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Inside the 1887 Lee monument time capsule: Confederate bullets, coins and books, a Lincoln reprint.

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The image of Abraham Lincoln wasn't a rare historical artifact. But the opening of the second time capsule from the Robert E. Lee pedestal Tuesday largely proved a success.

The contents were in excellent condition, said Julie Langan, director of the Department of Historic Resources. Some time capsules are sealed poorly and so damaged by water and air that nothing remains but a heap of mud.

The books and newspapers, while moist from condensation, could be opened, and the printed words often were legible. Even the rubber bands holding things together remained unbroken.

“It’s not soup,” said Sue Donovan, one of the conservators examining the objects.

Among the objects removed from the box were a Confederate battle flag carved in wood from a tree over Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s grave, tattered and faded Confederate dollar bills, Minié balls and a Bible.

Tuesday’s events brought an end to a four-month search for the elusive time capsule. Workers struck out during their initial search and found a second unexpected time capsule two weeks ago.

All 632 granite stones that made up the Lee pedestal were removed last week, and the search for the time capsule resumed Monday. It took workers about four hours to find it. The 36-pound box was in the northeast corner, close to where they thought they’d find it. It turns out the box was closer to the center of the pedestal and 4 or 5 feet below ground, said Devon Henry, the project’s contractor.

With a dozen cameras pointed at them, conservators from the Department of Historic Resources cut the copper box’s lid using a circular saw. Doing so in front of such a large audience was “terrifying,” said Kate Ridgway, conservator for the Department of Historic Resources.

Using a Teflon spatula, they separated and removed the soggy items.

“It’s not the smelliest time capsule,” Donovan said.

The Richmond Dispatch had published a list of the time capsule’s 60 articles in October 1887. Seemingly everything pulled out of the box Tuesday matched an item on the list. It’s unclear if all 60 items were present, and the conservators will continue studying the box’s contents in the days to come.

“We’re honestly not sure what we have here yet,” Ridgway said.

They never found the inscription supposedly written on the side of the box, but it’s possible the water corroded it away, Ridgway said. The newspaper list mentioned a piece of cannon shell in the box, so the conservators called a bomb squad to make sure the box didn’t contain live explosives.

The piece of shell was recovered Tuesday and deemed safe.

Unlike the last time capsule opening, Gov. Ralph Northam did not attend Tuesday. He was away with family, a spokesperson for the administration said.

If there was any letdown Tuesday, it was the image of Lincoln. The 1887 newspaper described a picture of the 16th president in his coffin. Only one photo of Lincoln after his death is known to exist. Had this been a never-before-seen image, it could have been quite valuable.

What was discovered Tuesday was a picture of a wooden engraving published in an 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly, a New York-based magazine. The image isn’t any more valuable than the other items, Langan said.

Largely associated with the Confederacy, the items in the box don’t tell the story of the Black community, said Dale Brumfield, an author and historian who has studied the time capsule. A picture of a dead Lincoln under a Confederate hero’s grave was one more way for the South to embrace the Lost Cause.

The point of view captured in the time capsule is a limited one, and one of white Southerners.

“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,” said Sarah Driggs, a historian and author of “Richmond’s Monument Avenue.” “That their version of history would continue to be pored over and discussed — 131 years later.”

It’s too soon to draw a conclusion about the articles’ meaning, Langan said. To her, the most important part of the time capsule was how it caught the attention of a national audience.

“It’s more about watching the public embrace history,” Langan said. “On a personal level, that’s what moves me the most.”

The term “time capsule” may not even be the most accurate, Ridgway said. Typically, time capsules include instructions on when a future generation should open it, and that didn’t happen here. The conservators used the term “cornerstone box” instead.

For the time being, the items will remain in the Department of Historic Resources’ lab for drying and storage. The books will be placed in the freezer to prevent mold from growing.

Their final destination is unclear. Langan believes the articles are the property of the state and deserve to be seen in a museum.

This may not be the last time capsule recovered from Monument Avenue. Each Confederate statue has one, Brumfield said. But the city, which owns the remaining pedestals, hasn’t announced plans to address them.

The 60 items placed in the box, according to the Oct. 26, 1887 Richmond Dispatch:

1. Compiled history of the Monumental Church

2. Roll of Company B, Twelfth Virginia Infantry

3. Statistics of the city of Richmond

4. Constitution and bylaws of Lee Camp, Confederate Veterans

5. Programme of banquet to Lynn Post, No. 5

6. Virginia Confederate buttons

7. Battle-flag and square and compass made from the tree over Stonewall Jackson’s grave

8. Twelve copper coins

9. Muster-roll of Richmond Sharpshooters, Twenty-first Virginia regiment

10. Badge of the Association of Army Northern Virginia

11. Circular advertisement

12. Copy of The Immigrant’s Friend

13. Genealogical tree of the Lee family

14. Confederate treasury notes

15. Copy of seal of the Adjutant-General of the Confederate states

16. A $100,000 Confederate bond, registered

16. $1 Confederate note

18. English penny of 1812

19. Roll of officers and members of Richmond Commandery, No. 2.

20. Individual card of Edward W. Price, general commander, New Jersey

21. Programme of the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine on the occasion of the laying of the corner-stone

22. Reports of the Chamber of Commerce for 1886 and 1887

23. Constitution and by-laws of the Virginia Mechanics’ Institute

24. By-laws of Richmond Commandery, No. 2

25. Warrock-Richardson Virginia Almanac for 1887

26. Report Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1887

27. Picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin

28. Programme Ancient Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine laying corner-stone of Lee Monument

29. Soldiers’ Life Army of Northern Virginia (by McCarthy)

30. Memorial volume of the Army of Northern Virginia

31. A Guide to Richmond, with maps of Richmond and Virginia

32. Badge corner-stone parade

33. History of First Battle of Manassas

34. Grantham’s Historical Account of Some Memorable Actions in Virginia, 1716

35. Weekly Dispatch October 21, 1887, containing letter of Hon. W.W. Corcoran on General Lee

36. W. Gordon McCabe’s address at the reunion of Pegram’s battalion

37. Picture of memorial window of Pegram’s battlefield at Soldier’s Home

38. Gray and Blue badge

39. Piece of a stone wall, Fredericksburg, Va.

40. Three bullets from battlefield of Fredericksburg

41. One piece of shell from Fredericksburg

42. One piece of wood with Minnie-ball in it from battle-field at Fredericksburg

43. A cut from a tree at the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania

44. Individual card

45. Programme of three exhibitions by Bremond Institute for the benefit of Lee Monument fund

46. A button from coat of Capt. Bremond

47. Individual card

48. Assortment of United States silver and copper coins

49. Richmond directory

50. One United States silver dollar, 1886

51. Copy of paper 23rd October, 1887

52. Assortment of United States fractional coins

53. One Holy Bible

54. Copies of charters issued by Grand Lodge, Grand Chapter and Grand Commandery of Virginia to its subordinates (on parchment).

55. Fourth edition of Grand Lodge Text-book

56. Copy of Text-Book Grand Chapter of Virginia and Digest

57. Copy Grand Constitution of Grand Encampment United States Knights Templars and proceedings 1886.

58. Copy of Proceedings, 1886, Grand Lodge, Grand Chapter, and Grand Commandery of Virginia

59. Programme of exercises observed on occasion of laying of Lee-monument corner-stone.

60. Reprints of proceedings of Grand Lodge of Virginia from 1877 to 1822, containing steel engravings of all grand masters during that period, and also engravings of Dr. John Dove and Hon. R.E. Withers



Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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