The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The statue of Robert E. Lee is gone, but the mystery of the time capsule persists

Workers try to find the time capsule said to be in the base of the monument where the Robert E. Lee statue stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond on Sept. 9. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Robert E. Lee lost his lofty perch — but he's trying to hold on to his secrets.

Workers were stumped Thursday 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 two 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.

Robert E. Lee statue is removed in Richmond, ex-capital of Confederacy, after months of protests and legal resistance

Teams of stone specialists, art restorers, archaeologists and state officials began working around 7 a.m. Thursday to locate the relic, but by the time work ended about 12 hours later, they had had no luck.

State officials said they did not intend to continue the search on Friday.

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.

Workers removed Virginia’s biggest statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Sept. 8. (Video: AP)

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 mortar-filled hole containing the 14-by-14-by-8-inch copper time capsule.

Instead, they found a damp layer of rubble and dirt.

Virginia plans to replace time capsule in Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue

Workers began scraping, pounding and chiseling at the surface, looking for an opening.

Then they brought out a handheld 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.

Meanwhile, a stonemason carved a block out of one of the removed layers of granite to insert a new time capsule containing a diverse slate of artifacts representing today’s Virginia. First lady Pam Northam and several elected officials arrived to ceremonially present the stainless steel box containing 39 items representing the state’s diversity, from photographs of social justice rallies last summer to Native American artifacts and even an expired coronavirus vaccine vial.

The search for the old time capsule was delayed when the machinery used to lift the heavy blocks broke down.

A new machine — called a telehandler, kind of an extendible forklift — arrived in the early afternoon, and work resumed. But there was another problem: The stones around the estimated 8,000-pound cornerstone were overlapping, so workers had to peel away steps and other blocks to be able to lift it free.

Once those were gone, workers affixed anchors into the stone and tried to lift it, but the anchors popped out. Then began a lengthy process of removing the apron around the cornerstone to get at it from underneath.

After 4 p.m., workers began the slow job of lifting the stone, inch by inch. Nearly two hours later, with the stone propped up on stacks of wood, Mercer and lead contractor Devon Henry crouched to look under it with flashlights. Mercer stood and made the call to keep trying to get the stone out as long as the daylight lasted, but it had the air of a final desperate push.

“Based on what we can see under there we’re not hopeful,” Mercer said.

By 6:30 p.m., the stone had been hauled away and a state police metal detectorist swept the ground beneath. Nothing. He tried just outside the edge of the monument, in the grass, and caused a momentary rush of excitement by picking up a signal. It turned out to be a modern bottle cap.

Workers continued scraping and drilling into the substructure of the monument as darkness began to fall. Mercer called it a night just before 7:30 p.m. On Friday, he said, the effort would concentrate on putting the monument back together.

Dave Givens, who is director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery and had run some of the radar scans, praised state officials for making the effort. “They’re going for it. In a day and age when people are afraid to do stuff, this is cool,” he said.

Brumfield, on hand to watch the work, said he wasn’t completely surprised at the setback. “Historical records are sometimes not accurate,” he said.

But to come up empty, he confessed, was “discouraging . . . I don’t think all those [contemporary] newspapers were lying about it. It was a huge event. Why the secrecy? Why bury it? It doesn’t make any sense . . . The mystery continues.”

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