The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed this past week from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where it had stood since 1890. Once it was gone, the big question was the whereabouts of a time capsule that had reportedly been placed inside the monument’s pedestal. According to contemporary sources, a copper box filled with sixty items, donated by thirty-seven organizations and people, had been placed in the pedestal’s cornerstone. The box was said to contain, among other things, several Confederate buttons, a piece of a Confederate battle flag, a compass made from a tree over Stonewall Jackson’s grave, several Confederate bank notes, three bullets from the battlefield at Fredericksburg, and muster rolls from several Virginia Confederate regiments. But alas, a careful search of the pedestal failed to turn up the capsule.
The Lee time capsule was not unique, of course; such things were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the dedication of public buildings and monuments. Here’s the story of another time capsule:
On April 24, 1902, six hundred people gathered on the corner of Erwin and Market Streets in Cartersville to observe the laying of the cornerstone for Bartow county’s new courthouse. The local paper listed some thirty items that local residents had donated for a metal box to be sealed in the cornerstone. Among the items was the usual stuff one might expect to find in a courthouse cornerstone: a program of the day’s events; copies of newspapers, from both Cartersville and Atlanta, containing stories about the courthouse; lists of Cartersville and Bartow County officials; a list of city merchants who closed their places of business that day for the ceremony; and several Masonic items (members of Masonic lodges often participated in the laying of cornerstones). Someone donated a U.S. silver coin, dated 1901 (the year the foundation was laid for the courthouse), and another a 1902 nickel (the year of the cornerstone). The oldest item was an otherwise unidentified “small silver coin” dated 1773.
Almost half of the items, though, had to do with the county’s four years in the Confederacy. There was a lot of Confederate money and Confederate postage stamps. There were lists of men from the county who had served in various Confederate units. There was an issue of the Southern Confederacy, a newspaper published in Atlanta during the Civil War known as “one of the most rabid of the secessionist papers in the South.” This particular issue of the paper, dated September 10, 1862, contained a “Proclamation by the President” shortly after the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run: “Once more upon the plains of Manassas have our armies been blessed by the Lord of Hosts with a triumph over our enemies,” he said, calling for “a day of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the great mercies vouchsafed to our people.”
Another item in the cornerstone was a copy of a poem generally titled “Lines on a Confederate Note.” According to the traditional story, the poem was originally found on the field after the Battle of Appomattox, written on the back of a Confederate bill. Three of the eight verses:
Representing nothing on God’s earth now,
And naught in the waters below it,
As the pledge of a nation that’s dead and gone,
Keep it, dear friend, and show it.
Show it to those who will lend an ear
To the tale that this trifle can tell
Of Liberty born of the patriot’s dream,
Of a storm-cradled nation that fell.
Keep it, it tells all our history o’er,
From the birth of our dream to its last;
Modest, and born of the Angel Hope,
Like our hope of success, it passed.
The large number of Confederate items in the cornerstone might seem odd; after all, unlike the Lee statue, the courthouse was not intended as a monument to the Confederacy. But the four years of the Civil War, which represented only six percent of the Bartow’s history in 1902, accounted for half of the items placed in the cornerstone. This same reverence for the “Lost Cause” (“of Liberty born of the patriot’s dream, of a storm-cradled nation that fell”) was evident six years later, in 1908, when the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated on the courthouse lawn a monument to the county’s Confederate soldiers. A speaker at that event noted that “monuments similar to this spring up all over our land, … all seeking to perpetuate the memories of the courage and patriotism” of the southern soldiers they honored and “to teach us that though men may die, virtue and honor and patriotism shall not perish out of the land, forever.”
The new county courthouse was officially dedicated on January 12, 1903. Exactly a hundred years later, on January 12, 2003, six hundred people gathered once again, this time for a centennial observation at which the local historical society opened the cornerstone and retrieved the time capsule placed there. Time had not been kind to the contents of the box. Moisture seeped into the courthouse walls over the years, and many items had deteriorated to the point of being illegible or unidentifiable. Folks knew what was there because, as in Richmond, a list had been published in the local newspaper.
But one thing in the box surprised them: a little piece of paper—the best preserved piece of paper recovered that day—with the words “Kate Smith, April 24, 1902.” The handwriting looks like that of a ten-year-old girl.
How did that piece of paper get there? I have a theory. I imagine Kate and her family attending the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone. She watched as dignitaries placed items in the cornerstone. “Daddy, I want to put something in!” “It’s too late, dear.” “Oh, Daddy, I have to!” “Shhh!” “But, Daddy, I want to put something in.” And I imagine her father tearing off a piece of paper, letting her write her name on it, passing it to the dignitaries, watching them put it in with the other items…. And with that act, she claimed a bit of the courthouse and Bartow history for her own.
In Richmond, a new capsule was placed in the now Lee-less pedestal. It contained, among other things, a “Black Lives Matter” sticker; a Virginia Is for Lovers “pride” pin; a “YOU ARE NOT ALONE” pink heart print found on the street after a night of protests in May 2020; and Monument Avenue, a hip hop album by Noah-O and Taylor Whitelow. Oh, and an expired vial of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine and a CDC vaccination record card.
Two events, a century apart. Kate Smith’s little piece of paper and the Black Lives Matter sticker remind us that history does not belong to some; it belongs to everyone.