,” acknowledged Kate Ridgway, DHR state archaeological curator, who described the objects as “wetter” than expected, “but not as bad as they could have been.” He also clarified that the boxes are not officially “time capsules” as there was no official date to open them, and that it would be appropriate to call them “cornerstone boxes.”

Among the devices found were six soft lead Minié rifle bullets, which were used in the 19th century; an April 29, 1865, issue of the political magazine Harper’s Weekly with a printed image of a person crying over the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln; a book titled Detailed Minutes of a Soldier’s Life in the Northern Virginia Army; a guide to Richmond merchants and manufacturers and two volumes of annual reports of the local Chamber of Commerce from 1886 and 1887. Copies of the local newspaper also appeared Daily Dispatch –one from December 2, 1868-; a Bible with an 1883 dime taped to the top; and an almanac from 1887. They also found wooden objects related to the Masons, coins, and a commemorative ribbon from 1884 with a drawing by Robert E. Lee.

Prior to this discovery, workers dismantling the statue’s pedestal found a lead box, according to a news release from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s office. Among the items found inside were an 1875 almanac, two deteriorated books, a coin, and a cloth envelope. Historians believe the time capsule was placed on October 27, 1887, and included about 60 items donated by 37 Richmond residents, many related to the Confederacy, according to the governor’s office. The curators have promised to publish a detailed summary of all recovered artifacts in the near future.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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