Children pretending to fire cannon

Make Your Own History in Yorktown!

Yorktown’s chapter in American history is a significant one. After Lord Cornwallis’ defeat, the British Army surrendered to General George Washington on ground appropriately known today as Surrender Field. The day was October 19, 1781, and it was a victory that effectively ended the American Revolution.

What caused Cornwallis to dig in for a siege in Yorktown? How was Washington able to move his massive troops so quickly to Yorktown? How did the French fleet know to move to its critical location at just the right moment?

Riverwalk Statues overlooking the Freight Shed
A visit to Yorktown's many historic sites will answer some of those questions and inspire even more questions along the way. It's the culmination of the stories of Washington, Cornwallis, Lafayette, De Grasse, and the thousands of soldiers and sailors of the American, British, and French nations that make up the collective story of Yorktown.
Colonial hat hung on a tent post at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

One of your first stops when you visit, to learn more about our nation's story, should definitely be The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The Museum features exciting indoor galleries with period artifacts and immersive environments and films. Don't miss “The Siege of Yorktown." It's shown on a 180-degree surround screen complete with dramatic special effects like smoke and vibrations from the cannon and musket fire.

Social Distancing at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

In the outdoor areas, you'll find a re-created Continental Army encampment to learn about the life of a soldier and to take in daily demonstrations of medical treatment; camp life and cooking; and firings of musket and artillery. Explore a Revolution-era farm, based on a real-life 18th-century family, where you can help with chores related to the house, kitchen, tobacco barn, gardens, and crops.

Museum admission is free to all York County, James City County, and Williamsburg residents!

If you're craving to learn more about the county's history, visit the York County Historical Museum. View artifacts from Yorktown's past including Native American tools, colonial Yorktown, Revolutionary and Civil War, and 20th Century exhibits of the USS Yorktown, the Naval Weapons Station, and more. The museum, located in the lower level of York Hall at 301 Main Street, is open 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in January, February and March.  In April, the museum extends its hours to 10 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-3:15 p.m. on Sunday. 

Another site worth seeing is the Custom House, a prominent structure on Main Street during the Civil War. The House showcases historical artifacts, drawings of activities during the 1860s, and more. Schedule a tour by calling 757.890.4490.

Yorktown Battlefield at sunrise

The Colonial National Historical Park's Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the theater is closed, but exhibits and gift shop are currently open. From there, you're welcome to drive and bike through Yorktown Battlefield, the site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War! And we have the inside scoop about how you can even receive exclusive access to the inside of some of the historic buildings that are currently closed to the general public. Just book a ticket for a "Take a Stroll with a Historian Tour" offered through Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters.

Screen grab of the new Yorktown Tour Guide Mobile App

There's also quite a bit of knowledge - available literally, at your fingertips. Make sure you download the FREE mobile app, Yorktown Tour Guide before your visit. The GPS-enabled app takes you on three distinct tours (two driving and one walking) of Historic Yorktown, the Battlefield, and the Allied Encampment. There are 21 stops in all, each with audio interpretation. It's like having your own personal tour guide! The app is available through the App Store and Google Play. You can also check out their web version. This resource is a collaborative effort between the American Battlefield Trust and the National Park Service.

Exterior view of Cornwallis Cave

Down on Water Street sits a Yorktown mystery. Well, sort of. Legend has it that Cornwallis Cave (hidden across from the bustling beach) is where the British General retreated to avoid bombardment during the Battle of Yorktown. The National Park Service has long since claimed research shows otherwise. In fact, they've posted a video to their Facebook page to explain.

In reality, the cave dates back to before the Revolution, and was likely used for potato storage during colonial times and later for storage of Confederate munitions during the American Civil War. Large, visible recesses were cut into the front wall by Confederate forces to install support beams for a plank roof and walls that were then covered with earth to protect the munitions from Union warships offshore. 

The gated cave has since fallen into disrepair as a result of the natural processes of weathering and erosion. The possibility of stone falling inside is one of the reasons it is blocked off to the public, but you can still drive or walk by its location on Water Street beside the Archer Cottage.

Victory Monument on Historic Main Street shot by Alexander's Photography

Up on Historic Main Street sits the Yorktown Victory Monument. On October 24, 1781 (five days after Cornwallis' defeat in Yorktown), news finally reached Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. And on October 29, The United States in Congress directed a memorial would be built in Virginia. It was to be a marble column, adorned with emblems of the alliance between the United States and his Most Christian Majesty. It would also include a narrative outlining the British surrender to General Washington, and acknowledge the combined forces of both America and France in securing victory.

It wouldn’t be until October 18, 1881 (almost 100 years to the day) that the cornerstone of the monument would finally be laid in anticipation of the town’s Centennial Celebration. The statue is now a pivotal landmark and a must-see for everyone who comes to visit.

The above photo was taken by Alexander’s Photography and is featured on one of his many postcards available for purchase at Patriot Tours & Provisions, the Watermen’s Museum Gift Shop, and the Gallery at York Hall.

Watermen's Museum picture of exterior sign

Just upriver from the Riverwalk Landing shops and restaurants sits the Watermen’s Museum. Their mission is to demonstrate the role Chesapeake Bay Watermen, from pre-colonial to modern times, played in the shaping of our nation. The Museum includes historical exhibits depicting military and civilian water craft and activities; crafts and methods of their trade; and a look into the lives of the people who have worked and fought on the water.

After filling your brain with knowledge, make sure to stop in their gift shop which is stocked with more than 500 maritime items! You’ll find everything from children's books to beautiful serving and entertaining pieces to cute little Christmas ornaments.  

Coleman Bridge at night

While not related to Yorktown's Revolutionary War history— we'd be remiss not to mention the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge (known to locals as the Coleman Bridge). It was originally opened in May of 1952 as a two-lane bridge, designed to carry up to 15,000 vehicles a day. In 1995, it was reconstructed with four lanes to handle increased traffic which VDOT estimates is now more than a million cars a month.

The Coleman is the largest double swing-span bridge in the United States and the second largest in the world! It connects York County with Gloucester and opens for large ships to get to nearby military installations. The Virginian Pilot reported the $103 million project made history as the first time a bridge was built in complete sections ready to carry traffic, then floated to the body of water and set in place. Pretty cool!

You know what's even cooler? Below it, on the bed of the York River, are the underwater shipwrecks of the American Revolution. They have been featured in an episode of National Geographic's Drain the Oceans.

Want other ways to visit like a local? Check out another blog we've written which highlights some of Yorktown's lesser-known hidden gems.