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CSI: Mount Vernon

The nation’s oldest house museum has been propelled into the 21st century with a new experiential visitor center and museum. The Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center opened last October on the grounds—technically, under the grounds—of the first president’s colonial plantation. To avoid detracting from the historic mansion, the two new buildings were constructed primarily under a sheep pasture. New features include a short film about George Washington, a scale model of Mount Vernon, and more than 500 objects in six permanent galleries and a changing exhibition space.

The exhibits highlight more of Washington’s military and political career than previously had been on display in the mansion. In addition, visitors will see Washington age before their eyes in three life-size wax figures that portray him as a 19-year-old surveyor, a 45-year-old general and a 57-yearold president. Through the wonders of forensic science, assisted by computers and expert artists from Madame Tussauds, the museum shows a different George Washington than we have come to know from Charles Willson Peale’s painting and the dollar bill. USA Today went so far as to call the father of our country “sexy.”

Got Change for a Fillmore?

Only six American presidents have been honored on coinage circulated in the United States. The doors to this rather exclusive club are about to be thrown wide open as the U.S. Mint launches a new series of $1 coins that eventually will feature all the deceased presidents. George Washington appears on the first coin, released in February 2007. Coins portraying each successive president are scheduled to debut every three months, beginning with John Adams in May—the first legal tender to honor the second president. The series will continue until 2016. The designs will rely on the Mint’s past coinage, and paintings in the National Portrait Gallery.

Kansas City, Mo.: Great War Museum

In December the nation’s largest museum dedicated solely to World War I was unveiled in Kansas City, Mo. The 30,000-square-foot interactive space was designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates, which developed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. With more than 49,000 artifacts, its collection of World War I items is second in size only to Great Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Approximately 85 percent of the artifacts have never been displayed publicly. Experiential exhibits include a walk-in bomb crater and a 90-foot-long re-creation of “no man’s land.”

History Uncovered

Off the coast of Beaufort, N.C., divers have recovered artifacts from what they believe to be the pirate Blackbeard’s ship. Underwater archaeologists have discovered cannons, a 1705 ship’s bell and glass stemware that dates from 1714-20. In 1718 Edward Teach crashed his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, into a sandbar off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Teach, who earned the moniker Blackbeard, was killed several months later during a fiery battle at Ocracoke Island.  Archaeologists have uncovered the site of a sutler’s store from the French and Indian War at Fort Edward, N.Y.  University of Illinois archaeologist Robert Mazrim has identified what is believed to be the foundation of a house owned by Pierre Laclede, the founder of St. Louis. In 1998 construction workers initially uncovered part of the foundation near Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois about 45 miles south of St. Louis. Mazrim used pottery shards and deed records to connect Laclede to the site.  In February 1861, president-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped in Pittsburgh while en route from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C. He stayed in the Monongahela House Hotel, which was torn down in 1935. Prior to the hotel’s demolition, county officials placed the bed in which Lincoln slept in storage. Unfortunately, the county forgot where it had been stored until maintenance workers uncovered the 6-foot-4 bed last October. Interestingly, the long-lost bed also was used by presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.  Researchers recently discovered the earliest known map of Charles Towne, the first English settlement in the Carolinas, at Scotland’s Aberdeen University. The 17th-century map was found in the papers of James Fraser, an Episcopalian minister, author and scholar.

American Civil War Center: Opening Eyes and Old Wounds

The recent interest in the American Civil War (a k a War of the Rebellion to the purists) will receive another boost over the next four years as the nation approaches the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 2011. The commemoration certainly will not pass without some controversy.

Last October, the privately funded Tredegar National Civil War Center Foundation opened the American Civil War Center in the renovated Tredegar Iron Works Gun Foundry building in downtown Richmond, Va. The principal exhibit, “In the Cause of Liberty,” examines the complexities of the conflict from Union, Confederate and African-American perspectives. The exhibit has disturbed some African Americans who view the display as an attempt to justify the Southern cause. Advisers to the project, including Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, defend the approach and suggest it will challenge visitors to reconsider any preconceived notions they may have about the Civil War.

The Search for Sergeant York

Like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark (or The Amazing Race), two teams of archaeologists have been on the hunt for the site of Alvin York’s most celebrated accomplishment—single-handedly capturing 132 German soldiers near Châtel-Chéhéry, France, on October 8, 1918.

In March 2006, a group from Middle Tennessee State University was “80 percent certain” it had discovered the location of York’s deed. In October the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition found 19 .45- caliber cartridges buried in another location. This corresponds more closely with military records, which suggest York fired at least 21 rounds from a semi-automatic .45-caliber Colt pistol. The Tennessee team countered in December with the announcement that GIS analysis of battle maps confirmed their earlier findings and led to the discovery of more than 1,400 artifacts, including a U.S. Army collar disk from York’s outfit, the 328th Infantry, Company G.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here