Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo



When Union General George McClellan, in his advance up the peninsula early in April 1862, came to a halt in front of the Confederate line hinged on Yorktown, he found the town to be now only a village, tightly ringed with massive earthworks. [1] Major Robert Arthur in brief fashion later described these works:

The three bastioned fronts facing the direction of the approach [south and southeast] had parapets about fifteen feet in thickness, with ditches eight to ten feet deep and about fifteen feet in width at the top of the scarp. West of town the parapets were about eighteen feet in thickness and the ditches about ten feet in depth. About fifty-six heavy guns were mounted in the batteries along the line and along the water front, and were amply provided with traverses and magazines for their own protection and that of their ammunition. [2]

Due to the improvement in ordnance, it was necessary that earthworks in 1862 be more massive than in 1781. Batteries and gun positions also needed to be larger, with differing shapes and even contours. When superimposed on any existing remains from the Revolution, the latter were either in essence destroyed, or fully covered. It was not unusual at all that the Civil War line generally followed that of the British, since it was largely a matter of topography and advantageous position in each instance. This was true, as has been pointed out, even in that area to the southeast beyond old British Redoubt No. 5. [3]

In studying the overlapping of the 1781 British lines and the 1862 Confederate lines, some observations can be made. [4]

1. On the northwest side of town, both lines followed on the inner side of Buckner Street, and the 1862 line seems not to have crossed the street into the area where British Redoubt No. 1 was located. The Civil War line, however, turned the corner of the bluff and ran downstream without the break at the corner that the earlier line seemingly had. Town Lots 10-12 and 16 surely were involved, as were Lots 13-15 and possibly 9 inland from Main Street.

2. On the inland side of Main Street, the Confederates erected a sizeable position that embraced all of the site of British Redoubt No. 2 and the indented corner of the British line in this locality. It also probably encompassed the site of the British battery between No. 2 and Main Street, and possibly even the battery site to the south of No. 2. Most of this would have been beyond the original town limits, although Lots 15 and 21, and even 20, may have been involved.

3. The two lines appear to have been on like courses in that section between lines extended from Ballard Street and Nelson Street. Here the heavy Civil War works obliterated, or obscured, the sites or lines of the older British Redoubts Nos. 3 and 4 and the batteries associated with them. All would have been in the area of the Gwyn Read development.

4. In the section between lines extended from Nelson Street and the south corner of the original town survey, the Civil War line curved inland toward Main Street, but not to the same pronounced degree as did the old British line. In this area there was likely involvement with Lots 55, 59, 63, 67, and 71, as well as with more of the Gywnn Read development area. About at the edge of town there was a fortified break in the line that would allow needed egress and ingress from and to the town area. Just beyond this there was an inner trench that seemingly followed the direction of the shortened line built by the French late in 1781. It probably was this French line itself. [5]

5. From this point around the head of "Tobacco Road" ravine and on to the river, the Confederate and British lines seemed to be generally on the same line, even though the earlier line had been leveled after the siege of 1781. In 1862 the projection of the line out along the old York-Hampton Road was a stubby one, without the pronounced elongation of the old British Hornwork. There was also a pointed projection of the line about where the long west face of the Hornwork had been.

6. Curving east of this area, the Civil War line was flattened out with two battery projections, the second one probably on the site of British Redoubt No. 6 and its adjacent battery.

7. On or over the site of British Redoubt No. 7, the Confederates advanced a massive pointed projection of their line for more artillery placements. The line then curved to the cliffs above the river.

8. At the cliff edge and facing riverward, the Confederates installed another battery, which from all indications, violated the sites of British Redoubt No. 8 and its adjacent water battery.

9. All of the high bluff sites in Yorktown which overlook the York were brought into use for more Confederate artillery. [6]

a. The section running from the Church area upstream, toward and across where Ballard Street eventually opened to the water, was used for a large redoubt — battery complex which probably involved Lots 16, 22, 28, 34, and 40.

b. The cliff edge from Read Street around to the Great Valley became the site of another elongated position for four 32-pounder cannons. Here Lots 84 and 85 became involved.

c. The bluff between the Great Valley and that down which the Comte de Grasse now runs likewise became a battery position above a hot shot battery on the waterfront below. Lots 76 and 77 would have been partly used in this construction.

d. Between the Comte de Grasse Street ravine and that down which "Tobacco Road" runs just beyond the town limits, was still another fortified battery position. This area, on and behind the present Yorktown Monument, surely involved Lots 80 and 82 and the high ground between them, as well as the cliff edge.

These works were abandoned by the Confederates when they evacuated Yorktown in the early days of May 1862, and there is little to suggest that the Union forces altered them in any appreciable manner while they occupied Yorktown. Fighting was moving to other areas and would not return to Yorktown. The works remained and are those that today give a besieged appearance to the town.

Two gates through which there was entry into, and passage from, Yorktown were a part of the Confederate, and then of the Union, encircling entrenchments of Yorktown. That on the west was across Main Street, just inside of where Buckner Street crosses. [7] The other gate evidently was to the south where the highway passes today on old Main Street extended (an extension formerly called Monument Road). These gates or passages were noted as still in use several years after the Civil War had ended.

Margaret Newbold Thorpe, a teacher sent to Virginia by the Friends' Association of Philadelphia and Its Vicinity for the Relief of the Colored Freedmen, who was stationed at Fort Magruder near Williamsburg, made a visit to Fort Monroe at Christmastime in 1867. She returned by way of Yorktown, noting:

. . . at Slabtown we saw the Union Cemetery; we entered Yorktown by one gate, pass the old Cornwallis Headquarters, go out through the opposite gate, took McClellan's famous corduroy road and so on to Fort Magruder. [8]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010