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Walking tour of Yorktown, VA
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Off the beaten path to visit historical Yorktown
After we left Fredericksburg we were heading south on Route 17 which is actually a George Washington memorial Highway. This is an amazing road. Not very busy, but going through some beautiful scenery.
Following highway on our way to Virginia Beach, we found ourselves on the Chesapeake bridge over the York river, and in front of this small town on the river shore. I just had to make that turn and see what this town was all about.
George Washington Memorial highway (Route 17)
Yorktown is close to Williamsburg and Hampton in the south. Heading towards south, immediately after crossing the bridge, turn right onto Mathews Street and follow down to the Water front Street. There is adequate nearby Parking – a parking terrace is within easy walking distance of the piers and River walk Landing. A Trolley shuttle is available daily during the summer, weekends in spring and fall and for special events.
George Washington Memorial highway (Route 17) - Chesapeake bridge
Chesapeake bridge over the York river
History & Culture
Yorktown was established by Virginia’s colonial government in 1691 to regulate trade and to collect taxes on both imports and exports for Great Britain. By the early 1700s, Yorktown had emerged as a major Virginia port and economic center. A well-developed waterfront boasted wharves, docks, storehouses and businesses. On the bluff above, stately homes lined Main Street, with taverns and other shops scattered throughout the town. Yorktown had 250 to 300 buildings and a population of almost 2,000 people at the height of its success around 1750.
The American Revolution had entered its seventh year when, in 1781, British general Lord Charles Cornwallis brought his army to Yorktown to establish a naval base. In the siege by American and French forces that followed, much of the town was destroyed.
On October 19, 1781, the decisive military campaign of the American Revolution culminated with the British surrender to combined American and French forces under the command of George Washington. The Siege of Yorktown effectively ended the six-year struggle of the Revolutionary War and set the stage for a new government and nation.
By the end of the Revolution, less than 70 buildings remained in Yorktown and the 1790 census recorded only 661 people in town. Yorktown never regained its economic prominence. A fire in 1814 destroyed the waterfront district as well as some homes and the courthouse on Main Street. Additional destruction came during the Civil War Siege of 1862 and the occupation by Union troops that followed.
Yorktown Victory Monument
Lady Victory is on top of a pedestal of Maine granite. It is located on the southeastern end of Main Street in Yorktown, Virginia. In 1956, the original figure of liberty, damaged by lightening, was replaced. The first picture is one that I took in 1964 when we lived in Norfolk. The other picture was taken at dusk in 2004.
The shaft is 84 feet high and Liberty is 14 feet high Construction began a century after the battle, and it was completed in 1884. There are informational signs which explain the importance of the battle.
Today, there are still some tangible reminders of Yorktown’s historic past that have survived, giving much of the town a colonial atmosphere. During the visit to Yorktown, stop at the Nelson House on Main Street, the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and commander of the Virginia Militia during the Siege of Yorktown. For hours of operation, see Yorktown Programs and Activities.
As we strolled the streets, we have had the opportunity to imagine Yorktown as it once was–a thriving tobacco port–that witnessed the last battle of the American Revolution.
Today the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution, chronicles America’s evolution from colonial status to nationhood through a unique blend of timeline, film, thematic exhibits and outdoor living history.
An open-air exhibit walkway details events that led to American colonies to declare independence from Britain.
Indoor exhibition galleries portray the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document that attracted international attention, recount the war’s impact on 10 ordinary men and women who left a record of their experiences, highlight the roles of different nationalities at the Siege of Yorktown, and explore the story of the Betsy and other British ships lost in the York River during the siege. Exhibits also describe how people from many different cultures shaped a new society and the development of a new government with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Outdoors, visitors can explore a re-created Continental Army encampment, where historical interpreters describe and depict daily life of American soldiers at the end of the war. A re-created 1780s farm, complete with a house, kitchen, tobacco barn, crop fields, and herb and vegetable garden, shows how many Americans lived during the Revolutionary era.
Immerse yourself in 300 years of Yorktown history. Here you can experience 18th century homes, revolutionary battlefields, a scenic riverfront beach, one-of-a-kind restaurants and lodging apart from city crowds. Park your car and stroll along picturesque streets or take the free trolley. Visit art galleries, antique stores and specialty shops. Experience the museums offering hands-on history programs and exhibits. Walk along the scenic Riverwalk and relax on the sandy beach at river’s edge. Enjoy sounds of The Fifes and Drums of York Town and live entertainment on the riverfront. After working up an appetite, dine at one of the charming restaurants, many with a view of the York River. Enjoy a sail on the York River during the day and as the sun goes down, enjoy a sunset sail on the Schooner Alliance.
Vera in Yorktown
In Spring 1862, The Confederate heavy artillery batteries on the bluffs of Yorktown, as well as those positioned along the waterfront on both sides of the York River, effectively blocked the US Navy’s attempt to bypass Magruder’s 2nd Peninsula Defensive line. The waterfront fortifications were built by Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula and Confederate naval personnel.
The earthworks on Yorktown’s inland perimeter were mostly constructed atop the British defenses from the 1781 siege. On the night of May 3-4, 1862, the Confederate Army abandoned the 2nd Defensive line. Gen. Joseph E Johnston, CSA, believed that the confederate positions could not withstand Maj. Gen George B McClellan’s USA elaborately prepared bombardment with heavy siege guns. The Confederate army was prevented from evacuating its heavy equipment and artillery via the York River because McClellan’s Siege Battery #1 comprised of 100-200 pound Parrot Siege cannon, had already bombarded the waterfront.
The Confederate evacuations suddenly converted Yorktown into a busy port supporting the Union advance on Richmond. Members of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery retrieved the ordinance from the siege batteries around the town, and troops assembled at Yorktown to be transported up river to the Federal base at White House on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River. As the Peninsula Campaign continued casualties from the battles around Richmond were transported to Yorktown which became a major hospital area.
Following the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Yorktown became a Union garrison and headquarters for a federally held district which includes Williamsburg and Gloucester Point. Its waterfront area was an active port for Union forces until the summer of 1864 when the Union army established a supply base at City Point on the James river during the Petersburg Campaign.
River Dine – savor dining at one-of-a-kind restaurants, many with a waterview or grab an ice cream cone and enjoy it as you stroll by the river or sit on the beach.
River View - enjoy a mile-long pedestrian walk along the York River from the Yorktown Battlefield to the Yorktown Victory Center. Like the water? Enjoy a sail on the Schooner Alliance or make your own fun on the beach.
Up the hill in the village are even more shops, galleries, museums and fine dining. Special events year round feature musical performances, artists, fresh local food, living history and fireworks.
Plan your visit to coincide with festivities to include: Market Days with plenty of local food and more for sale, Shaggin’ on the Riverwalk with beach music and Motown, and Rhythms on the Riverwalk with jazz and swing. Come back for July 4th and Yorktown Day (Oct. 19) for patriotic concerts, performances by the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown, plenty of food, and other entertainment. Holiday events include a lighted boat parade and visit from Santa.