Yorktown Colonial National Historical Park

Location: Yorktown, Virginia

Webpage: National Park Service

General Description: After an arduous and costly southern campaign in North Carolina, General Charles Cornwallis moved his British 8300 men to Virginia with the belief that subduing Virginia would convince the Southern states to return to British allegiance.  In June, he received orders from Sir Henry Clinton, his superior officer in New York, to establish a naval base on the southern Chesapeake Bay and he chose the port of Yorktown.  In August he fortified the town and Gloucester Point across the York River.  Meanwhile, a large French fleet under Admiral Comte de Grass had sailed from the West Indies to blockade the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and General Washington began moving his forces from the siege of New York City, combining with French army under General Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau in Rhode Island.  This force of 17,000 men gathered at Williamsburg and marched to Yorktown on September 28.  A disastrous series of events for General Cornwallis began with the significant defeat of the British fleet sent from New York on September 5 by the French fleet in the Battle of the Capes leaving an effective blockade to the sea.  After a week of preparation General Washington, the Allied Army constructed the first siege line on October 6 and three days later commenced bombardment of the British positions just outside the town of Yorktown.  Being at the extreme range of the artillery, the Allied Army dug a zig-zag line to establish a second siege line at point blank range.  However, the eastern end of this line terminated at the York River at Redoubt 9 and 10 still manned by British forces.  Therefore on October 14 these Redoubts were captured at night beginning with Redoubt 10 by the Americans followed within 15 minutes by Redoubt 9 by the French.  The attacks were done with bayonets only, for two reasons.  First, to maintain the element of surprise from the main British forces and second, to encourage the soldiers to quickly enter the redoubts instead of taking time to fire and reload their muskets.  They completed the second siege line on October 17 and began a two day non-stop bombardment of the British at point blank range.  With the completion of the second siege line, the British were cut off from the land with the river to their backs.  Following a failed attempt to escape across the river due to a storm sinking nearly all of their boats, General Cornwallis asked for surrender terms on October 19, 1781.  Even though it was to be another two years before the Treaty of Paris, formal recognition of our independence from the British, this was the last and most significant battle of the Revolutionary War.  The NPS Visitor Center is located along the British lines and includes an excellent film about the battle, a full size exhibit of the field headquarters of General Washington, and a mock-up of a warship.  The battlefield is accessed by roads and the NPS has reconstructed both of the siege lines and Redoubts 9 and 10.  The driving tour includes the Moore House which was the location where leaders met to discuss the terms of surrender.  An extended drive which includes the preparation area, the headquarters of the American and French forces, and the remains of an undisturbed redoubt are also accessible.  The National Park also includes the town of Yorktown that includes a number of historic buildings.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) I would recommend the purchase of the CD for the driving tour.  It is very well done including explanation and commentary by an American and British officer which provides different perspectives on the battle.  The CD does not include the extension of the driving tour into the staging and headquarter areas.

2) Even though the earthworks along the British line and both siege lines dug by the Allied Army look a lot different than during the battle (I am certain the actual earthworks did not have grass growing on them), they provided excellent visual references to the distances involved.  The Allied Army had both light field artillery, as well as, siege artillery provided by the French fleet.  This included cannons, howitzers, and fat squat mortars. There was a description at one of the stops about the firing strategies of each type of cannon.  While the mortar would lob exploding shells, the howitzers were used to literately bounce solid cannon balls.  This increased the likelihood of doing damage to the enemy earthworks.

BritishBreastwork SiegeLine

3) Redoubts 9 and 10 have also been reconstructed showing the horizontal spikes built into the walls to slow down any attack of the positions. Only part of Redoubt 10 still exists as much of it has fallen into the York River.

Redoubt10

4) Always take advantage of any chance to talk with Park Rangers or Volunteers, as they add significantly to the experience.  The NPS Volunteer at the Moore House is a good example.  Along with information about the house itself and changes made over the years, he also provided a very informative perspective on the motivations of the English, American, and especially the French forces. He asked a good question about what the French hoped to gain from their assistance in the war, except for another opportunity to fight the English.  Part of their motivation was the understanding that a new America would support their attempts to secure Canada for the French, which never happened in any significant way.

MooreHouse

5) The Surrender Field has been beautifully maintained including a very nice pavilion, an audio talk, and an impressive display of some of the captured British artillery pieces.  It was interesting to see that each of the pieces was engraved with how it was captured at the Battle of Yorktown.  I am not sure why they would do this since they are still quite functional, although I don’t know if they were ever used by the Americans.

CapturedCannon SurrenderEngraving

6) The extended drive through the Allied Army preparation area and headquarters is a nice drive through the woods, there is not much to see.  The untouched redoubt at the end of this drive was fascinating as it is still quite visible even if there are large trees growing up in it now.  It has also largely filled in over the years.

UndisturbedRedoubt

7) We did not have time to visit the actual town of Yorktown, which is supposed to include quite a few homes and shops from the time period, and the Yorktown Victory Monument.  From what I can tell it would be worth visiting.

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