history

Yorktown and Now

I was at a four day conference in Lightfoot, VA, just up the road from Williamsburg. The route into town was the same one taken by General George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau on their journey to Yorktown, in September, 1781.

Washington would later say that French naval superiority was the “pivot upon which everything turned “ preventing British General Cornwallis from receiving aid or effecting an escape from the Yorktown peninsula. Thus, October 19, 1781, the American Revolution was won and the United States was free and independent of Great Britain’s power.

I rode my bike through Williamsburg and on to Yorktown, pondering what that time must have been like for all those troops and sailors. When I entered the now National Park grounds at Yorktown, the neatly mowed remains of the British army’s earth works were the first thing I saw.

I rode into the village area and saw the monument that was set up a century after the victory and was dedicated by President Chester Arthur. With the beautiful blue sky in the background and the York River beyond the bluff, it was so quiet and solemn. This is a sacred place where an amazing world-changing event occurred. Having just come from the most divisive Senate hearing on a Supreme Court nominee I’ve ever seen, this place begs for attention. I stood at the base of the monument and thought to myself, the whole U.S. Congress needs to take a field trip down here. It quietly says, “Remember from whence you have come.”

Perhaps every newly elected (and re-elected) federal official needs to have an orientation session at Yorktown. The shameful behavior of elected leaders (of both parties) cuts to the heart when I remember the great hardships and sacrifices of the 18th century version of the “greatest generation”. Soldiers who had no shoes, who went for months without pay, poorly fed, often sleeping on the ground, in the rain and heat, and yet standing firm. Compare our comfortable millionaire legislators and billionaire president to George Washington who served his entire term as Commander in Chief of the Army for no pay.

The monument describes the surrender of the world’s greatest military power of that time.

The British surrendered “…TO HIS EXCELLENCY GEORGE WASHINGTON, COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE COMBINED FORCES OF AMERICA AND FRANCE,

TO HIS EXCELLENCY COMTE DE ROCHAMBEAU, COMMANDING THE AUXILIARY TROOPS OF HIS MOST CHRISTIAN MAJESTY IN AMERICA,

AND TO HIS EXCELLENCY COMTE DE GRASSE, COMMANDING IN CHIEF THE NAVAL ARMY OF FRANCE IN CHESAPEAKE.”

Wow, did you see that? Washington was referred to as “His Most Christian Majesty in America”. Can you imagine who would gather and protest around this monument today? They’ve probably never read it.

I rode through the streets of the little town and down to the beach, where children played in the water and people walked their dogs on the brick promenade. So peaceful and beautiful. Yet out there in the river, are the sunken hulls of ships that fought battles and fired cannons at this shore line. Death and destruction, fire and smoke, the smell of gunpowder, and the stress of a 19 day siege of this small town; it all plays through my mind as I look out at the peaceful and nicely manicured place it is today.

Do we take our peace and freedom for granted? As I stand where great yet unknown men and women stood over two centuries ago, I wonder what they would say about what we are doing with the legacy they left to us?