Driving Through Virginia, Part III

The Colonial Parkway connects Jamestowne and WIlliamsburg with the third leg of Virginia’s HIstoric Triangle-Yorktown.  The colonial period of history had its beginning at Jamestown, its maturity at Williamsburg, and approached its end at Yorktown.

The Colonial Parkway leaves Williamsburg and passes between the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown and Naval Supply Center on the York River on its way to Yorktown. Modern ships are supplied at these facilities, on the same waters where fleets maneuvered in Revolutionary times for control of Virginia.The Colonial Parkway limits commercial traffic and meanders through a more pastoral route, giving the visitor a view of the countryside more like that which the Colonials knew.  The feeling isn’t quite the same passing interstate signs for McChain burgers. . Another advantage of taking the Colonial Parkway is the opportunity to ‘pull off’ at several historic sites along the way and read about the settlers and events of local history.

1781 saw a small, poorly equipped American army under the Marquis de Lafayette sent to keep watch on a small British force commanded by Benedict Arnold, which had been raiding the countryside.   Lafayette used some of his own funds to help supply his force and keep it in the field, while avoiding a major battle. The British were reenforced by Gen. William Phillips, who took over command and moved to capture Richmond in late April.  Lafayette was able to move his army and block the British attempt to take the Virginia capital. Gen. Phillips died of fever in Petersburg, as a British army under Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis move from the Carolinas into Virginia to join the smaller British force.

Lord Cornwallis  planned to subdue Virginia and attract Loyalist to the British cause. Lafayette’s force had been augmented by Pennsylvania Continental Line troops under Gen. Anthony Wayne and Virginia Militia under Baron Von Steuben. He was able to protect some supply depots from the British raids while avoiding a major engagement with the still superior army of Lord Cornwallis.  Cornwallis moved his army down the James River to Portsmouth, and then up to Yorktown and Gloucester Point across the York River from Yorktown. These positions were fortified, and could be supplied so long as the British fleet controlled the Chesapeake Bay area. 

The opportunity to trap Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown was recognized by both Washington and Lafayette.  When Lafayette sent a letter to Washington, stating he would like to see a combined French-American Allied Army under Washington move from New York to Virginia, he did not realize that Washington had already begun such a move.  A French fleet was also on its way, and if it could gain control of the area waters, the superior Allied Army could force Cornwallis to surrender. 

The Washington-Rochambeau Route is a national trial which follows the route of the combined Franco-American army from Rhode Island, through Connecticut,  New York, and the mid-Atlantic states to Virginia. The more than 600 mile trail is still under development, but the National Park Service has information on its current extent. Historic sites, landmarks, signage and museums offer information on the many contributions of civilians along the way,  helping to move and feed this large army. The trail offers miles of driving, hiking, biking, and even canoeing. 

The Wythe House in Williamsburg was George Washington’s headquarters in September, 1781, as he coordinated movements of troops and supplies for the campaign against Lord Cornwallis’ British army at nearby Yorktown. September 27, 1781 saw Washington give orders for the army to advance on Yorktown, barely 12 miles away.  Today’s visitors may see the rooms where Washington, his staff, and French allies met and planned their entrapment of the British. A very fortunate visitor may see a period interpreter portraying Washington leave the house, heading for Yorktown. Washington did not have the Colonial Parkway to travel on, so the modern traveller will arrive much quicker than the marching armies of the past. 

Yorktown is similar to Jamestown in that it has an attraction run by the state of Virginia, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (formerly Yorktown Victory Center) as well as the Yorktown Battlefield, a part of the National Park Service’s Colonial National Historic Park. Visitors should check ahead and consider combo tickets, which can save money at the various historic sites at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. 

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is located just off the Colonial Parkway on the edge of Yorktown.  It provides a good introduction to the Yorktown campaign and the lives of the people who lived it. A major renovation in 2017 makes this much more than a museum with thousands of artifacts and documents.

“Through comprehensive, immersive indoor exhibits and outdoor living history, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown offers a truly national perspective, conveying a sense of the transformational nature and epic scale of the Revolution and the richness and complexity of the country’s Revolutionary heritage.” 

Dioramas, living history, interactive exhibits, short films, podcasts, on-line resources, and an experiential theatre with wind, smoke and the thunder of canon are highlights of this modern museum. An American encampment allows interaction with historical interpreters. Check the calendar for current events and programs to better plan your visit. Learn the details of the historical events of the Yorktown campaign,  then visit the National Battlefield and see where those events took place.

The Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center is located at the end of the Colonial Parkway.  It is the best place to start your tour of the battlefield. Be sure to check the schedule of events to take advantage of programs, such as ranger led guided tours, or even costumed interpreters doing presentations on period life. The museum has many interesting exhibits, including George Washington’s campaign tents. A short film helps visitors understand the campaign and siege of Yorktown.  The museum shop sells reproduction colonial items, books, and an audio auto tour.

The French Grand Battery was part of the first Allied siege line, and was just Southwest of Yorktown.  The American Grand Battery was also part of the first Allied siege line, and was on the York River South of Yorktown. On Oct. 9, 1781, the French artillery opened fire on the Royal Welch Fusiliers Redoubt on the North side of Yorktown. Later that day Washington fired the first American artillery of the siege. Rochambeau’s experience in siege warfare in Europe was an advantage which helped the Allies during the siege. 

Oct.11, 1781 saw the Allies start their second parallel  siege line, which put their guns within 400 yards of the British. Only Redoubts 9 and 10 kept it from extending all the way to the York River.  A demonstration on Oct.14 against the Royal Welch Fusiliers Redoubt was part of the deception to draw Brithish attention away from Redoubts 9 and 10, where the French and American forces planned an attack.  Americans under Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette captured about 70 British in Redoubt 10, while the French under the Vicomte de Viomenil capture Redoubt 9 with about 120 British and Hessian soldiers.  Once these outer works were carried, the Allies second siege line could be complete, and the artillery brought up. The British inner defensive earthworks would not be able to long withstand the Allied bombardment. 

Redoubt 9 and part of Redoubt 10 have been reconstructed. They even have fraises, sharpened logs protruding outward against attack. (current ones are concrete reproductions) Part of the site of Redoubt 10 has been lost to erosion. The redoubts can be reached by 2 trails from the Park Visitors Center. (Visitor Center sits inside the British inner defense line.)

Moore House was the site where the terms of surrender were negotiated. Lawrence Smith ll built this house in the 1730’s on land called Temple Farm, which had previously been Governor John Harvey’s 1630’s York Plantation. In 1754, it  passed to Smith’s son, Robert, who was forced to sell it in 1760 due to financial straits. It was sold to his brother-in-law, Augustine Moore. Moore, apprenticed to William Nelson, eventually became a partner in the merchant firm, Thomas Nelson, Jr. & Co. He was prosperous not only in trade, but also as owner of successful plantations in the area.The Moore family probably fled to Richmond when the British moved into Yorktown.  On Oct. 17, 1781, the British proposed a cessation of hostilities to negotiate terms of a British surrender. Lord Cornwallis suggested the Moore house for a meeting of designated officers from the British, French and American armies to negotiate terms of surrender. The house was damaged during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and by 1881 was in need of repairs for the Centennial Celebration of the Allied victory at Yorktown. It was refurbished to house dignitaries at that time.  In one of its first such restorations, National Park Service brought it back to its colonial appearance in the 1930’s.

Just over a mile South of the British lines/ Park Visitors Center is the Surrender Field. Over  7,000 British soldiers and a few sailors marched down the road, between the French and American armies, to this field to lay down their arms.  Part of the road has been reconstructed to look as it did during the surrender. A pavilion has information on these events and a display of captured British cannon. 

Just South and West of the Surrender Field are several points of interest.  The American artillery park was where the limbers and powder were kept for the large artillery pieces.  Washington’s Headquarters was between the American and French camps. The French Cemetery is a site, marked by a white cross, where it is believed 50 unknown French soldiers lie buried.  Nearby is the site of the French artillery park, and beyond that, almost due West of Yorktown, was the French camp. The French Memorial is on the Colonial Parkway near the Royal Welch Fusiliers Redoubt. 

The Victory Monument was authorized by Congress when it received news of the American-French victory at Yorktown in 1781, but was not built until a century later.  Completed in 1885, the 98 foot high granite column is crowned with a figure of liberty, and the base tells of the victory of the Franco-American alliance over the British. 

The  Nelson House was built around 1730. Thomas Nelson, Jr. inherited a successful family business as well as this house.  He was a prominent Virginian, serving in the legislature, as governor and in the Continental Congress. He not only signed the Declaration of Independence, but found time to command the Virginia militia during the Siege of Yorktown. According to legend, he ordered artillery to fire on his house because Cornwallis was headquartered there.  The Georgian house still has much of the original flooring and brickwork. It has been suggested that the bricks may have been brought from the Severn Valley in England as ballast on Nelson’s ships. 

The Dudley Digges House dates to  1760. Diggs, an assemblyman, was captured in the British raid on Charlottesville in June, 1781.  He was held by the British till after the war, and then moved to Williamsburg because of the damage his house sustained during the siege.  The ghost of his first wife, Martha, is said to haunt the house.  

Cornwallis’ Cave, located on the York River in Yorktown, was probably not a place visited by the general.  A cavern made from stone quarry activities, it was reinforced and used in 1862 by Confederates to store ammunition. It is not a large cave, but is gated to keep visitors out because of the danger of falling rock.  

Grace Episcopal Church dates from 1697, and has survived wars and fire.  The cemetery is the final resting place of many prominent citizens of Yorktown, including Thomas Nelson, Jr. (signer of the Declaration of Independence), Nicholas Martiau (a French engineer, Father of Yorktown and ancestor of George Washington and Thomas Nelson), and “Scotch Tom” Nelson (merchant, farmer, and builder of the Nelson House).

Events in this area gave birth to a great hope of representative government.  That hope was dashed on the bayonets of a dark despotism, as an invading army passed through the same area on its way to Richmond in 1862. Many parts of the Yorktown Revolutionary Battlefield became the scene of hostilities between the North and the South.  The Confederate Warwick River Line of Gen. John B.Magruder was held by a much smaller force than the invading Union army of Gen. George B. McClellan. Through deceptive maneuvers Magruder made McClellan think he had a much larger army. McClellan stopped his advance on Richmond and made an attack on part of the Confederate line.  Magruder, who had received some reinforcements from Gen Joseph Johnston, was able to parry the attack, and McClellan dug in for a siege. By the time he had his siege guns in place, the Confederate army had slipped away toward Richmond.

Fifes and Drums of York Town  performs often at various events in the area, as well as across the state.  Check their website for their upcoming schedule, and catch a performance of this amazing group.  A concert can be a door to the past, and give visitors a sense of life in Revolutionary times.

The Riverwalk is a trail that starts at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, goes by the Royal Welch Fusiliers Redoubt, and follows the York River past restaurants, pubs, and downtown shopping.  The Yorktown Windmill is located along the Riverwalk. The project was conceived to reconstruct William Buckner’s Mill and develop an interpretive program that will “allow future generations to appreciate the imagination and ingenuity that characterized America’s Wooden Engineering Age.”

The Waterman’s Museum works to preserve the heritage and traditions of the Chesapeake Bay watermen with exhibits and displays of historical interest. It offers field trips, educational programs and summer camps in areas of nautical interest. They even offer classes on boatbuilding and refurbrushing.  The gift shop sells books and nautical souvenirs. A lucky visitor might see a ship to shore ‘cannon battle’ between a pirate camp at the museum and the schooners Serenity and Alliance. The schooners belong to Yorktown Sailing Charters. Local charters are a great way to get in some fishing or enjoy a sunset cruise.

Yorktown Beach, Victory Landing Park, and  Yorktown Fishing Pier, are located at the other end of town, close to  Cornwallis’ Cave and the Victory Monument. Near Grace Episcopal Church is York County Historical Museum, located in York Hall.  The museum is involved in archaeology, living history, and trail development among other activities. Exhibits and projects are meant to advance knowledge about the area’s rich history for future generations.

Gloucester Point (colonial Tyndall’s Point) lies across the York River from Yorktown. This area is near the end of the peninsula between the York and Rappahannock Rivers.  One of Christopher Newport’s mariners was Robert Tyndall, who drew a chart of the James and York Rivers, and gave his name to the point here. John Smith perpetuated the name on his charts.  Argoll Yeardley patented 4,000 acres here in 1640, and was one of the first settlers North of the York River. Tyndall’s Point was fortified with earthworks by 1667, and improved with brick in 1671, and named Fort James.  Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebels crossed here, and Bacon died in the area. 
Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas and  Col. Banastre Tarleton and their British troops were trapped at Gloucester Point by Virginia militia and French soldiers under the Marquis de Choisy. Cornwallis intended to cross his army to this point and breakout of the Allied trap.  A storm prevented this, and these British troops were surrendered with Yorktown. Confederates fortified the point in 1861, and Union troops occupied it in 1862. Tyndall’s Point Park celebrates this history. 

Driving through Virginia’s Historic Triangle gives visitors the sense that they are connected with the past, with the colonists and patriots who made history on these shores. Following their footsteps we can catch a glimpse of their world. We can wonder at their ability to dream of a better life in this land, a life of ordered liberty and representative government.  We have benefited richly from their vision. May we pass it on to future generations.

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