Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Supporters rally to help museum acquire James Monroe document

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This Continental Army furlough, signed by Maj. James Monroe on Feb. 23, 1778, at Valley Forge,. Pa., is the earliest-known official document bearing the signature of the man who became the fifth U.S. president. Monroe, already a combat veteran, was 19 at the time. (JAMES MONROE MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL LIBRARY)



A talisman of the American Revolution just came home to roost.

The oldest known signature of James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president, has found a worthy home: the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg.

The museum has acquired a wartime furlough signed by then Maj. James Monroe on Feb. 23, 1778, at Valley Forge, Pa., as Gen. George Washington’s beleaguered Continental Army was hunkered down in the snow.

The furlough is believed to be the earliest known official document bearing Monroe’s signature.

Seriously wounded in the Battle of Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, Monroe was the last of the U.S. presidents to have served in the Revolutionary War.

Monroe issued the military pass to 2nd Lt. John Wallace Jr. of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment, an infantry unit in the division of Maj. Gen. William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling. Monroe, 19, was Stirling’s aide-de-camp.

Decades after the Revolutionary War, Wallace founded the town of Waynesburg, Pa.—known today as Waynesboro.

He named it for Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne, a patriot whose army’s June 1781 rendezvous in the Fredericksburg area with forces led by the Marquis de Lafayette helped set the stage for the Battle of Yorktown, three months later.

The stone foundations of Wallace’s home still stand in downtown Waynesboro, according to a nearby historical marker about him and the community’s creation.

Negotiations for the document, which had been in the hands of the same collector for decades, took several weeks, said Scott Harris, director of the James Monroe Museum.

Support from the 180-member Friends of the James Monroe Museum was crucial for the institution, which is administered by the University of Mary Washington, to be able to purchase the furlough from a nationally recognized documents dealer, he said Friday.

“Securing such a rare and interesting artifact as this furlough for the museum’s collection would be good news under any circumstances,” Harris said. “To do so with the help of so many supporters is especially gratifying.”

These organizations and individuals made donations specifically for the purpose of buying the document, the museum said: Paul M. Jones Revocable Trust; Stewart Jones Charitable Trust; Clan Munro Association, USA; Champe and Mary Randolph Corbin; Mary Alice Regier Hoes; Charles and Mary Wynn McDaniel; Rita M. Stone; and Judge Jere M.H. Willis Jr. and Barbara Willis.

Museum staff learned of the significant document late last year when the dealer was putting it on the market, and were confident of its authenticity.

Considering the opportunity “a very special case,” Harris reached out to members of the friends group for help in raising money toward the negotiated price of several thousand dollars.

Normally, the museum depends on donations to fund its exhibits, he said.

The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, a national historic landmark, is owned by the commonwealth of Virginia. Founded in 1927, it is the nation’s largest repository of artifacts and documents related to the fifth president of the United States.