Cornwallis’s cave, located along the water front, is reported to have been the hiding place of Cornwallis during the siege at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War in 1781. Some have said it might have been a smuggler’s cave.  According to the Tabacco Road National Park Service sign board, eyewitnesses description after the siege, Cornwallis moved his headquarters from Secretary Thomas Nelson’s home to an earthern bunker along the ravine of Tabacco Road, further to the south of the Cornwallis Cave. The Park Service further reports an American officer who described the Cornwallis headquarters as ‘bombproof.’ No trace of the bunker has been found.
The cave was used as a munitions magazine in the Civil War. A fortress was built around it, giving it needed protection. Large square holes along the front of the bank held large beams supporting the structure. After time the structure and beams gave way and collapsed.
After this the owner of the cave cleared the area and placed a door at the entrance. At the Centennial celebration of 1881, he began to charge the admission of 10 cents.
Extract from Benson J. Lossing, 1850: “After breakfast, accompanied by Mr. Nelson in his carriage, I visited the several localities which make Yorktown historically famous. We first descended the river bank and visited the excavation in the marl bluff, known as Cornwallis’s Cave. It is square, twelve by eighteen feet in size, with a narrow passage leading to a smaller circular excavation on one side. It is almost directly beneath the termination of the trench and breast-works of the British fortifications, which are yet very prominent upon the bank above. Popular tradition says that this excavation was made by order of Cornwallis, and used by him for the purpose of holding councils with his officers in a place of safety, during the siege. Taking advantage of this tradition, cupidity has placed a door at the entrance, secured it by lock and key, and demands a Virginia ninepence (12 ½ cents) entrance fee from the curious. I paid the penalty of curiosity, knowing that I was submitting to imposition, for I was assured, on the authority of an old lady who resided at Yorktown at the time of the siege, that this excavation was made by some of the people wherein to hide their valuables. A house stood directly in front of it, the foundation of which is yet there. The building made the spot still more secluded. A quarter of a mile below, Lord Cornwallis did have an excavation in the bank, which was lined with green baize, and used by the general for secret conferences during the siege. No traces of his council chamber are left.” (Ref: Pictorial Field Book of the Revution, Vol II, by Benson J. Lossing, 1850)