The Yorktown Battlefield National Park is spread over miles. The Visitors Center at the edge of the historic area of Yorktown is the place to start any visit to Yorktown. While one may drive the public roads through the battlefield without charge, there is a fee to pay at the Visitors Center to be able to see the museum that is inside, see an introductory film about the battle, take Ranger tours, see special programs, and be able to go inside two of the historic homes one of which is on the battlefield and the other which is in the historic district of Yorktown. There is parking for RVs and my Roadtrek had no problem parking in the regular spaces in the Visitors Center parking lot. The admission fee at the time of this writing is $7 and this is good for seven days. If you have been to Historic Jamestowne before visiting Yorktown and have a current ticket your Jamestown NPS ticket gets you into Yorktown at no additional charge. If you visit Yorktown before visiting Jamestown, within the valid period your Yorktown ticket is good for half the price of the $14 Jamestown NPS admission (see our last article about Jamestown). The best thing is that if you have a National Park Service Senior Pass you get into Yorktown Battlefield NP for FREE! I have to admit that I had paid the Senior Pass discounted rate at Jamestown a few days before and because I wanted to get into something free with my Senior Pass I just went up to the cashier, showed my Senior Pass and Meryl and I both got our free tickets! We could have just shown our receipt from Jamestown but hey, I wanted to see my tax dollars directly giving me something back.
We started with the museum. In the museum you will go through the interior of a reproduction of a British Man of War battleship with cannon below deck, crew's quarters - hammocks hanging from the ceiling, and get a feel for what life was like in the cramped quarters of the ship. Exiting the ship, you will come to one of George Washington's marquee's and field tents.
The museum also has artifacts of the battle, weapons, and display boards that explain the two sides who fought here, the circumstances of the battle, and the importance of the result of this battle.
Do not leave the Visitors Center without seeing the introductory film. This is a complicated battle spread over miles. The French Army was an integral part of this battle and the outcome depended upon the French Fleet blocking the York River preventing the British Fleet from coming to the aid of their Army. If you do not know what happened in most of the areas in this battlefield, then when you take the self-guided driving tour (which is very easy to get lost in) all you will come away with is seeing vast fields of grass, mounds of earth, and trees. The film will give a fast review of the battle and the locations that you will see as you drive the battlefield. The National Park Service website for Yorktown Battlefield also gives a good review of what took place at the battle.
Before we went back to the Roadtrek to begin the tour we walked into the historic district of Yorktown which is adjacent to the Visitors Center by a short walk. You will first come to the Yorktown Monument.
Follow along from their down the street and you come into the historic district of homes and buildings that have been restored and were standing where you see them at the time of the battle in 1781. Only one of these is open to the public with your Yorktown Battlefield ticket.
The house that is open is the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Governor of Virginia at the time of the battle, and the commander of the Yorktown Militia in the Battle of Yorktown. The house was taken by the British and served through the battle as the headquarters of General Cornwallis, commander of the British Army. During the battle the large house was visible from many points and it is said that Nelson directed the American and French artillery to use his house as its aiming point. The result is still visible on the exterior walls of the house. The house is furnished inside as it was during the battle. As the battle went on the house was also used as a field hospital by the British.
There are special programs scheduled at different times - some several times a day. When we were there we lucked out and had an opportunity to see something that we had never seen or heard before - the firing of an 18th Century (reproduction as one would have to be crazy to fire an antique) 18 pounder siege gun (cannon). As an 18th century living historian in a reenacting unit with a cannon, I have fired a three pounder field cannon hundreds of times. A three pounder cannon fires a ball that weighs three pounds about the size of a tennis ball - and that is considered loud and can do a lot of damage. An 18 pounder siege cannon fires a ball that weighs 18 pounds about the size of a bowling ball. The ground shakes. Below is a photo - at the end of this article we will put that photo into motion...
After the cannon firing (twice) we headed back to the Roadtrek to head out into the battlefield. This was our last day in Virginia and we were heading north at the end of the day. We decided that we would drive to the key points of the battle which does take you through the entire battlefield.
With all of the fighting that took place at the Battle of Yorktown, the battle comes down to two places that have come down through history as key to the victory. These two locations are named Redoubt Number 9 and Redoubt Number 10. A redoubt is a mound of earth dug out in the middle to become a fortress. The exterior of the mound is lines with a series of well sharpened logs or pikes that stick out preventing anyone from getting into the fort. A siege is made on each of these redoubts on the night of October 14, 1781 at the same time. Redoubt No. 9 attacked by the French and Redoubt No. 10 attacked by the Americans. Here is Redoubt Number 9 -
The French are OUTSIDE
The inside of Redoubt Number 9 -
(The British are INSIDE.)
The French made it inside victorious.
Here is Redoubt Number 10. While you can get very close to Redoubt Number 9 and even walk a path over the top and into the middle, Redoubt Number 10 is now fenced off (to preserve it from further erosion) and you find yourself standing in front of a massive hill.
The Americans are OUTSIDE. The British are INSIDE.
The day after the two sieges British General Cornwallis wrote to British General Clinton: "My situation now become very critical;..."
From the two redoubts we went to the house in which the terms of surrender were discussed. The Moore House is along one of the roads through the battlefield. These are all public roads with public traffic and with many points were there is no clear marking as to where to turn. The Battlefield Visitor's Map included with your admission is vital to getting through the battlefield and not driving in circles. We were fine in the Roadtrek along the route. Very large Class A RVs or very long travel trailers may have a problem getting around on some of the smaller roads. There are small parking areas at each of the various sites - more significant sites have more parking. Before Cornwallis surrenders he hides in one of several caves in the hillside below Yorktown on the beach of the York River. You can visit this cave.
The Moore House was a family's home and the interior has been restored and furnished as it was during the battle and then for the surrender meeting. Each army involved met here to come to the terms of the surrender of the British fighting here against the Americans and the French. The surrender table is seen below -
Of course, in this age of gentlemen led armies, when there is a surrender it is a formal affair with the defeated marching through the victorious and then surrendering their weapons and themselves. This was held on a large open field - known today as The Surrender Field.
The field is too large to photograph as a whole - even from the brick pavilion seen in the photo on the top just off center to the left. The British marched between the two rows of fence - the American and French lining each side. Inside the pavilion you will hear an audio presentation of the surrender. It has been believed - though there is now some doubt - that the tune the British fifes and drums played as they marched here is a nursery rhyme tune called "The World Turned Upside Down". You hear this tune being played inside the pavilion as you look out onto the surrender field. You can walk from the pavilion along one side of the surrender field. Around the pavilion are cannons and mortars surrendered by the British in the surrender. (The blue green is the oxidation of the metal over time.)
We spent most of one day in Yorktown. Had we wanted to go through more of the battlefield we could have spent more time, but a lot of the battlefield stops on the visitor's map are the places that various regiments encamped and where troops were moved. So while we went to the highlights and did not drive all of the roads through the battlefield - and we did get lost at the end and were way out of our way in small neighborhood streets with no easy place to turn the Roadtrek around in to get back out to a main road - we really saw what we came to see at Yorktown. Check their website for special programs and scheduled Ranger tours. There is a new museum being built at a commercial attraction, The Yorktown Victory Center, and when this is completed - hopefully by summer 2016 but that is uncertain - that will be something to add to a visit to Yorktown - or warrant a second day's visit coming over from Williamsburg where the campground is that we stay in when we come to this area. From what I have read, this new museum will be something to see!
As promised above - we saw and heard an 18 pounder siege gun fired and you can see it too right here. Turning up your volume all the way will still not be the same as hearing and feeling this fired live...