Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
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In March and April 1955, archeological excavations were made on the southeast side of Yorktown for the purpose of determining "whether or not the main line of the British earthworks, erected during the Revolutionary War in 1781, lay under the Confederate defenses of 1862." [1] Four sections were made through the existing Confederate line plus a number of other smaller test squares and trenches. The four sections cut through the works were: (1) at the point where relocated Virginia Highway 238 now passes through the works into Yorktown along Monument Avenue; (2) at the point where the Colonial Parkway crosses as it leads toward the Visitor Center; (3) at the point where the present tour road leaves the Visitor Center parking area and exits across the line toward British Redoubts Nos. 9 and 10 (just east of British Redoubt No. 6), and; (4) at the southeast end of the line in the vicinity of British Redoubt No. 8 some 100 feet from the edge of the bluff. Three of the four sections "disclosed trenches and other features underlying the Confederate works in such manner as to indicate that they were present when the Confederate works were constructed." The fourth section (that east of No. 6), while it "did not produce such clear-cut evidence," did "yield problematical disturbances beneath the Confederate fort [which] suggest activity of some sort at the spot prior to the Civil War." [2]

Archeologist Jelks concluded that in the southeast sector, the Civil War and Revolutionary War lines, while obviously of different configuration, did usually follow the same general line. He reasoned that when siege of 1781 battle plans and the existing Civil War entrenchments were checked and measured against each other, it would be found that the two lines "occupy the same positions in general, although there is considerable diversity in detail between the two — especially in the more elaborate defenses such as redoubts, wings, hornworks and the like." [3]

The essential data are these:

1. Contemporary maps and the existing earthworks indicate clearly that the British and Confederate main lines are almost, if not entirely, coincident.

2. Three of the four sections excavated through the Confederate main line exposed underlying trenches and other features, which, on the basis of geological and typological interpretation, certainly antedate the Civil War by a number of decades.

3. Artifacts from several of the pre-Civil War features have been definitely identified with the British Army. [4]

Therefore, although no earth embankments were positively identified as British, it can be conclusively stated that, in the area tested, manifestations of the British occupation of 1781 occur beneath the Confederate works with significant consistency. This tends to corroborate the evidence found on eighteenth and nineteenth century maps that the Confederate main line of fortifications follows closely, although not in meticulous detail, the main British line of the Revolution. The absence of actual remnants of the British earthworks can be explained (perhaps in part at least) by the Confederate practice of scraping up from one to three feet of topsoil in the areas where their works were constructed. [5]

Much earlier, in August 1939, earth disturbances were noted in the slopes laid bare when Smith Street was opened, or cut, through the Confederate works by the Virginia State Highway Department in order to connect it with the road behind town (Ballard Street extended). "Though the cut made by the State Highway Commission force was rough and did not permit an accurate picture, indications of a disturbance, which appeared to have occurred before the Confederate works were constructed, were evident." [6]

Historian Thor Borresen of the Park staff was instrumental in having a short stay in the roadwork and there was opportunity to cut a cleaner profile and some time to study and record the results. Admittedly though, only part of the evidence here was seen and it was not possible to extend the study, or open new trenches, which may have been fruitful. In the writer's view, the findings here were very suggestive of those made later by Jelks in the southeast sector of the line. [7] It was Borresen's view however, after due consideration, though the evidence here was somewhat confusing and incomplete, that at this particular point (across Smith Street) the Confederate and British lines were not on the same alignment. Even so, he concluded generally:

The question of whether or not the Confederates constructed their works on top of the English works still remains to be answered definitely. In checking all maps obtainable of both Revolutionary and Civil War periods the writer is of the opinion that with the exception of a few instances they did. The few exceptions include: [1] the British Redoubt No. 2, which was greatly enlarged and incorporated into the line instead of being a separate unit as shown on English maps; [2] the section crossing Smith Street; [3] the shortening of the hornwork; and [4] the enlargement of Redoubt No. 8, on the extreme British left. [8]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010