By Gregory S. Schneider,
John McDonnell The Washington Post
RICHMOND —Robert E. Lee lost his lofty perch — but he’s trying to hold onto his secrets.
Workers were a bit stumped Thursday morning in their quest to find a time capsule supposedly planted at the base of the former Lee statue on this city’s Monument Avenue.
The bronze equestrian figure of Lee, the Confederacy’s most revered general, came down Wednesday and was hauled away in pieces on a truck.
The 40-foot stone plinth remains in place, covered with colorful graffiti from last summer’s racial and social justice protests. And somewhere under that edifice — according to historical records — lies a time capsule.
Though the monument itself was unveiled in 1890, the time capsule was planted in 1887 along with the first parts of the giant plinth. At the time, the stones stood alone in a tobacco field on the edge of the city.
According to reports from the period and research by local author Dale Brumfield, the capsule was crammed with 60 items. Most of it was Confederate memorabilia, Lee family history and the like. But Brumfield discovered one intriguing item on the list: a picture said to show President Abraham Lincoln in his coffin. If it’s in there, and if it survives, that would be a tremendous find, he said — one of only a handful known to exist.
State officials excitedly summoned the media Thursday morning to see if the mystery of the photo — and the time capsule itself — could be solved.
Historians and contractors were confident the time capsule should lie under the northeast cornerstone of the plinth, in keeping with Masonic tradition. Ground-penetrating radar scans by historians earlier this year identified some type of cavity under the stone on that spot, officials said.
So far so good.
Wednesday afternoon, once Lee was hauled away before a cheering crowd in a heavy thunderstorm, workers had spent about an hour cutting the mortar around the 2,500-pound capstone on that side, said Chris Hilgert, owner of Summit Masonry and Building Restoration, a Connecticut company hired to do the stone work. They lifted the capstone early Thursday morning.
Next, workers loosened and removed a smaller layer of stone and hoisted that 500-pound chunk aside.
Under that, they were hoping to find signs of a concrete-filled hole containing the 14-by-14-by-8-inch time capsule.
Instead, they found a damp layer of mortar and dirt.
Workers began scraping, pounding and chiseling at the surface, looking for an opening.
Then they brought out a hand-held radar scanner. That found the void that had been identified earlier, but it wasn’t the time capsule. It was a hole that had been used when hauling the stone into place, said Clark Mercer, chief of staff to Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
In a driving rain, workers stood in a circle and brainstormed. Just to be sure, they hoisted the capstone and looked on its underside. Nothing there, either.
“We’re going to keep looking,” Mercer told the gathered news media. He said workers would probe into the stone around the corner, but they would have to be careful not to cause structural damage.
Meanwhile, they would begin carving a block out of one of the layers of stone to insert a new time capsule containing a diverse slate of artifacts representing today’s Virginia.
Brumfield, on hand to watch the work, said he wasn’t completely surprised at the setback. “Historical records are sometimes not accurate,” he said. “I’m confident there’s something in there. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
And the photo of Lincoln — why would that be in a grand Confederate monument?
“I think they were giving a big middle finger to Lincoln and the North,” he said.