Remembering the surrender at Yorktown

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."