During the bleak winters in which colonial Americans struggled to overthrow England’s rule, soldiers in military encampments huddled against the cold to await the spring fighting season, struggling against other enemies: starvation and disease.
It was a time when Christmas and New Year’s Eve were subdued celebrations at best, with caroling, church services, and a holiday meal back on family farms, but little in the army camps to mark the turn of the year.
But what American soldiers during the Revolution lacked in comfort, they made up for in sheer grit. And that’s the quality on display at the Yorktown Victory Center, in Yorktown, Va., a living history museum and galley where you can learn from costumed interpreters how soldiers trained, ate, slept and were doctored during their eventual march to victory against the British at Yorktown in 1781.
The Yorktown center gives you a chance to enter into the war’s hardships – and the Continental Army’s ingenuity.
The center is the eastern point of Virginia’s “history triangle,” which includes Jamestown and Williamsburg, all within an hour’s drive of each other on the state’s Colonial Parkway. Yorktown, located a little more than five hours from Charlotte, gives visitors an intimate look at military and colonial life with far fewer crowds than Williamsburg – and a winter visit means guests can spend a longer, quieter time viewing displays.
One of the Yorktown Victory Center’s key takeaways: What the Americans managed to pull off in the Revolution years was at times nearly miraculous.
“You consider the Americans were not a professional army (and) they were fighting the greatest nation on Earth,” said James Holloway, Yorktown’s acting senior director for museum operations and education. “They struggled through these winters and yet they managed to eke through, hang together and become professional. They came to Yorktown and were able to trap (British General Charles) Cornwallis with the French and mount a successful siege and gain a huge victory.”
Camped against the York River, the British troops were surrounded by French and American soldiers, and a British relief fleet was blocked at sea by the French allies. Cornwallis attempted to escape across the river but was thwarted by bad weather. Trapped, Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans on Oct. 19, 1781. Today, the date is celebrated as the end of the Revolutionary War, but in reality, fighting continued for some time. Battles took place along the western frontier and in the Carolinas until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. But Yorktown was the last big battle, and later considered the decisive victory that won Americans their own nation.
Galleries and grounds
Galleries at the center tell the story through life-size cast figure “witnesses” to the history, who speak words excerpted from their writings; a film dramatizing the American troops as they surrounded the British; and maps, documents and artifacts from the beginnings of the Revolution to the three-week siege at Yorktown. Children may especially enjoy the outdoor living history areas, which depict a 1780s farm and a Yorktown military encampment. Costumed educators demonstrate musket firing, and audience members get to participate.
In the winter, smaller crowds mean guests will get personalized tours through the camp, viewing the small tents that formed the men’s quarters for much of the year, along with the circular 3-foot-wide trench that formed the camp kitchen. The trench walls were hollowed with small holes for building fires and cooking on top. One man from each tent or cabin would cook the food – usually boiled salt pork or beans – for his group. It was a safe, weatherproof way to cook, says Ruth Smith, a costumed educator at Yorktown who depicts one of the “camp followers,” women married to soldiers who lived on the outskirts of the camp and performed services such as cooking or laundering.
Smith often is stationed at the surgeon’s tent, where she shows the instruments and supplies the doctor – who served about 500 men – used to treat the sick and wounded. A visit to this station of camp is not for the weak of stomach.
“The close quarters, the lack of a germ theory (means) they are going to be plagued with all kinds of problems,” Smith said. “Diseases claimed more than battlefield injuries. Diarrhea and fever will be big killers. (The surgeon’s) medicine chest is going to be full of purges, things that would make you vomit, or have diarrhea or sweat. These men would already probably be weakened. If you have a strong constitution, you might survive the surgeon.”
Wood-and-leather splints were used to set bone breaks. But battlefield injuries like gut-shot wounds were usually too massive for the doctor to do anything, said Smith.
The Yorktown Victory Center, which is located near the Yorktown Battlefield and Visitor Center, run by the National Park Service, has begun what will be an ambitious expansion set for a 2016 completion. The renovated museum will be 88,000 square feet and will be renamed the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
The new museum will look at British America before the Revolution, the unrest developing after the French and Indian Wars, and then a detailed examination of the Revolutionary War, both on the battlefield and on the home front, Holloway said. “We’ll have a section on the development of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and how America begins to expand in the early 19th century.”
A new film on the siege at Yorktown will provide a multisensory experience, with seats that shake during cannon fire and the smell of gunpowder that wafts into the room. The museum is open throughout construction, which is being done in such a way that it doesn’t hinder the visitor’s experience.
Even before the expansion is complete, says Holloway, Yorktown is an ideal place to see the Revolution from the eyes of those who lived it. “I think one thing our interpreters do especially well is we do make history fun,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to come and experience the American Revolution.”
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