Of all the battlefields we’ve photographed, from Austerlitz in the Czech Republic westward to San Pasqual in California, Yorktown was the most beautiful and, oddly enough, the most pacific.
It didn’t hurt that we arrived at dawn on a perfect winter day and had the place to ourselves; or that all of the metaphorical hatchets flung about in that conflict had been long buried; or that only 142 soldiers died during the 23-day siege that ended here in 1781 (on my birthday, 19 October) with a decisive Franco-American victory.
The American Revolution had started out as little better than a civil war, with Patriots (40%) opposed to Loyalists (20%) and with Neutrals (40%) stuck in between. In the British Parliament, these divisions were reflected in vicious debates between the King’s Tories and the opposition Whigs. In the British army, the ambivalence translated into hapless administration, poor communications, weak and defensive strategies, and near-universal back-biting among the Generals. The American Revolution would prove the graveyard of many a British military and political career.
Like the Vietnamese 200 years later, all the American Patriots needed to do was survive—a good thing since, like the Vietnamese, they weren’t particularly good at winning military victories. Even in 1781, George Washington insisted on attacking the British at their most secure stronghold, New York, and was only saved from that folly by the French fleet sailing off unannounced to Virginia. Had Washington had his way, there would have been no Yorktown and no allied victory.
And yet… When you breath in the atmosphere of this battlefield, you feel a thorough sense of inevitability you never feel at places like Manassas, Gettysburg, Ypres, Verdun, Normandy, or Waterloo. By the time Washington arrived here and picked up a soldier’s pickax to start the first trench, history had already taken one of its massive turns.
On their way out through the American lines, the defeated British played the marching song, “The World Turned Upside-Down.” How little they knew.