Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Seizing the Past: Revolutionary Memory and the Civil War in Yorktown

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Seizing the Past: Revolutionary Memory and the Civil War in Yorktown

Article excerpt

When a journalist for Georgias Daily Constitutionalist visited the Confederate defenses at Yorktown in July 1861, he marveled that this Revolutionary site, renowned for the surrender of the British general, Lord Charles Cornwallis, was once again transformed by war. "May the spirit of Virginias dead heroes animate her sons now," he implored, "and may this lofty bluff and these sparkling waters be again consecrated, if necessary, with patriots blood, shed in defence of freedom won by their fathers!" For many southern journalists, Yorktown, the seat of a southern Revolutionary battle, was an ideal location for aligning the rebellion of 1861 with the principles of the American Revolution.1

Both the Confederacy and the Union looked to the Revolutionary past to express wartime ideologies during the Civil War. Confederate writers and leaders borrowed from Revolutionary discourse and iconography, such as depictions of George Washington and Liberty, to legitimize the new Confederate nation and its rebellion, while the Union used its past to reinvigorate its cause-the preservation of the republic itself. In the early years of the Civil War, public memory of Revolutionary heroes helped spur the rage militaire. Although Revolutionary memory clearly influenced wartime rhetoric, far less is known about how soldiers interpreted this past or their encounters with historic landscapes during the war, as in the case of Yorktown.2

Yorktown had been a tremendous victory for the combined American and French forces in 1781. Above all, it was associated with the leadership of George Washington, who was admired equally by northerners and southerners. Over the years Americans had come to regard Yorktown as a decisive battle that had ended the Revolutionary War. It was a reputation that naturally made men who were engaged in their own conflict at Yorktown consider the significance of this historic place as well as their own role in its history. Despite a general appreciation for Yorktowns Revolutionary past by Union and Confederate soldiers, its memory was divisive during the Civil War and would remain so until the nation participated in the rituals of reconciliation. Indeed, it is with some irony that disunion was what ultimately helped memory of the 1781 victory at Yorktown truly become a national memory.3

For the embattled thirteen states, the October 1781 siege at Yorktown had been a unifying event. It had come after years of wearying warfare, resulting in the surrender of an experienced British commander. In Philadelphia, the Congress declared a day of thanksgiving and resolved to build a monument recognizing the French and American victory, while Philadelphia residents participated in an evening illumination and torchlight procession. Over the next few months, patriot communities, particularly in New England, used Yorktown to reinvigorate the patriot cause and promote army recruitment, celebrating the victory with parades and religious days of thanksgiving. Yet, despite the importance of this military victory, public memory of Yorktown did not coalesce into an annual holiday or result in the dedication of an official war monument after the Revolution.4

Like many Revolutionary batdes, public memory of Yorktown became far more localized-observed primarily by those living in the vicinity of the town. The only monument to mark the surrender site was initiated by an individual living there around 1800. This natural monument consisted of four poplar trees planted at "the four corners of a small square" by William Nelson, the son of Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr., who had commanded the Virginia militia during the Yorktown siege. At the center of the square was a "small tumulus raised" over an empty coffin, which honored George Washington, who had died in 1799. However, it was not until the return of the marquis de Lafayette in 1824 as the nations guest that large numbers of Virginians began to observe the anniversary of the Yorktown victory. …

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