The parental units and I made a trip down to Yorktown, Virginia a few weeks back, what-for-to-see the battlefield and such. Lucky for me my parents are fans of American history, which probably does much to explain my singular fascination with the subject. If you asked me to tally up the number of National Parks and historic sites my folks took me to as a lad, I’d lose track. They all blur together into one big, happy memory. My sister, on the other hand, was more fond of water parks and other lowbrow amusement (he said with a haughty sniff) - to each their own.
Where was I … ah yes, Yorktown.
We made the journey down in my folk’s new coach, a 39 foot recreational vehicle that roars AMERICA in too big numbers to ignore. It’s got the slideout rooms, a satellite dish, enough square footage to host a well attended cocktail party and a rooftop helipad. Wanna come with us on our next voyage? Too bad. My parents love me - not you.
I road shotgun and on the way down we listened to Willie’s Roadhouse station on satellite radio. I heard a song by Connie Smith that I’d never heard before called, Once a Day. It had the following awesome country lyric, “Once a day, all day long, and once a night, from dusk till dawn, the only time I wish you weren’t gone, is once a day, everyday, all day long.” Sounds like heartbreak to me.
We arrived and setup shop at the local KOA (Kampgrounds of America for the uninitiated among you). KOAs are an American treasure, like barbecue, baseball or blacking out on bourbon. Hotels are for suckers. ’Tis better to hit the open road and bring home with you, according to an ancient proverb.
Later that day we hit the Yorktown Victory Center to whet our appetite for the battlefield. It’s basically an interactive museum dedicated to the American Revolutionary War - and they’re working on a massive expansion project that left me interested in returning come 2016. We got to see interpreters fire off a cannon, then we wandered inside and looked at the exhibits. Highlights included a camp table used by Cornwallis during his southern campaign, the tail segment from an equestrian statue of King George III (the rest of which the colonists melted down in order to make bullets), and a pair of pistols which once belonged to the Marquis de Lafayette. During the orientation film there was a line spoken by a soldier who said that someone was, “…as tough as a dog in a doublet”. Anyone?
That night we went into Colonial Williamsburg and ate at Shields Tavern. The food was mediocre but you’re really paying for the atmosphere. Candlelit rooms, waiters in breeches and waistcoats, tankards of beer, an uncontrolled outbreak of yellow fever - the usual.
The following morning was the battlefield. I was in my element. At the Visitor Center I picked up a book, a magnet and the requisite brochures. My dad bought the battlefield audio tour and got me one of those National Park passport books, just because he’s a good dad. Then we hopped into the car, popped in the CD and began our journey. The narrative shtick used in the audio tour was the story of the siege as told by voice actors portraying the dueling viewpoints of actual British and American officers (Lieut. Col. Dundas was the Brit and Col. Butler was the Yank). The two would talk about what happened and then find the time to take corny digs at one another. I found myself hoping that Dundas would eventually lose his cool and tell Col. Butler to pound sand, but a baseline level of civility was maintained throughout.
Just in case you’re unfamiliar, Yorktown was the last great battle of the Revolutionary War and a smashing American victory. It sealed the fate of Great Britain and effectively secured American independence. In truth, it was more siege than a pitched battle. In October, 1781, a large British army under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis found itself trapped in Yorktown; their backs pressed against the York River and surrounded on the landward side by Franco-American forces under the leadership of Washington and Rochambeau. The Brits couldn’t extricate themselves as the presence of the French fleet cut off their escape. The two sides dug in and the allies shelled the bejesus out of the redcoats for two weeks. Eventually, Cornwallis realized he was beat and grudgingly surrendered. Vive le liberté.
Doc Richards (my Mom got her PhD this year) and the Killian boys wandered far and wide. Once you're on the field, the setup is pretty easily to visualize. The opposing siege lines have been carefully reconstructed and are easily visible from distance. French, American and British flags dot the landscape to provide further clarification. We walked amongst the cannon and atop the ramparts. We saw the spot where the British offered Washington the sword of surrender and the field where they formally laid down their arms. We even visited a Civil War cemetery nestled between the siege lines (four score and one year after the revolutionary battle, Americans would fight one another atop the same ground). Did I also mention the weather was perfect?
My favorite spot on the field was redoubts Nine and Ten - two earthen forts which the redcoats built slightly in advance of their siege works. The allies had to storm these positions in a daring nighttime attack in order to bring their cannon within point blank range of the enemy and ensure victory. To help maintain the element of surprise, the French and American troops fixed bayonets and advanced with unloaded muskets lest some nervous soldier preemptively discharge his weapon and give the game away. The adrenaline those men felt as they stole towards the enemy on that fateful night must have been unbelievable. The American troops were led by none other than Alexander Hamilton, and their success convinced Cornwallis of the hopelessness of his position. The process of surrender would begin the very next day.
Battlefields are such fascinating places.
The remainder of the afternoon saw us return to our campsite to watch NFL football on the exterior flat screen TV which my dad installed on the coach. The glories of nature abound! I even got the pleasure of seeing my 49ers giveaway a win to the Chicago Bears; the moral of the story is don't commit four turnovers and have over 100 yards in penalties assessed against you. I'm no George Washington, but even I can diagnose that tactical blunder.
The next day we we came home. Good family, good trip.