Saving Survivors From the Field of Battle

By Linda Wheeler
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The field desk looked as if it had been cobbled together without much thought of making it attractive. It was strictly functional and probably would not draw much attention at an antique shop. But at the Harpers Ferry conservation lab for the National Park Service, it was treated as a treasured icon: It had belonged to Gen. Robert E. Lee and was most likely used at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Larry Bowers, who specializes in conserving wooden objects, was in charge of the desk.

"It is very modest and fairly crude, but it is what a soldier would have wanted in the field," Bowers said. "It is not high style. The coolest thing about it is that General Lee used it."

The worn and chipped black desk, with its interior pigeonholes for notes and writing paper, will ascend to star status next year when it is prominently displayed in the $103 million Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park, scheduled to open in April. The complex will also house the park's 365-foot cyclorama painting and its collection of more than 300,000 objects and artifacts and 700,000 documents.

The Gettysburg Foundation, a private, nonprofit educational organization, is raising the funds for the complex, in partnership with the Park Service. Foundation President Robert C. Wilburn said the museum galleries will be arranged so that a visitor sees the exhibits in the context of the war. The planned galleries include causes of the Civil War, approach to the war, the three days of battle and the Gettysburg Address.

"The objects will be displayed in the period in which the event occurred," Wilburn said. "At present, there is no context. Things are just grouped together. We are changing that to help the visitor."

Lee's battered, ink-stained desk will be in Gallery 5, the exhibit area themed "Campaign to Pennsylvania: Testing Whether That Nation Can Long Endure." The gallery names are taken from phrases Abraham Lincoln used in his famous address.

Bowers said that when conserving the desk and other objects, the plan is never to make them look new or even particularly tidy.

"The idea is to do as little as possible, to be as uninvasive as possible," he said.

Bowers is used to working with delicate old wood. In his spare time, he is a violin maker.

The desk had been in storage since 1971, when the Park Service purchased the building in Gettysburg -- now its museum -- and the contents of a private collection housed there. The desk was built in two pieces so it could travel easily in wagons. Bowers gently cleaned the desk, removing dead bugs and old nests but leaving the ink stains and chipped paint. He did a small repair to the leaf that folds out to create a writing surface. A hinge had pulled loose, damaging the wood where it had been screwed in.

He also removed all the metal pieces, cleaned them and coated them with hot microcrystalline wax, a synthetic material, that will keep them from tarnishing.

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