During the long, hot summer of 1782, General George Washington had a lot on his mind. After the Continental Army’s victory at the Battle of Yorktown, the British seemed to be on the verge of surrender, but it hadn’t yet happened. The American forces settled into an uneasy wait at their Verplanck’s Point, NY, encampment. Meanwhile, Washington had to both impress his French allies so they would continue their support and manage his own troops, who’d grown restless with the long war, harsh conditions, and poor pay. Could the Continental Army hold on?
It’s this moment in history that we’re depicting during our Museum-wide celebration Revolutionary Summer (on view until Sept. 15). Visitors actually have two chances to experience Verplanck’s Point: first, in our outdoor courtyard–turned–Revolutionary War encampment. And second, in our first-floor Rotunda Gallery where we’re showcasing a large, detailed diorama of the encampment. Complete with a Hudson River landing, a section of the Albany Post Rd., and a first-ever miniature of Washington’s Headquarters Tent, the diorama case measures nine and a half feet in diameter and is a feast for the eyes. Who are the figures in the case? What is their significance in history? Here is an up-close look at the figures in the diorama—both the toy soldiers sets that existed previously and the ones we had custom-made for this exhibition—and some details about the toy-soldier history we’re making:
On select Fridays and weekends this summer—including Aug. 23-25—visitors can step inside a life-sized replica of Washington’s Headquarters Tent in our outdoor courtyard, courtesy of our partner, the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). But they can also see a miniature-scale replica on a bluff inside the diorama. It’s the first one ever created of Washington’s signature field tent, and like all of the custom toys in the diorama, it was created by master craftsman John Jenkins. Jenkins sculpts new toys out of hard wax and uses those models to create a mold. The Tent was cast in a hard resin, while the toy soldiers are made of a metal alloy. Once the figures are cast, Jenkins finishes by hand-painting them.
The Tent was a particular challenge because, even though it’s made of a hard material, viewers still have to get the feeling that they’re looking at a cloth structure. The real Tent ‘s linen walls are pulled quite taut by the guidelines and poles, but Jenkins had to make the model more loose-looking, with added “folds” to give viewers the sense of cloth’s give and flow. A recently discovered watercolor by Pierre Charles L’Enfant is on display as part of Revolutionary Summer and is the source of some of the other details of the Tent’s appearance, like the fancy wood bower at the entrance.
The commander of the Continental Army is shown in the center of the diorama, sitting on his horse Blueskin. The Verplanck’s Point encampment was Washington’s attempt to impress his French allies with displays of American military might and some good, old fashioned wining and dining.
The commander of the French forces in North America, Rochambeau had a great working relationship with Washington, especially when the two joined forces to win the Battle of Yorktown.
The diorama has another important first: the first-ever depiction of Washington’s enslaved valet William Lee as a toy soldier. Although Lee was long neglected by historical accounts, he was with Washington through the entire war and was known to take an active part in battles and encampments, doing everything from holding Washington’s sword and spyglass to delivering messages. Among his many jobs was tending to Washington’s papers, invaluable records that exist only because of the care Lee took with them. There are no accurate descriptions of what Lee looked like—and some artistic depictions are almost laughably wrong. So, Jenkins created an interpretation of what Lee might’ve worn based on valet clothing from the Revolutionary era.
The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard and Standard
Another figure near Washington is a soldier in the Commander-in-Chief’s guard holding Washington’s Command-in-Chief standard or flag. The guards were a special unit of elite soldiers charged with protecting Washington throughout war. (Other guards can be seen standing watch outside the Headquarters Tent.) While we know a little bit about what their uniform looked like, some of the details—like their ornate hats—are likely embellished on these figures.
The standard this soldier is holding, however, is historically accurate. Incorporating 13 white stars on a blue field, the flag was displayed whenever Washington was present, whether that was in the field or at the Headquarters Tent. Incredibly, the real flag survived the war and stayed with Washington’s family for the intervening decades. It was given to the Valley Forge Historical Society in the early 20th century, and eventually, the Museum of the American Revolution, where it was carefully restored. It remains the oldest known 13-star flag and is still occasionally displayed for special events like Flag Day.
Off to the left of the diorama is a formation of blue-coated soldiers from the 4th Massachusetts regiment, including Deborah Sampson, the woman who disguised her gender and joined the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtleff. Sampson fought with distinction and was even wounded in battle. When her secret was found out, she was given an honorable discharge, and eventually, a full military pension. Because her male disguise was (for a time at least) so successful, the curator picked one of the identical soldiers to represent Sampson.
New-York Historical also wanted to bring to life another group of people crucial to the Continental Army encampments: the camp followers. Women and even children often followed the troops and camped nearby. Some of them were relatives of the soldiers, while others were enterprising women looking to make extra money selling food to soldiers. If you look closely at the L’Enfant watercolor, you can see a woman serving a group of soldiers from a crock, historical evidence of how common camp followers were.
Rhode Island Soldier
The blue-coated figures near the center of the diorama are soldiers in the 2nd Rhode Island, a regiment that had never been depicted in a toy set before. Fun fact: Their distinctive anchor insignia makes them the only regiment that is clearly visible in the L’Enfant watercolor. But that’s not the only reason they were unique: The regiment also included a unit that was made up of mostly free black men and Native soldiers commanded by white officers. Their presence at Verplanck’s Point is an important reminder of how diverse the Continental Army actually was, and how people from all walks of life had a stake in the Revolution.
Check out our full lineup of programming and exhibitions for Revolutionary Summer before it closes on Sept. 15.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor