Nestled in the picturesque landscapes of Virginia, the charming town of Yorktown stands as a living testament to American history. Stepping onto its streets feels like stepping back in time, as this small town played a pivotal role in shaping the nation we know today. With its array of historical tourist attractions, Yorktown offers visitors a captivating journey through the pages of the past.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown immerses visitors in the sights, sounds, and stories of the Revolutionary War, while the historical buildings of old Yorktown provide a tangible connection to the town’s rich heritage.
You can visit the Thomas Nelson House, explore the hallowed grounds of the Yorktown Battlefield, witness the site of Cornwallis’s surrender at the Moore House, pay homage at the Yorktown Victory Monument, and reflect on the sacrifices made at the Yorktown National Cemetery.
Yorktown history facts
Yorktown, named after the old city of York in Northern England, was founded in 1691 as a port for exporting tobacco. Initially known as “York,” it became the county seat in 1696. By 1750, the town boasted around 250 to 300 buildings and nearly 2,000 residents. During the American Revolutionary War, Yorktown gained prominence as the site of the decisive 1781 siege led by General Charles Cornwallis. More details about this battle can be found in the next chapter.
Strategically located on the York River, Yorktown served as a vital transportation hub controlling access to the Chesapeake Bay. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged its excellent harbor in his Notes on the State of Virginia. However, after the capital was relocated to Richmond and tobacco depleted the soil, the population declined as development shifted elsewhere and younger generations migrated westward.
During the Civil War, Yorktown fell to Union forces in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign. It was utilized as a base for General George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac in their attack on Richmond.
In World War I, the federal government acquired a significant portion of land in 1918 for the development of Mine Depot, Yorktown, which later became Naval Weapons Station Yorktown. The area has since expanded, including the former town of Penniman, now known as Cheatham Annex.
In recent decades, York County has experienced rapid growth, with U.S. 17 becoming a heavily traveled route featuring numerous commercial areas and strip malls.
Yorktown’s historical significance as a colonial port, an important Revolutionary War site, and its subsequent military roles has shaped its identity as a cherished part of American history.
The battle of Yorktown (1781)
The Battle of Yorktown, also known as the siege of Yorktown, took place from September 28 to October 19, 1781, in Yorktown, Virginia. It was a crucial victory for the American Continental Army, led by General George Washington, along with support from French forces led by Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse.
The siege marked the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War in North America and resulted in the surrender of British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis and his army. This victory prompted the British government to seek negotiations to end the conflict.
The siege of Yorktown was preceded by the arrival of French troops in Rhode Island in 1780 to aid the American cause. Following dispatches from France, discussions arose between Washington and Rochambeau regarding the use of French naval support. Eventually, de Grasse sailed to the Chesapeake Bay, where Cornwallis had taken command.
The French and American armies coordinated their movements and engaged in deceptive tactics to mislead the British about their intentions. De Grasse’s naval blockade of Yorktown prevented reinforcements or escape by sea for Cornwallis.
On September 26, Washington gained command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals in Yorktown. The American and French forces surrounded the town, and Washington decided to bombard the British defenses. The next day, the American and French troops moved closer to Yorktown, with British gunners firing upon them. Cornwallis pulled back from his outer defenses, except for a few redoubts, and occupied the immediate surrounding area. The Americans and French took over the abandoned defenses and began preparing their artillery positions.
On September 30, the French attacked the British Fusilier’s redoubt on the west side of the town, but were repulsed. The allies discovered that the British had slaughtered hundreds of horses to preserve their food. Preparations for the parallel and the bombardment began. The British increased their fire to disrupt the allies’ efforts. Despite concerns from some of his officers, Washington continued to visit the front lines.
On the night of October 2, the British created a diversionary attack to cover the movement of their cavalry to Gloucester for a foraging party. The foraging party collided with the allied forces, and the British quickly retreated. By October 5, Washington was ready to open the first parallel, which was dug in stormy weather. The bombardment began on October 6, with Washington firing the first shot. The British defenses were torn apart, and the allies fired all night to prevent repairs. British ships were also damaged.
On October 10, the Americans destroyed a large house in Yorktown, thinking Cornwallis might be there. Then, the French began firing on the British ships, causing damage. On the night of October 11, the Americans dug a second parallel closer to the British lines.
On October 14, the allies began bombarding redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 to weaken them for the assault. Washington planned a surprise attack for the night of October 14, with the French launching a diversionary attack on the Fusiliers redoubt. The Americans stormed redoubt No. 10 and the French attacked redoubt No. 9. Both redoubts were captured, allowing the allies to shell the town from three directions.
On October 16, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the river, but a squall made it impossible. The allies intensified their bombardment on Yorktown. Cornwallis and his officers concluded their situation was hopeless.
The deteriorating British position led Cornwallis to request capitulation terms, and the surrender ceremony took place on October 19. The surrender of over 7,000 British soldiers marked a turning point in the war and led to negotiations between the United States and Great Britain, culminating in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
Today, the Yorktown battlegrounds are part of the Colonial National Historical Park, preserving and interpreting this significant chapter in American history.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a living history museum operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Originally known as the Yorktown Victory Center, it opened its doors in 1976. Situated adjacent to the Colonial National Historical Park, the museum offers direct access from the Colonial Parkway.
Its immersive environments, outdoor exhibits, interactive displays, and living history demonstrations vividly recreate the people, events, and ideas of the American Revolution. Upon visiting the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, visitors can expect a diverse range of exhibits and experiences.
Among the notable highlights are an immersive film experience that takes you on a journey through the Revolution, interactive exhibits delving into the lives of soldiers and civilians during the war, and a meticulously recreated Continental Army encampment that allows visitors to step into the shoes of a soldier.
The Continental Army Encampment Area provides an up-close look at the daily life of American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Within this recreated encampment, visitors can explore various types of tents, including those used by officers, enlisted men, and hospitals. Costumed interpreters explain the purpose and usage of each tent.
Additionally, demonstrations of military drills and maneuvers shed light on the tactics and strategies employed by the Continental Army. Visitors can observe costumed interpreters showcasing different formations and maneuvers, while also gaining insights into the challenges faced by soldiers.
The exhibit also features an array of weapons and equipment, such as muskets, bayonets, swords, and more. Costumed interpreters provide demonstrations on the use of these weapons and emphasize the importance of proper maintenance and care. Furthermore, visitors can learn about cooking and camp life, gaining a deeper understanding of the daily routines and difficulties faced by soldiers in the encampment.
The indoor museum houses nearly 500 artifacts displayed in chronological galleries. Its comprehensive exhibits offer an immersive experience that leaves no aspect untouched. The indoor exhibits primarily focus on the story of the American Revolution, spanning from its origins in the mid-1700s to the early years of the newly formed United States.
To commence their visit, visitors can watch the introductory film “Liberty Fever,” which screens every half hour. The museum also features a variety of exhibits that offer insights into different aspects of the American Revolution.
The British Empire and America Exhibit explores the geographic, demographic, cultural, and economic characteristics of America prior to the Revolution. It delves into Britain’s expansion of territorial holdings in North America after the war’s conclusion in 1763, which led to attempts to coerce the North American colonies into contributing to the war expenses.
Another exhibit, the Changing Relationship—Britain and North America, documents the escalation of tensions and deepening divisions between America’s colonies and Britain. Beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765 and concluding with the First Continental Congress of 1774, this exhibit sheds light on the historical milestones that shaped the path to revolution.
The American Revolution Exhibit focuses on the course of the Revolutionary War itself. Starting with the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and culminating in the decisive triumph at Yorktown in 1781, this exhibit offers a comprehensive exploration of the war’s progression. It also provides valuable information about the aftermath and its impact on the emerging United States.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown offers a comprehensive and engaging exploration of the American Revolution, providing visitors with a memorable and educational experience.
The historical buildings of old Yorktown
Yorktown’s historic district contains several 18th century homes, many of which are owned by the National Park Service, although Yorktown itself is not officially part of Colonial National Historical Park.
Prominent structures include the Georgian Manor-style Nelson House, built by Thomas Nelson Jr.’s grandfather, as well as the Dudley Digges house, the Customhouse, and the Sessions, Pate, and Somerwell houses along Main Street. Grace Church, the Smith and Ballard houses, and reconstructed buildings like the Swan Tavern also contribute to preserving Yorktown’s historical ambiance.
While the town’s appearance has changed since its role as a port city and the site of the 1781 Siege, it remains a nationally significant place where the United States of America secured its independence.
The Thomas Nelson House
The Nelson House in Yorktown holds historical significance as the residence of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a prominent figure in the American Revolution and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Built around 1730 by his grandfather, who established the Nelson family in Yorktown, the house served as a prosperous merchant’s residence. Thomas Nelson, Jr. inherited the family business and became one of Virginia’s most influential men during the revolution.
He held positions in the Continental Congress, the state legislature, and served as governor of Virginia. As a brigadier general, he commanded the Virginia militia during the Siege of Yorktown. Nelson’s sacrifices and exposure to the hardships of war affected his health, and he passed away six years after the revolution. The Nelson House remained in the family until 1908, with Thomas’s wife, Lucy, residing there for over 30 years after his death.
During the Civil War, the Nelson House functioned as a hospital for both Confederate and Union forces. In 1914, Captain and Mrs. George P. Blow acquired the house and transformed it into the centerpiece of their estate known as “York Hall.” The National Park Service acquired the property in 1968 and restored it to its original colonial appearance.
The Nelson House showcases early Georgian architecture, characterized by its simple, balanced design, and elements influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. The majority of the house, including the bricks and mortar, remains original. The interior features original wall panels and wooden floors, while the furnishings consist of reproductions and a few period pieces.
The Nelson House’s bricks, possibly transported from England aboard Nelson’s ships, display variations in color. The brighter, “rubbed” bricks were meticulously shaped by rubbing them together for straight edges, often used around windows, doors, and borders.
During the colonial period, several smaller outbuildings of Georgian design stood near the Nelson House, serving various functions such as kitchens, washhouses, poultry houses, and servants’ quarters. These outbuildings contributed to the self-sufficiency of the Nelson household.
Today, the Nelson House stands as a testament to the legacy of Thomas Nelson, Jr. and offers visitors a glimpse into the rich history of the American Revolution era.
The Yorktown Battlefield
The Colonial National Historical Park encompasses the Yorktown Battlefield, situated at the eastern end of the picturesque Colonial Parkway in York County. This battlefield provides visitors with a captivating experience.
The site features a visitor center equipped with exhibition areas, meticulously restored earthworks and fortifications, historic cannons, and notable landmarks such as the Moore House, where the negotiations for General Cornwallis’ surrender occurred.
When visiting the Yorktown Battlefield, start at the Visitor Center for essential information, including a free park brochure and the schedule of Ranger-guided tours and lectures. Don’t miss the short film about the battle and the captivating battlefield museum.
Exploring the battlefield itself is self-guided, but a vehicle is necessary (biking is not recommended). There are two tour roads—one covering the actual battlefield sites and the other passing through the area where the Allied armies camped during the conflict. You can enhance your experience with a CD Audio Tour, available for purchase at the Visitor Center.
Make sure to venture into Yorktown’s historic district, where original homes still stand alongside charming shops and restaurants along the York River. From mid-March to December, a complimentary trolley bus departs from the Visitor Center, stopping at various locations in town. Alternatively, you can enjoy a pleasant walk to downtown, which is only a mile away.
The Moore House
The Moore House, also situated within the Colonial National Historical Park, holds significant historical importance. Constructed around 1725 on Temple Farm, a 500-acre property encompassing a dam and grist mill, the house played a pivotal role during the American Revolutionary War as the site of negotiations for the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis at the Siege of Yorktown.
Originally part of the York Plantation granted to John Harvey, the Crown Governor of Virginia, in the 1630s, Lawrence Smith II later built the Moore House on Temple Farm. It remained within the family until financial difficulties led to its sale in 1754 to Augustine Moore, Smith’s brother-in-law. Augustine and his family sought refuge in Richmond during the Siege of Yorktown.
On October 17, 1781, General Cornwallis requested a cease-fire and chose the Moore House for surrender negotiations due to its neutral location and convenience. Representatives from Washington’s and Cornwallis’s forces met at the house the following day to negotiate the Articles of Capitulation. A rough draft was sent to Washington’s headquarters that night, where minor changes were made. The revised articles were then agreed upon and signed on October 19.
Ownership of the house passed to Hugh Nelson in 1797 after Augustine and his wife passed away. Over the years, the house changed hands multiple times and suffered significant damage during the 1862 Siege of Yorktown. Soldiers even pilfered its wood for fire fuel.
The house remained in a state of disrepair until the Battle of Yorktown Centennial Celebration in 1881, when restoration work commenced. The National Park Service undertook the restoration between 1931 and 1934, using historic photos as a reference. This restoration effort marked the National Park Service’s first project of its kind.
Today, the Moore House stands as a testament to the negotiations that shaped the outcome of the American Revolutionary War and offers visitors a glimpse into this pivotal moment in history.
The Yorktown Victory Monument
The Yorktown Victory Monument, located in the Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown, serves as a tribute to the triumph at Yorktown in 1781 and the alliance with France that led to the end of the American Revolution and the subsequent peace with England.
Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the monument was erected in 1884. Standing atop the monument was an original sculpture of Liberty created by John Quincy Adams Ward, which was unfortunately destroyed by lightning in 1942. It was later replaced in 1957 with a figure of Victory sculpted by Oskar J. W. Hansen.
The monument, standing at a height of 98 feet (30 m), follows a neoclassical design with a victory column made of Hallowell Maine granite. The base of the monument features inscriptions on all four sides. One inscription serves as a dedication to the victory, while another presents a succinct narrative of the Siege of Yorktown. The third inscription commemorates the alliance treaty with France, and the fourth tells of the resulting peace treaty with England. The pediments above the inscriptions display emblems representing nationality, war, the alliance, and peace.
The podium, seen as a symbol of the birth of freedom, showcases the sculpted figures of thirteen united female figures engaged in a solemn dance, symbolizing the unity of the thirteen colonies. Below their feet, an inscription reads, “One country, one constitution, one destiny.”
Ascending from the podium is the column, symbolizing the nation’s greatness and prosperity after a century of diverse experiences, with stars representing each state in the Union at the time of the monument’s design. Among the stars, the shield of Yorktown covers the branch of peace, serving as a reminder of the past.
Topping the shaft is the sculpture of “Liberty herself,” representing the existence of the nation as proof of the possibility of a government by the people and for the people.
Today, the Yorktown Victory Monument stands as a powerful symbol of the French and American victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, a historic event that led to American independence.
Yorktown National Cemetery
The Yorktown National Cemetery is located approximately 0.7 miles south of Yorktown, and is part of the Yorktown Battlefield. This cemetery is the resting place of over 2,000 Civil War soldiers, many of whom perished during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.
It holds historical significance as the site of the final major battle of the Revolutionary War, where British General Cornwallis surrendered to secure American independence. Managed by the National Park Service as part of Yorktown Battlefield within Colonial National Historical Park, it is one of 14 national cemeteries.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln sought to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. Major General George B. McClellan proposed a march up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe to Richmond, utilizing the secure base of operations at Fort Monroe and naval support from the James and York Rivers.
In April, McClellan laid siege to Yorktown, driving Confederate forces led by General James Longstreet up the peninsula. The Battle of Williamsburg followed, resulting in casualties for both sides but delaying the Union’s advance towards Richmond.
In 1866, Yorktown was chosen for a national cemetery due to its proximity to several Civil War battles. The cemetery holds 1,596 marked graves, with the remains of 2,204 soldiers, including 10 Confederates and at least 11 African American soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.
Some remains were relocated from Williamsburg and other nearby sites. The 2.7-acre cemetery is enclosed by a brick wall, featuring a main entrance with wrought iron gates, walkways dividing burial sections, and a circular reservation with artillery cannons.
The superintendent’s lodge, designed by U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, stands near the main entrance. Notable among those interred is Private William Scott, known as the “Sleeping Sentinel.” Found asleep on duty, he was sentenced to death but later pardoned by President Lincoln. Scott continued to serve before being killed in action at the Battle of Williamsburg.
Yorktown National Cemetery preserves the memory of those who fought and sacrificed during the Civil War, serving as a solemn reminder of the nation’s history and the struggles for freedom.