Untouched by Human Hands
Just a few miles from where the Gunpowder Incident took place lies a “plot” of land that carries with it a somewhat antithetical atmosphere to that of Williamsburg. The juxtaposition between Williamsburg and Yorktown is apparent the second one embarks on the rather short journey from one to the other; from the bustling, recreated town of the revolution to where one of the last major land battles of the revolution took place. A normal tourist, that is, someone looking to see something will not be happy here: they will undoubtedly ask, as I heard some grumble while I was there, ‘this is it?’
Although it’s part of the “Historic Triangle,” Yorktown has been left relatively untouched by recreations, monuments, and the trampled ground of constant reenactments in comparison to the other two points of the triangle, Williamsburg and Jamestown. I felt a different sense of peace while visiting Yorktown: my imagination “works” better when it is not amidst children whining about the bathroom or begging parents to buy them something. In my more cynical moments—in a bit of contrast to the last piece I wrote praising Williamsburg—I am angry that it has become a tourist trap akin to the Irish Hills of Michigan. Granted, it’s still history and there’s still some semblance of education and appreciation here, but, it seems, those who wish to preserve and carry on traditions here will always be fighting an uphill battle against nearby theme parks and beaches. Perhaps this is why seeing parents dress their children up in colonial costume keeps the low-burning fire alive in my heart and in my head.
But one will not see such sights at Yorktown.
The British forces were essentially backed up against the York River when they dug in at Yorktown—apparently the best option out of three potential “digging in” sights according to Cornwallis. Although the British had another fort across the river, French ships sailed the separating waters uncontested while a combined force of French and American ground troops lied in wait just north of the fort to prevent escape. Back across the river in Yorktown French and American troops moved in with little resistance and occupied the left and right flanks respectively. For some reason or another, Cornwallis ordered his troops in from the outer defenses: he may have thought his reinforcements from General Clinton were just around the corner, so the defense of the outer posts would have been needlessly bloody when a decisive victory was inevitable.
As you drive the road that winds through Yorktown, signs pop up every now and then explaining—as you look above the sign to see nothing but scenery—what part of the Siege of Yorktown happened there. One such sign said something like, “the area before you would have been filled with American tents from late September to mid October.” As I looked out over the sign, I imagined a sea of off-white cloth tents all hammered in the ground, yet still victim to the wind coming off the water. I imagined fires, the clanging of pots, songs being sung, and, in my more romantic moments, Washington himself walking through the lines of tents greeting his men.
Cannons boomed as French and American artillery opened fire on Cornwallis’ position. The superior French cannons rained hellfire on the measly British cannons that were chosen for their mobility rather than their firepower. Attempting to get closer to Cornwallis’ position, Washington ordered his troops to dig a parallel or trench. After successfully completing the task, Washington ordered a second parallel dug, but it soon had to be stopped because two British redoubts – a kind of small, fortified outpost – were hindering the finishing of the line. Thus came the now famous assaults on Redoubts 9 and 10.
Because I had just recently finished Ron Chernow’s monumental biography on Alexander Hamilton, I found walking toward where Redoubt #10 once was to be a surreal experience. This was the very spot where, after Washington finally granted Hamilton’s oft-asked-for military mission, Hamilton led troops to take the British position. As Chernow says with vivid verbiage,
After nightfall on October 14, the allies fired several consecutive shells in the air that brilliantly illuminated the sky. Hamilton and his men then rose from their trenches and raced with fixed bayonets toward redoubt ten, sprinting across a quarter-mile of landscape pocked and rutted from exploding shells.
This, it seems, was the glorious and romantic mission that Hamilton had always wanted. After incurring little loss as compared to the French storming of redoubt #9, Washington was able to move the allied artillery into new, even closer positions: positions that would ultimately demolish and demoralize the British into surrender.
Much like Gettysburg—perhaps without as much of the eerie feeling—Yorktown Battlefield is a solitary place. Barring a few deer and a couple of people taking pictures from their car windows, I was the only one actually wandering the battlefield. Landscaping projects have more of a strategy of containment rather than beautifying, so, whether it’s intentional or not, this brings another level of realism to my surrealism.
As I walked from redoubt to redoubt, the grass brushed against my shins as I imagine it did to the soldiers over two-hundred years ago. Near the end of my side-trip to Yorktown, I thought I heard faint cannon blast coming from where the French artillery would have been—I smirked to myself as I realized my imagination was taking the reins now. I had to leave if I didn’t want to be like the actor who, for a long period after a shoot, can’t help but stay in character. Even odder for me that I was acting like Alexander Hamilton.