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Visitors to Yorktown in the decades after the siege of 1781 and the occupation that followed normally took note of the earthworks with comment on them. They evidently continued to constitute a sharp visible reminder of the fighting that had wracked Yorktown. Most comment, however, failed to describe the fortification remnants with any particular exactness and some people evidently saw more than others did. Isaac Weld, Jr., who visited Yorktown in 1796, had this to relate:

A few of the redoubts which were erected by each army, are still remaining, but the principal fortifications are almost quite obliterated; the plough has passed over some of them, and groves of pine trees sprang up about others, though during the siege every tree near the town was destroyed. The first and second parallels can just be traced, when pointed out by a person acquainted with them in a more perfect state. [1]

Weld also noted that the shell-pocked ruins of the Secretary Nelson House "in the skirt of the town" were still standing solidly. He continued: "There are trenches thrown up round it, and on every side are deep hollows made by the bombs that fell near it." [2]

Benjamin Latrobe was in Yorktown about the same time as Weld and he sketched the Secretary Nelson House as has been noted earlier, and set it among the entrenchments which he drew boldly. In comment on them he wrote: "The history of the siege of York is well known to everybody. The works were badly constructed and well attacked. Those represented in the drawing were thrown up by the French after the town was taken, by way of keeping their army in exercise. They are now gone much to decay but still betray the design of a skillful engineer." [3]

During Lafayette's visit to Yorktown on October 18-20, 1824, to mark the 44th anniversary of Cornwallis' surrender, there were incidental references to the old British works but little that was particularly specific. A reporter for the Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald, [4] in a story that appeared on October 23, related that Maj. Gen. Robert B. Taylor, who commanded the participating United States troops and volunteers, was headquartered "about a mile out of town, contiguous to the Hampton road." There were others to the east, some encamped "near the bank of the river" but beyond the area of the sites of British Redoubts Nos. 9 and 10 around which the festivities centered.

The field, including the town, we should judge to be about 3 miles in circuit, broken into alternate hills and vallies [sic]. The embankment thrown around the town by Cornwallis, is in some parts nearly perfect — of the second line there remain no traces, [5] the plough-share having effectually removed them.

It had been noted in the Herald on October 22 that on the 19th, after the exercises and after a lengthy banquet, "the General again paid a visit to the encampment, as on the evening before, and was entertained with a brilliant exhibition of fire works, which concluded the ceremonies of the day." [6] There is, too, another account of this: [7]

The whole company rose from the table at 9 o'clock, and many of them, with hundreds of spectators, attended in the open fields east of the town, [8] to witness the uncommonly fine fire-works, which had been prepared at public expense, for general gratification. La Fayette was present, sitting on one of the old British embankments.

In both of these instances the general import could be, though not necessarily, that the earthworks alluded to were those forming the southeast sector of the old British line beyond the deep ravine used by "Tobacco Road." In one instance, however, there is specific reference to what must have been the inner line developed and strengthened by the French on the town side of the ravine just after the siege.

A few yards beyond the edge of town to the east, [9] you see the nearest British lines, [10] the mounds of the entrenchment, and the ditch; the mound considerably sunk from the trend of cattle and the washing of the rains, and the ditch rapidly filling up. [11]

When David Hunter Strother ("Porte Crayon" was his nom de plume) visited Yorktown for a day in November 1849 with his uncle, having taken "a hack" from Williamsburg, they "saw a most desolate village." [12] Even though "it was morn when we arrived, we saw no living soul on its streets." "The village is supposed to contain about 250 inhabitants, mostly asleep at the date of our visit." [13] Consequently he and his uncle, Richard Randolph, "had their views and retrospections" all to themselves:

There were the British earthworks still complete in form and profile, a little abraded by time and weed-grown. Here we picked up bullets and bones as from a recent battlefield and saw things nearly as they were in 1781, nearly seventy years ago. In the village were the ruins of Gov. Nelson's house [14] and other houses still bearing the marks of cannon shot, the perforated walls unrepaired and the brick and mortar rubbish lying where it fell. [15]

When Benson J. Lossing was in Yorktown in 1848, he toured the area with William Nelson and "visited the lines of entrenchments cast up by the British on the south and east sides of the town. They extend in irregular lines from the river back to the sloping grounds in the rear of the village, toward the 'Pigeon Quarter,' as it was termed, in the form of a figure five." Evidently Lossing saw substantial parts of the line. "The mounds vary in height, from six to twelve and fifteen feet, and being covered by a sward, may remain so for half a century longer. The places of redoubts, the lines of the parallels, and other things connected with the Siege, are yet visible." [16] He made specific comment on the still-existing works on the edge of the bluff near Cornwallis' Cave. [17] This comment and his sketch of the works indicate that he was in large part making reference to the French modification (relocation) of the British line in the southeast sector. In this event nothing other than traces would have remained where the original British positions had been.

The angle of the works in the Lossing sketch appears more like the angle that the French would have made at British Redoubt No. 5 as they turned it sharply to the river. [18] Clearly no Hornwork like the British had in this sector is shown. Then, too, if this assumption is accepted, the roof and chimneys of what obviously is the Governor Nelson House fall into a correct perspective. [19]

It seems highly significant that a land survey in 1848 [20] involving this general area noted the "Old Redoubt" as extending rather closely beyond the "Eastern boundary Y. Town." This surely was on the line of the shortened French earthworks. Nothing was noted farther to the south and east to indicate anything other then existing entrenchments. This is the same survey, however, that notes four trees, about where the Second Parallel ran, on the left of the road coming south out of Yorktown, which supposedly marked the location of the "Cornwallis Surrender."

Another description of the works followed a visit to Yorktown in 1852. [21] Yorktown itself was noted as "a small place, with some thirty-five or forty dwellings."

The battleground . . . still exhibits abundant traces of the eventful siege. The remains of British works, comprising the line which surrounded and defended the entire position, are still clearly visible. The embarkments have been considerably sunken by time, but not so much so as to prevent a clear conception of the whole line of defence. They must have been works of a very strong and formidable character. Our friend and guide pointed out to us a hollow in the earth still visible, caused by a shell thrown from the American side. The remains of the British magazine, a heap of scattered bricks, are still to be seen.

A Confederate soldier who was stationed at Yorktown in the late spring and early summer of 1861, left two suggestive references to the old works existing at that time. [22] He noted that in May 1861: "Col. Hill commenced fortifying the lower line of Yorktown by retouching the old British works. Now such things would be considered as no defense at all; but then with our limited force, they were the best we could do." He also noted in reference to the Second Lawson Regiment: "Their camp was established in the field at the lower end of Yorktown, within the remains of the old works, which the French had stormed nearly a century before." This is not very helpful when trying to figure the precise location of these old works, but the French-altered British line in this sector could satisfy such implication as there is. And to call all structures "the old British works" would be a natural development. This, however, would soon become academic. The Confederate engineers would push across "Tobacco Road" ravine to the original British alignment, probably guided by the topography as the British engineers had been. It seems clear now that if there were any visible evidences of the British line here they would have been slight indeed, and nothing would have been left in view when the massive Civil War works were completed. [23]

This being true, Lossing was correct when he noted on June 3, 1866, while "visiting objects of interest in the vicinity" of Yorktown that: "The old British line of circumvallation had been covered by the modern [Civil War] works." [24] This was noted, too, on a "plan of Yorktown and Vicinity, Showing the Historical Sites of 1781 and the Celebration Grounds of 1881." It delineated the Confederate line around Yorktown and captioned it: "Confederate Line of Works around Yorktown in 1862 (now standing) on the site of the British 1781." [25] This being so, Robert Arthur, writing in 1927, could have been correct only in part when he wrote of the Civil War works: "Yorktown itself was entirely inclosed by strong earthworks which were substantially those thrown up by Lord Cornwallis in 1781, renewed and strengthened." [26]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010