Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Yorktown Battlefield National Park, Yorktown, Virginia 2015

On our trip this past August to the Historic Triangle - Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown - we also revisited Yorktown Battlefield National Park - in Yorktown, Virginia. Yorktown is the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution. It was October 1781. The result of the American Victory with the help of the French was the surrender of British General Cornwallis and the British Army under his command. This surrender was so devastating that it convinced the British Parliament and King George III to end the war with American Independence.

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...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Historic Jamestowne - Jamestown, VA 2015

Let's leave the cold winter of 2016 and go back several months to a much warmer time and some nice memories of our Summer 2015 trip. One of the places that we went back to on this trip was Historic Jamestowne - the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia site of the original Jamestown site - the first English settlement in America in 1607.

This is a historic site and "attraction" that is always in transition. You can visit this week and next week there may be a discovery that will change history and it will be presented to those visiting as it is happening. Before this trip, I knew that there had been a new discovery that was doing just that. Historic Jamestowne is also known as Jamestown Rediscovery. Rediscovery because until 1994 no one really knew for sure what lay beneath the ground on this historic site and landmark. It was known that this was the site of the original settlement and the start of the colony. It was known that there was a fort built here, but it was believed that the ground that the fort stood on had been overtaken by the James River and sat somewhere close by off shore under the water. This is what you would be told when taking a tour - this is what I was told when I was a boy visiting with my parent's in the 1960's. They would point out into the James River and say that was where the fort was. They would walk you past monuments and a series of rolling hills that were the "Confederate Earthworks" - an earthen fort the Confederate soldiers built during the early part of the  Civil War to defend this area from Northern attack from the James River. I was always interested in history and always curious. I also have always had a sense of what is logical and I remember that my thought then was clearly this - if the original Jamestown Fort is supposed to be in the river but no one is really sure, then why has no one dug here - in the Confederate Earthworks that bordered the river - just to make sure that Jamestown was not underneath. I remember asking the guide/Park Ranger this and was told that the earthworks were just as much a part of history as Jamestown and no one would ever desecrate that historic landmark. Well, it seems that I was not the only one who had this thought, and before I got there, Dr. William Kelso came to the site in 1963 as a grad student and had the same idea. It took him until 1994 for the permissions to be had, the grants to be obtained and the digging to start - only to discover that I  - and Dr. Kelso - were correct. The whole thing is under where so many had walked since 1607 and little by little - with some leaps and bounds - it is all being revealed.

If you have any interest in history at all this is really exciting. You can go to a museum or a historic site and look at things in a glass case and see an old structure and someone will tell you this or that happened here and this is what we found and this is exciting, but you are looking at the same things that so many others have looked at coming there. You will do that here too - BUT you may just be here on a day when an archaeologist is digging in just the right spot and will pull out of the dirt something that no one has seen for over 400 years until that moment when the person digging and you watching will see it for the first time since. Here is a video that will show you what I am talking about -

 This is why we keep going back. The last time that we were at Historic Jamestowne we also got to experience another first - a significant earthquake. There were no earthquakes this time but I did have a new experience that I will tell you about later on. I also got to use my National Park Service Senior Pass for the first time - and I knew ahead of time that I would not get to go in free since the NPS is joint here with Preservation Virginia and they do not accept the pass for any discount - but we did only pay $5 each rather than the usual admission price of $14.00 each which was OK by me!

There is RV parking here at Historic Jamestowne that will accommodate large RVs. Because the Roadtrek can often fit in a regular single car parking space and the spaces here are all up against a low curb with grass behind, we just parked the Roadtrek in a regular parking space. If you come in a larger RV or trailer just follow the signs to the RV parking lot and you will have no problem parking.

There is a museum in the Visitor's Center building that has been in existence since before Jamestown Rediscovery and that has some interesting artifacts - though none to the original settlement. There is also an introductory film presentation that is very well done and should be seen before heading outside. There are also tours and programs that are scheduled throughout the day. These include tours guided by Park Rangers and also first person living history programs where you will encounter specific people of the past who were there.

The new discovery that I wanted to see was outside but we watched the film, saw a living history presentation (that related to this new discovery),  and joined a tour before we headed along on our own.  A recent focus has been on the original church (Church of England or Anglican Church) of 1608. The church that most are familiar with at Jamestown is a later church building which a good section of which had remained standing through the years (the large brick building seen in one of the photos below). The Church of 1608 is long gone but with the discovery of the fort and locating where things were, the location of the church has been known. In 2015, four graves were found on the location of the church - four of Jamestown's founders - and with one of them was found a little silver box.

As you can see in the photo above - taken of a sign at the site, the skeletons of the four men were uncovered (they remain there still) and on the left of the photo you can see a picture of the silver box.

What is the big deal about a small silver box when there have been so many things dug up here at Historic Jamestowne? The box is identified as a "Reliquary" - a container of Holy Relics. It cannot be opened without damaging it but it has been examined with high technology to see what is inside. There are seven pieces of bone, two fragments of lead ampulla which is a small flat flask to hold holy water or sacred blood. So what? This is something only a Catholic would have. So what? Catholics are not accepted in England at this period of time - since Henry the Eighth broke England away from the Catholic Church and the Pope declared the King and Great Britain his enemy and Britain returned the sentiment. Catholics were called Papists (the followers of the Pope) and they were not tolerated in England. So what is a Catholic Reliquary doing in the grave of a founder of Jamestown? It has been felt over time that there may have been one or more Spanish spies in Jamestown. The Spanish were the enemy - not just because they were Catholics but for many reasons of the time. Could this noted figure of the colony be one of them? No one knows for sure. Perhaps someday more evidence will surface about why this was in this grave, but this was a major discovery - and is noted for 2015 as one of the Top Ten archaeology discoveries in the world for 2015. This is not the first time that a discovery at Historic Jamestowne has achieved this honor.  To historians this really is a big deal.

There have been other discoveries as well in this past year - not quite so monumental as the silver box but of interest. A cellar kitchen has been unearthed which was part of the bread bakery for the settlement. There were two bake ovens found in the walls of what was the cellar to an above ground building. Below you can see one of them.

The beginning of the colony was very difficult and there came a period that is called "The Starving Time". In this cellar were found bones that had been butchered for food - and proving what has been long suspected, the some of the colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive as there were human bones among these including several parts of the young woman pictured at the left of the photo above - named now as "Jane". You can see Jane in the exceptional museum of many of the artifacts that have been brought up at Historic Jamestowne - thanks to Preservation Virginia and Jamestown Rediscovery.

My other first on this visit was to experience 3D goggles as part of a hands on exhibit area in a shed located between the fort site and the Preservation Virginia museum. This is only open select hours and it has a number of things that you can see up close and touch. The 3D goggles contained the bake oven cellar site and by putting them on you could move around the archaeological dig - walk through it, turn and see around it - reach out and feel that you could perhaps touch it (which, of course you can't and won't until someone finally invents the holodeck). This blew me away. With all of the history around me, I was so impresses with this 21st Century high tech device. We would have easily passed up this little education shed - we usually do figuring that they are intended for children, but I am so happy that I decide to go and take a look inside this one!

Meryl got to see something that she was looking forward to seeing also. I have mentioned before that Meryl researches and is becoming quite an authority on historic embroidery - focusing on the 17th through 19th Centuries. There was a reenactment this past year of Pocahontas's wedding to John Rolfe. A number of embroiders volunteered to recreate the wedding clothing worn by Pocahontas and this was on exhibit in (of all places) the gift shop at the Preservation Virginia museum. Meryl got to see it up close - she did not participate in its creation but she had followed it along as it was discussed in progress.

The embroidery is on her shift and cap. This was worn by the woman portraying Pocahontas at the reenactment of the wedding four hundred years after the actual event.

We always have a good time here. I highly recommend this as a must see. America started here - not in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 but in Virginia at Jamestown in 1607.  Historic Jamestowne is not to be missed.