When the last veteran of the 1781 siege of Yorktown died, the memory of the spot where Gen. Charles O'Hara surrendered his sword began to waver.
Left unmarked on every map — including those showing the field where the British army laid down its arms — the landmark piece of ground where King George III's generals gave way to the upstart Americans was left in the hands of the old soldiers' descendants. And despite the stories they'd been told, their earnest attempts to mark the site with stones and poplar trees in the early 1800s only served to make the exact location more elusive.
Even the Victory Monument erected in 1881 skirted the issue, with planners choosing a bluff overlooking the York River as a way of remembering the triumph that won America's independence. Four years later, Yorktown National Cemetery Superintendent John W. Shaw erected a modest brick and concrete obelisk less than a mile away, only to have his location contested and his monument dismantled in 1934.
As recently as the Bicentennial in 1981, the places where O'Hara and the British army submitted to the Americans were routinely confused — even by the National Park Service's audio tour at Surrender Field.
More questions cropped up this year, when the park faced fresh inquiries about Shaw's obelisk despite the 2005 opening of a new wayside marking the spot where O'Hara yielded at the American and French trenches.
"I think it tells you a lot about the urge to remember," says historian Sarah Goldberger, a former registrar at Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News, who explored the long history of Yorktown's monuments in her doctoral dissertation.
"Whether or not Shaw had the right spot, for him it was supremely important — and many other people have felt that way, too."
Marking the spot
Exactly when the first marker appeared on the battlefield is unknown.
But there's no doubt that as early as April 1791 people were searching for a spot they considered sacred.
That's when John Trumbull came to make a measured sketch of the landscape for an epic painting depicting the surrender of the army commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, who was reportedly so sick he didn't appear in person.
But Trumbull's magnificent canvas — the final version of which hangs in the nation's capitol — was criticized from the beginning for mistakes, Goldberger says, including a portrait of Cornwallis that had to be painted over.
Following Washington's death in 1799, the spot was marked for what may have been the first time by a mock funeral conducted in his honor.
According to a Philadelphia newspaper from the 1820s, the rites included the erection of a small stone arch and empty coffin on the location where the American and French commanders accepted the British surrender.
"People held mock funerals and paraded through the streets with empty coffins all over the country — and they did it at Yorktown as well," Goldberger says.
"We just don't know exactly where or when it happened."
Similar uncertainty clouds the temporary monuments constructed for the 1824 visit of the Marquis de Lafayette, the famous French general who commanded an American unit at Yorktown.
Despite numerous accounts of the event — which drew 15,000 people for a sprawling program organized around a 45-foot-tall arch at the site of Redoubt #10, a 76-foot-tall obelisk at the site of Redoubt #9, a second 76-foot obelisk at the site of O'Hara's surrender, and a mass assembly at Surrender Field — the descriptions focus more on how the elaborately decorated monuments looked than their exact locations.
"Some old soldiers from the siege were still here, so they probably had the right spot," says historian Diane Depew of Colonial National Historical Park.
"But a lot was lost in the tremendous emphasis on Surrender Field. That's where they staged their big to-do."
Nearly 25 years later, Yorktown resident William Nelson — the son of Virginia governor and siege veteran Thomas Nelson Jr. — erected a small stone monument, then planted four poplar trees at the spot where the Hampton highway crossed the American and French trenches.
That's also the likely site of a 13-foot-tall white marble obelisk dedicated by Gloucester's 21st Virginia Militia in 1860 — then dismantled by souvenir-seeking Confederate and Union soldiers during and after the Civil War siege of Yorktown.
By the time Congress made good on a near century-old promise to build a monument in 1881, the spot where O'Hara surrendered was no longer certain, Depew says.
And the great patriotic motive behind the location of the National Cemetery was forgotten by a project that was more about national reconciliation after the Civil War than marking victory in the Revolution.
"The Union soldiers thought this was the most hallowed spot on the battlefield," Depew says.
"That's why they chose it to bury their dead."
Just what the cemetery's new superintendent knew about the graveyard's origin when he began searching for the surrender site about a decade later is unknown.
But no one has ever questioned Shaw's passion.
Probing the soil outside the cemetery's walls, he hunted diligently until he found what he believed were the stumps of the trees planted in 1847.
There he erected a brick and painted-stucco obelisk nearly 22 feet in height, undertaking at least some of the work with his own hands and paying with his own money.
"Shaw was a Union veteran — and he was trying to tie the Union cause and the graves of the soldiers there to the supreme moment of the American Revolution," Goldberger says.
"But other than the stumps he thought he'd found, the reason he chose that location is pretty hazy."
Sited on a dirt road just past the black cemetery that bounded the Union graveyard on the east, the obelisk missed its mark by at least 100 yards, Depew says.
It also fell into disrepair and disrepute little more than a dozen years after its 1895 dedication.
As early as 1909, a picture postcard mailed from Newport News showed the monument partly covered by vines and its base overgrown with bushes. Two years later, a Pennsylvania newspaper article described the humble work as an "artistic crime and architectural nightmare."
By 1920, the historian of the Yorktown chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution reported that Shaw's obelisk appeared to be in danger of collapsing.
"After his death, no one seemed interested to look after it, and it's falling down by degrees," wrote Mrs. Sydney Smith in "Old Yorktown and Its History."
"Soon there will be nothing left."
More complaints came from the town's newly formed chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which not only questioned the monument's location but also formed an "Exact Spot Committee" charged with finding where O'Hara surrendered.
But as Goldberger notes in a 2012 essay, the obelisk's location near both Union and black cemeteries and an African-American hamlet founded in the Civil War may have played as large a role as historical veracity in the APVA's increasingly vocal reservations.
"I think the monument's proximity to the Yankee and black cemeteries disturbed them. And if you visited the spot, you would have seen Uniontown, too," she said describing the name of the area also known as Slabtown.
"So they had some sort of racial issue in addition to finding a witness who disputed the site, and they put pressure on Washington, D.C., to do something about the problem."
Lost and found
In response to those complaints, the War Department and the new cemetery superintendent determined that Shaw had erected the marker on private property with his own funds, making its fate a matter for locals.
Not until after 1930, when much of the battlefield was acquired by the National Park Service just prior to the 150th anniversary celebration, did Shaw's monument finally come down — and then only after a lengthy investigation into the origin of a landmark whose story was barely remembered.
"From our recent studies we have every reason to believe that this gentleman with his good intention was in error as to the exact location (where General O'Hara surrendered his sword)," Colonial National Monument Superintendent B. Floyd Flickinger wrote to the Park Service director.
"I am wondering how you would feel about the removing the present monument as it is beginning to prove rather embarrassing to us."
Sometime after Director Arno B. Cammerer replied on April 14, 1934, the obelisk was dismantled and carried into the battlefield woods, where it lay for decades before being moved to a fenced-in maintenance area earlier this year.
Not until 2005 did the park comply with the rest of Cammerer's directive, which authorized the erection of "some suitable marker" after "the real surrender point" was determined.
That's when the battlefield used funds from the Society of the Cincinnati heritage group, to build a new wayside at the spot where Washington's outermost trench intersects what is now Cook Road. Illustrating the interpretive panel there is a reproduction of Trumbull's painting — which turned out to be fairly accurate after all.
Park historians discovered the location decades ago, Depew says, spurring the purchase of additional land outside the original park boundaries.
But it was mixed up and then lost in a focus on Surrender Field that dates back to far before the 1981 Bicentennial celebration.
"They did extensive research — and they were spot on," she says, "and that was really needed to tell the Yorktown story.
"But the Park Service was overwhelmed preparing for the Bicentennial — and this was one of the things that had to be corrected after it was over."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more stories about Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.