Yorktown museum puts Revolution in context
The end that led to our beginning
Anyone who paid attention in school can probably recall at least a few names, places and maybe a date from the Revolutionary War: George Washington, Lexington, Valley Forge, the Declaration of Independence, 1776. Now, a newly enhanced museum at Yorktown, VA, the site of the final battle in that founding conflict, offers Americans a fresh look at the nation’s complicated — some might say messy — beginning and how it has reverberated through the centuries.
In the summer of 1781, the American Revolution was in its seventh year – and in trouble. The British held New York City, while another British army under General Lord Cornwallis rampaged through the South. Washington’s Continental Army outside New York was plagued by desertion and mutiny.
Then Cornwallis made what proved to be a fateful move. He marched his force to Yorktown to set up a naval base on the York River, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Upon learning that a French fleet had set sail for the Chesapeake to cut off reinforcement or escape for Cornwallis, American and French troops snuck away from New York and began marching south to spring a trap on the British along the York River.
There, after nine days of round-the-clock bombardment, the loss of key defensive positions and a failed attempt to escape across the river, Cornwallis surrendered his entire 8,300-man army. The stunning American victory sapped British resolve to continue the war and led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which granted the colonies their independence.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, at the edge of the sprawling battlefield, aims to give visitors more than a rote recitation of the decisive siege. Through films, interactive displays and living history demonstrations — as well as period artifacts — the museum aspires to put the entire revolution in context. It also leavens the serious business of learning history with some fun for young and old alike, including booming cannons, role-playing and hands-on experiences.
The museum, on a bluff overlooking the river, opened in 2015, replacing a much smaller Yorktown Victory Center that had welcomed visitors since 1976. Grand opening ceremonies in the spring of this year marked the completion of its permanent indoor exhibits, about a quarter larger than the earlier facility, and outdoor mockups of a Continental Army encampment and a Revolutionary era farm.
Visitors to the 80,000-square-foot brick building begin their tour by viewing a 20-minute film, Liberty Fever, which introduces story lines and themes found throughout the museum. The movie opens with an early 19th-century storyteller using a “crankie” — a popular entertainment of the time displaying backlit, silhouetted figures in motion — to celebrate those who fought for independence.
That moving panorama gives way to live-action film clips portraying five participants in the Revolution. One features Billy Flora, a free black man who fought with white militiamen to drive the British from Virginia in 1775. Another depicts Isabella Ferguson, an Irish immigrant who told her husband not to come back if he left home to fight with the British. Yet another recalls Peter Harris, a Catawba Indian who fought with the rebels.
Those stories are typical of the museum’s focus as it seeks to explain what motivated people from all walks of life to choose sides in a life-or-death struggle. There are portraits and busts of King George III and Washington, of course, and other prominent figures. But the museum also features an interactive exhibit telling the stories of 20 different “real people,” with actors in period garb offering their characters’ perspectives on the Revolution.
“Why does the guy on his farm who is doing OK with his wife and two kids decide to take a gun and fight for a strange thing called freedom and liberty?” asked Peter Armstrong, senior director of operations and education for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the state entity that runs the museum. The facility’s staff, Armstrong said, “really wanted to tell the story of those individuals, as much as we tell the story of the Washingtons.”
The museum walks visitors through five galleries. The first two depict what the American colonies were like before the Revolution, and how and why tensions arose with Britain. A third traces the war from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown, while giving a sense of what life was like on the home front. The star attraction here is the nine-minute “4-D” film on a 180-degree screen that recaps the siege of Yorktown, complete with seats that vibrate to the boom of cannons, the smell and sight of “smoke” wafting up from the floor and wind that ruffles your hair.
The final two galleries recall the struggle to forge a stable government that led to the Constitution, and the impacts here and elsewhere in the world of the political and social changes unleashed by the war.
The museum boasts about 500 artifacts, including a broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed in July 1776. There is an assortment of muskets and pistols, swords, hatchets and even a shiny, well-preserved flintlock long rifle, on loan from the British royal collection. Other items depict civilian life and culture, including silver teaspoons inscribed with symbols of liberty.
I lingered over a display focused on Benjamin Banneker, a free African American who became renowned in the late 18th century as a scientist and writer. Banneker’s farm site, about a mile from my home in Catonsville, MD, has been preserved as a Baltimore County park. The artifacts at the Yorktown museum did not come from Banneker’s farm, but curators said they matched fragments archaeologists recovered there. (See the 2015 Bay Journal article, Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer, surveyor, agriculturalist.)
There’s plenty of 21st-century technology and touchable objects deployed in the galleries along with the text and relics. Interactive maps detail the demographics of the colonies before the Revolution and afterward. Another map offers information about all of the battles in the six-year war, including a “battle game” for those who want to test their tactical skills. There’s even a mobile app that offers visitors four customized tours — one each from the perspectives of patriots and loyalists, and two others focused on women and children.
One interactive display uses questions and answers to explore how the Constitution and Bill of Rights relate to modern issues. One of those exchanges, at least, seemed a little simplistic, recalling how Congress decreed a nationwide speed limit of 55 miles per hour in 1973, only to repeal it in 1995 to affirm the right of the states to set their own speed limits. The explanation failed to provide any context, though, about how the nation was struggling in the 1970s with gasoline shortages or that sticking to 55 mph saves lives as well as fuel.
Such quibbles aside, the museum encourages its visitors to connect with those who lived through the Revolutionary era and to consider the legacy of the ideas for which the war was fought.
The victory at Yorktown, Armstrong said, was not just the end of the American Revolution — it was the beginning of a political, civic and social evolution that continues today.
“It’s the start of a nation called America,” Armstrong said. “And we want people to understand that that’s an ongoing thing.”
On a large field outside the museum, visitors can get a taste of what life was like in the Continental Army at a re-created military encampment that was enlarged this year. They can stroll among the soldiers’ tents and officers’ quarters, and see demonstrations of musketry and medical practices of the era. There are opportunities to “enlist” and engage in close-order drills and to participate in the preparation of a cannon for firing.
The museum grounds also include a mockup of a farm based on a 200-acre spread actually worked by a family of six at the time. Visitors can step inside the tiny farmhouse, watch food being prepared in a nearby freestanding kitchen and learn about growing tobacco. There’s also an even tinier cabin representing typical living quarters for slaves.
The Yorktown facility, built with $50 million in state funding, held its coming-out party just before the debut of another, larger museum in Philadelphia dedicated to telling much of the same story. The $120 million Museum of the American Revolution, built with mostly private and some state funding, stands just a street away from Independence Hall, site of the Liberty Bell and the drafting of the Declaration. Its 3,000-artifact collection is bigger, with its signature piece: the preserved tent that George Washington slept in while in the field with the Continental Army.
Those in charge of the Virginia museum say they don’t feel upstaged by the better-heeled northern newcomer.
“I don’t see them as competition at all,” said Homer Lanier, who oversees the living history programs at the Yorktown museum and at the nearby Jamestown Settlement, a state-run re-creation of the first permanent English colony in North America. “I see them both as telling a pretty amazing story.” (See the 2014 Bay Journal article, Two tales of one city.)
Nor does the museum see itself as a substitute for exploring the Yorktown Battlefield, which is run by the National Park Service and draws 150,000–200,000 visitors annually. The Yorktown Battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the English settlement. There’s a visitor center at the battlefield a few minutes’ drive from the state-run museum, with a battlefield map, various displays and artifacts, and a film giving the basics of what happened there.
Outside, visitors can take ranger-guided walking tours of the siege line, where some of the original earthworks remain and some are being restored. They can witness artillery demonstration and stroll through the historic village that adjoins the battlefield. The park service has also put together a pair of driving tours that together cover 16 miles of roads connecting points of interest on the sprawling landscape along the York River
“This was one of the most influential battles in world history,” said Ranger Linda Williams, who has been regaling visitors to the battlefield for almost a decade. As she points out, the victory at Yorktown depended on an equally important victory at sea, where the French fleet blockading the Chesapeake drove off a British fleet in the Battle of the Capes.
“In 1776, America declared its independence,” Williams said. “But it was not until October 19, 1781, that America won its independence.”
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, VA, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until Aug. 16 and until 6 p.m. the remainder of the year. It’s closed only on New Year’s Day and Christmas. Admission is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 6–12. Discounts are available for groups of at least 15.
The Yorktown Battlefield visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The grounds of the battlefield are open until sunset. It’s closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $7 for visitors age 16 or older and free for those younger. Entrance is free for everyone during 10 days throughout the year. Check for dates at nps.gov/york/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm.