Time capsule found at Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue site reveals Civil War-era artifacts

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Books, money, ammunition, pamphlets, newspapers – these were but a few of the Civil War-era artifacts that conservation experts uncovered in a time capsule found at the site of a Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee monument. 

The 36-pound box was discovered in Richmond, Virginia and carefully extracted from the monument site a day earlier, marking the end of a long search for the elusive capsule. As the contents inside were unpacked, they appeared to match the description of the 1887 time capsule that conservation experts had been looking for. 

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    Sue Donovan, conservator for Special Collections of the University of Virginia Library, removes newspapers found in a time capsule recovered from General Robert E. Lee’s monument in Richmond, Virginia, U.S., December 28, 2021. (REUTERS/Jay Paul REFILE)

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    Sue Donovan, conservator for Special Collections of the University of Virginia Library, removes a piece of wood with a bullet found in a time capsule. (REUTERS/Jay Paul REFILE)

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    Conservator Sue Donovan works on a copy of Harper’s Weekly, with a two-page illustration showing a grieving woman over Abraham Lincoln’s grave, that was found in a time capsule recovered from General Robert E.
    (REUTERS/Jay Paul)

“It does appear that this is the box we expected,” Kate Ridgway, the lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told reporters.  

Records maintained by the Library of Virginia suggest that dozens of Richmond residents, organizations, and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, including Confederate memorabilia. 

Along with several waterlogged books, pamphlets and newspapers, the box contained an envelope of Confederate money, which conservators carefully separated, and two carved artifacts — a Masonic symbol and a Confederate flag.

Conservators also pulled buttons, coins and Minié balls, a type of bullet used in the Civil War, from the box. A bomb squad had checked the capsule Monday, partly to make sure there was no live ammunition.

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is bathed in the late sun on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Monday, Sept. 6, 2021.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber))

The contents of the box had expanded from the dampness and had stuck together, making unpacking difficult, so conservators decided to relieve pressure by cutting down one side.

After Ridgway and other team members meticulously extracted each object, other conservators would then cart the pieces to the back of the lab for further study and cataloging. The team made sure to photograph each object in the box before manipulating it.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the enormous equestrian statue of Lee removed in 2020, amid nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Litigation pushed back his plans, and the statue was not removed until September, after a court cleared the way. 

Crews prepare one of the country’s largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Richmond, Va. 
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool))

Contemporaneous news accounts from the late 1800s detailed the placement of the time capsule in the foundation of the pedestal, and imaging tests conducted earlier this year appeared to confirm its existence. But a lengthy search during the September statue removal came up empty. 

Earlier this month, Northam ordered the pedestal removed as well, and crews working on the project again started to search for the artifact. A time capsule was discovered two weeks ago, generating excitement, but hours of painstaking and ultimately anti-climactic examination suggested that artifact was placed by someone else, perhaps someone involved with the construction.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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