Historians cut into a 36-pound copper time capsule found in the pedestal of a monument to former Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, on Tuesday.
As the event was livestreamed on Gov. Ralph Northam’s social media pages, Katherine Ridgway, the state archaeological conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, cut into the metal and began delicately pulling items from the box.
“I think it’s in better shape than we expected,” Ridgeway said, noting that while many of the items were wet, the copper may have prevented further damage.
The box contained relics such as what appeared to be Confederate money, 12 copper coins, an 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly, military memorabilia, multiple books including directories and a Holy Bible, a carved wood flag and Masonic symbol that some believe was allegedly carved from the tree that grew on the battlefield, and a carved wood flag and Masonic symbol that some believe was allegedly carved from the tree that grew above Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s original grave.
A local bomb squad X-rayed the box before it was opened. Ridgway pulled out what she thought was a fragment of a shell from the Battle of Fredericksburg during the big reveal.
An issue of the Richmond Dispatch from October 1887 provided historians with some hints about what to expect in the box, including a mention of a photograph of former President Abraham Lincoln in his casket.
The Lincoln photograph was discovered in the time capsule, but the artifact appeared to have been printed and mended multiple times, making it far less valuable than some had hoped.
“From what I can tell, that was a mass-printed engraving that appeared in Harper’s Weekly,” said Sue Donovan, a special collections conservator at the University of Virginia Library. “So it was not an original, it was perhaps a taken from a photograph, but it is an engraving in a newspaper. So the newspaper was from 1865, from what we can tell, unless it was a reprint, which has happened.”
The Lincoln photograph, along with the other artifacts discovered, will be processed and stabilized for safekeeping. Historians will then examine their significance and place the objects in context.
That item, along with many others in good condition, provide context for life in Richmond at the time. However, Brumfield pointed out that there were important aspects of life in Virginia that were missing from the time capsule.
Brumfield stated that, while the items inside the capsule do not provide a complete picture of life in Richmond at the time, they do demonstrate the Confederacy’s importance in Southern culture even two decades after the Civil War ended.
Only a few weeks ago, historians were disappointed by the discovery of another time capsule in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee. They expected to find valuable historical items inside the small led box, but instead discovered what appeared to be an 1875 almanac, a copy of “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion,” a photograph, and a coin.
Local historians like Brumfield quickly realized it wasn’t the time capsule they’d heard about.
Brumfield believes the books and photos are related to two men who were involved in the pedestal’s construction and wanted their own time capsule. “It’s just an ego trip for the builders of this monument,” he believes.
Brumfield had a sneaking suspicion that the other time capsule was still in the pedestal. Northam announced just a few days later that construction crews had discovered it. The pedestal containing both capsules stood beneath a bronze statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee on horseback that was removed in September 2021, following nationwide racial justice protests after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
Virginia is now making plans to create a new time capsule to reflect the present day.