In the fall of 1781, just 14 miles from the current-day location of our Williamsburg bed and breakfast, the Battle of Yorktown decided the fate of the American Revolution, putting the final stamp on a fierce and years-long fight for independence from Britain. Today, the Yorktown Battlefield and surrounding history-rich land along the York River are within the boundaries of Colonial Historical National Park, with other points of interest like the Yorktown Monument right nearby. Whether you tour the area by car or on foot, it’s well worth taking a day trip during your stay to Yorktown, the very place where our nation’s freedom took root and flourished.
In addition to the little town of York, there are two museums, the Battlefields, and the Riverwalk Landing, to explore and enjoy.
After taking an easy and scenic 20-minute drive on the Colonial National Historical Parkway across the Virginia peninsula from our downtown Williamsburg location to the banks of the York River, start with a visit to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Their film Liberty Fever, which screens every 30 minutes daily, is the perfect introduction to the Yorktown Battle. It provides a detailed timeline of events throughout those three pivotal weeks of fighting in September and October 1781. You’ll see displays on the various uniforms worn and weapons used by different soldiers who fought for the American side – the fighting force included soldiers from the Continental Army alongside local militias and French troops – and displays explaining critical turning points leading to the eventual British surrender.
It’s also a “living history” museum, in the same spirit as Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement, so you’ll see women traditionally working textiles, soldiers firing off muskets and cannons, a period-accurate Continental Army tent, and costumed interpreters portraying life on a working Colonial-era farm as it would have looked and felt over 240 years ago.
If your plans include visiting the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, and the Yorktown Battlefield, purchase the Historic Triangle Ticket – it provides entrance to all locations for a discounted price over seven consecutive days. Another tip: National Park fee-free days are coming up on August 4th, September 23rd, and November 11th, 2023, when you can visit the Yorktown Battlefield area for free. Our insider tip: Park your car and use the free trolley for the day.
After getting Yorktown’s storied colonial history under your belt, grab lunch and enjoy the riverside views at the Water Street Grille along the Riverwalk Landing before going to the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center. Here, you’ll see even more fascinating exhibits like the command tent of George Washington – in addition to being a major in the Virginia Militia during his younger years, Washington served as the commander in chief of the Continental Army and led the successful and daring Battle of Yorktown, leading right into his service as our nation’s first president. You’ll also see dioramas of the brilliant tactics which led to the victory at Yorktown, including marching 9,000 troops south from New York City to join with other Continental Army and militia members already gathered on the peninsula, creating a force 19,000-strong and vastly outnumbering the 9,000 British troops. Park rangers give guided tours and explain why the Battle of Yorktown was a “siege,” as Commander Rochambeau and the French navy cut off the British ships’ supply lines in the Battle of the Capes, a critical factor in why the Continental Army prevailed.
After learning about the battlefield geography surrounding Yorktown, download the free Park Service self-guided driving tour app and drive through the Yorktown Battlefield historical sites. You’ll pass by the lines of trenches dug in by the Continental Army to surround and attack the British troops, who were under the purview of British commander Cornwallis, shooting non-stop cannon fire during the early weeks of October 1781. Be sure to pull over and walk through Redoubts #9 and #10, where Alexander Hamilton led surges on British troops, catching them by surprise and leading to their downfall just days later. Part of the driving tour is on “Surrender Road,” aptly named, as you’ll drive by the field where the beleaguered and defeated British troops waved white flags and surrendered on October 19th, 1781. Although those British soldiers are now mere ghosts on the battlefields of history, their surrendered artillery remains – you’ll get an up-close look at the brass guns, cannons, and mortars that made up their unsuccessful attempt to keep control of the soon-to-be-liberated thirteen colonies.
Finish your history-packed day trip with a visit to the Yorktown Monument, a towering marble structure celebrating the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Yorktown and their lasting legacy. Following the official end of the American Revolution in 1781, after six years of constant fighting, the Continental Congress declared that there should be a monument erected on the shores of the York River, forever enshrining the vital role of the Yorktown victory over the British in leading to our sovereignty as a nation. It took another century before being built in 1881, but it has since become a landmark, paying solemn respect to the importance of what took place here in the late 18th century.
Read the words etched into the marble base, which explain how the Battle of Yorktown played out, the resulting Treaty of Paris (which Benjamin Franklin and John Adams helped negotiate and split up the territory of North America between the United States, Spain, and Native Americans, while Britain kept control of Canada), and a memorial to the troops who lost their lives. The thirteen females along the top edge of the statue represent the thirteen colonies, all framed by the powerful quote: “One country, one constitution, one destiny.” For an extra memorable visit to the Yorktown Monument, plan to visit on a Saturday in August (8/5, 8/12, 8/19, or 8/26), when traditional fife and drum performances occur at 11 am.
As you walk from the monument through the historic area of the little town of York, look for the Nelson House, where cannonballs from the Battle of Yorktown are embedded in the brick.
Exploring Yorktown’s fascinating past while hearing a live fife and drum ensemble play is a fitting way to step back into history. Book your stay now at our Williamsburg bed and breakfast and take in all that Yorktown has to offer.