“It’s just a field, dad,” many a bored teenager has whined on a family trip to a battlefield. Battlefields require imagination to understand their significance and over the years, I know many National Park Service staff have struggled with how best to interpret a grassy landscape.
One field in Yorktown, Virginia, holds a special place in American history as a field not only of battle, but also of surrender. The siege of Yorktown in 1781 essentially ended the American Revolution and signified the birth of a new nation “conceived in liberty” as a future president would say while standing on a different battlefield (Gettysburg).
Today “surrender field” looks like an ordinary field of grass. On a beautiful day it is bucolic, lacking only a herd of peacefully grazing sheep. If we had the power to travel back in time to October 1781, the view would radically change. The air would be filled with cannon balls from approximately 73 cannons, including a nighttime display of red hot cannon balls flying through the air. It was anything but peaceful. The ferocity of the guns created an earsplitting pounding that could be heard many miles away. Around nineteen thousand people, more people than most cities in the thirteen colonies, had gathered to launch a siege on the British army in the small village of Yorktown. General George Washington, commander of the Continental army, and his ally, the French general Rochambeau, along with the French Admiral de Grasse, worked together to entrap British general Lord Charles Cornwallis and his troops. The French and American armies had marched five hundred miles from New York. With help from the French navy recently arrived to block the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, they surprised the British and Germans and surrounded them.
Finally, at 10:00 a.m. on October 17, a lone British drummer boy appeared on the parapet and began beating a signal. Beside him stood a soldier waving a white handkerchief. No one could hear the drummer due to the pounding of the guns, but the handkerchief spoke volumes and one by one the cannons ceased firing. Cornwallis was surrendering at last.
Two days later a long column of British soldiers marched out from Yorktown, between two lines, one American, one French, and lay down their arms. Surrender field today is a grassy field preserved for future generations. On October 19, 1781, thousands of civilians came to witness the surrender. The event has been depicted by numerous artists, including John Trumbull’s famous painting located high up in the Capitol rotunda, and a less well-known painting by a French artist, Louis Van Blarenberghe, completed for King Louis XVI. Both portray the moment of great elation for the Americans and French and the great humiliation for the British and their hired Hessians. All of the big names were there… Washington, Lafayette, Hamilton, except the vanquished Cornwallis who feigned illness.
While the British still maintained troops in three other areas of the American states (New York City, Charleston, and Savannah), the will for war was rapidly waning across the ocean and the winds of public opinion began to shift. Yorktown would be the last major conflict of the American Revolution, and while a big victory at the time, no one knew it would be a harbinger of a new world order — in time.
My new book for ages 10-14, The World Turned Upside Down, tells the story of the siege of Yorktown. As part of the story’s broader context, it includes the fascinating relationship between the Americans and the French and the story of the secret march to Yorktown. The incredible story ends at Yorktown, but has many beginnings and colorful characters. The young 19 year-old French nobleman Lafayette, so caught up in the passion for the American cause of freedom that he defied the orders of his king and fled France. The enslaved man, James, who ended up serving as a spy in the British camp for Lafayette. And even the French general Rochambeau who was planning his retirement when he was suddenly sent to America. And George Washington, in some ways the most unlikely commander in chief who had never led an army into battle.
My hope is that the book will inspire many family trips to Yorktown and its readers will not complain that “it’s just a field.”