November 25, 2020

Time Capsule Found in North Carolina Confederate Monument

As North Carolina crew workers picked away at a 75-foot Confederate monument on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh — using a crane to lift it piece by piece — they found something else underneath.

As they removed the remainder of the monument’s base, they discovered a rusted metal time capsule that was buried beneath the cornerstone of the Confederate Soldiers Monument on Union Square in 1894.

More than 125 years later, archaeologists and conservators from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources cracked open the weathered capsule with a hammer and sorted through its muddy contents.

So far, excavators have found a wooden box, a stone allegedly from Gettysburg, two buttons and horsehair. But in that goop, a newspaper clipping from The Charlotte Democrat shows, there could be more.

A ceremony from May 1894 that laid the monument’s cornerstone listed other relics put in the time capsule under it, including a lock of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s hair, a coat button and rosebud believed to be from Lee’s coat, and a strand of hair possibly plucked from the tail of Lee’s horse Traveller.

The exact location of the capsule was unknown until crew workers found it. Gov. Roy Cooper had ordered that the monument be taken down to “protect public safety” as protesters around the country have toppled other Confederate monuments in the unrest after the killing of George Floyd.

Conservators are working to see if the items in the capsule can be recovered and preserved, Michele Walker, a department spokeswoman, said on Sunday. She did not know the time frame on authenticating the items.

The items found in Raleigh are valuable and somewhat unusual, historians said. But it is not rare to find these capsules in the first place. Last month, workers removing a Jefferson Davis statue from the Kentucky State Capitol found a bottle of Glenmore Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey with a note inside and a newspaper from the 1930s in its base.

ImageA wooden box from the time capsule.
Credit…North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Most capsules — not unlike the one in North Carolina — are filled with documents about a monument’s dedication and donors, old newspapers and printed speeches, said Sarah Beetham, a professor at the University of Delaware.

It is possible that some of the items could be phony, because relic gathering was popular in the 19th century, and the true origin of an object was sometimes questionable, said Hilary Green, an associate history professor at the University of Alabama. Other historians agreed.

“It would be easy to get buttons from that time period,” Professor Green said. “Now, whether or not those are Lee’s buttons, that would be a whole other story.”

What makes Raleigh’s capsule unique is the glorification of Lee, as if he were a saint, said Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of “The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.”

The capsule in the monument — placed more than two decades after Lee’s death — was meant to celebrate his cause in relation to white supremacy and to idolize him, Professor Domby said.

Monuments like these are about presenting a positive narrative about the Civil War from the viewpoint of Confederates, which can be historically inaccurate, he said.

“This is about memory, not history,” Professor Domby said.

The $22,000 cost of the statue — expensive in the late 1800s — shows the commitment to the cause, he said. Travelers could see its elaborate design from miles away.

Because many Confederate monuments were installed decades after the Civil War, these time capsules were put in to establish legitimacy for the monuments’ going up in the first place.

Erected during the heart of the Jim Crow era, the monuments were put in public places to scare off Black Americans, memorialize Confederate veterans and celebrate segregation, said Anne Bailey, a history professor at Binghamton University and a contributor to The New York Times’s 1619 Project.

“Tearing down Confederate statues is not about erasing history,” Professor Bailey said. “Their very presence erases the history of the victory of the North over the South.”