Washington’s Tent: A Detective Story

Late one night last spring, Philip Mead, the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, was browsing auction listings online when he spotted one for a panoramic watercolor of the Continental Army encamped in the Hudson Valley.

The museum had opened a month earlier, complete with a lavish theater dedicated to its star relic: the canvas marquee tent that George Washington used as his headquarters for most of the war. And that evening Mr. Mead found himself pausing over a vaguely familiar speck in the watercolor.

“There was a marquee tent up on a hillside,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Could it be…?’”

Apparently, it was. And now, six months after that “Where’s Waldo?” moment, the museum is announcing that it has acquired what it believes is the only known wartime depiction of Washington’s tent by an eyewitness.

That would be enough of a coup. But the eyewitness was Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born military engineer and future planner of Washington, D.C., who had rendered the scene with meticulous accuracy.

A detail of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s watercolor. The chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution thought the tent on the hill looked familiar.CreditMuseum of the American Revolution

“We have no photographs of this army, and suddenly here is the equivalent of Google Street View,” Mr. Mead said. “Looking at it, you feel like you are walking right into the past.”

We spoke with Mr. Mead, who is also the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, and R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming, about the detective work that went into identifying the watercolor, which will be the centerpiece of an exhibition opening on Jan. 13.

The Big Picture

The watercolor, which was listed by Heritage Auctions, measures about seven feet long and 14 inches high. It was painted on six sheets of paper, which had been pasted together and mounted…

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