The Obelisk

1781 The Surrender

The Yorktown battlefield over the past two centuries has been memorialized by monuments for the heroism of those who fought here and won independence for America.  The most prominent being that of the Victory Monument which was authorized following the october 19, 1781 surrender of the British.  Less known are the efforts to mark the actual location where the British General O’Hara surrendered ‘the sword’ to the Continental Army General Lincoln.

The surrender took place at 11 o’clock Friday morning on 19th of October, 1781. Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis wrote to General George Washington requesting the surrender be delayed on account of sickness. Earlier, Cornwallis wrote to New York for reinforcements and expected help at any time, hence his actual motive for asking the postponement. Washington was aware of the possibility British forces could arrive at any time with ships entering the river. Washington refused Cornwallis’ request and insisted that the surrender must take place on the 19th. General Charles O’Hara was sent by General Washington to present the sword. Major General Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810) was deputized to receive the sword from General O’Hara since Washington refused to receive it from a minor general. This meant revenge for General Lincoln, for the previous year he surrendered at Charleston to an inferior officer.

British Surrender at Yorktown

Nearly ten years after the surrender, the painter JohnTrumbull traveling from England visited Yorktown in order to sketch the surrender site with victors mounted on horses, flags flying, and the losers present on foot. A sketch survived and endorsed: “Yorktown, in Virginia, April 23, 1791, as seen from the point the British army entered between the lines of the Allied Troops of America and France at the surrender in ’81; distance from the advanced works, 270 yards.” The large building in the background, Secretary Thomas Nelson’s home, with its surrounding earthworks below and to the right of Commander of the French Fleet, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse’s horse and “the distant glimpse of the York River and the entrance of Chesapeake Bay” in the finished composition, appear in his sketch. The specificity of the yardage indicates Trumbull’s first hand observation of the site appears to dictate an accurate distance.

1824 Wooden Obelisk

General Marquis de LaFayette’s sea arrival on Monday, October 18th, 1824, was near the location, redoubt 9, where he stormed the British troops in 1781. Two hundred yards to the right of his riverside landing and elevated on the high bluff, a ceremonial arch was constructed. The arch was made of wood, imitating sculptured marble, four columns, 45 feet tall, similar to something you might see in Rome. The column was painted similar to stone and designed by an architect in Richmond, Mr. Swaine, Yorktown was still in ruins 43 year earlier after Cornwallis’s surrender, the battlefield still littered with war debris. A 75 foot wooden obelisk was constructed 200 yards away at redoubt nine. A second wooden obelisk, 400 yards further, was constructed where the British sword was surrendered.

1847 The Stone Cairn and Four Popular Trees

William Nelson , son of Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., desiring to make sure history recorded the surrender spot, marked it with a stone cairn and four popular trees. He placed at the spot a heap of ballast stones differing from local ones and supposedly from England and dated back to LaFayettes’ time when he visited the town in 1824. Another landmark was the Poplar trees he planted in a square around 1847 to also mark the surrender spot.  Additionally there is a  ”land survey in 1848… notes four trees, about where the Second Parallel ran, on the left of the road coming south out of Yorktown, which supposedly marked the location of the “Cornwallis Surrender.”

1860 21st Regiment of Virginia Military Obelisk

The Twenty-First (21st) Regiment of the Virginia militia erected a monument in Yorktown in 1860 to commemorate the surrender spot. Thirteen feet tall white marble, composed of two bases, made of James River granite, bore the following: “Erected the 19th day of October, 1860, by the regimental and company officers of the Twenty-first Regiment of Virginia militia of Gloucester county, and the volunteer company attached hereto, to mark the spot of surrender of Cornwallis’ sword on the 19th of October, 1781.”

The monument was furnished by John W. Davies, of Richmond. A storm delayed the ceremony on October 19th for one day. The site was validated by a stone cairn and poplars planted by William Nelson. Soldiers stationed in the area probably carted off the monument as a souvenir. Another account says the Civil War monument disappears piecemeal into the souvenir haversacks of the soldiers of both armies. (Ref:Old Yorktown and It’s History, by Mrs. Sydney Smith, Pg 18-20)

1881 Victory Monument

On October 29, 1781, the first Congress met and adopted resolutions ordering $100,000 to be appropriated to build a monument in Yorktown to commemorate the victory of the Americans. Only $95,000 was paid, the remaining $5,000 being put in the treasury, where it was to draw interest.

In 1880 a joint committee of the two Houses, consisting of one member of each House from the original thirteen States, was appointed providing for the proper celebration of the 1881 Centennial Anniversary and to select the site for the monument to commemoration the event.

The first site selected was on Temple Farm, fifteen acres proposed for donation to the United States government for the monument. A survey was ordered and made of this location in June of 1881 and subsequently completed. On July 7 plans changed and the current was purchased. This new area was covered with Confederate trenches and fieldwork constructed by General Magruder. It was necessary to level it off in preparing for the monuments’ foundation. The site selected because of its scenic location, commanded a magnificent view up and down the York River. It is ironic the site selected once belonged to the family of Nathaniel Bacon, the 17th century leader who organized rebellion against the British Crown.

Three artists were appointed to design the memorial, R. M. Hunt, J. A. Ward, and Henry Van Brunt; and in 1880 their design and model were accepted by the Secretary of War. With President Arthur present, the monuments’ cornerstone was laid on October 18, 1881, the first day of a four-day Centennial celebration, attended by thousands, including many invited foreign dignitaries.

This ceremony was conducted by the Masonic Grand Master of Virginia and assisted by the Grand Masters of the thirteen original States. The celebration included chanting of hymns and patriotic songs, martial music by the U.S. Marine Band conducted by John Philip Sousa, orations and recitation of poetry, the cornerstone was officially laid.

Two bronze tablets along the path leading to the monument, recorded names of French and American soldiers “who made the supreme sacrifice in the Yorktown Campaign, 1781” were erected by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) on Monday, October 19, 1931, the anniversary of the surrender.

The Victory Monument of white marble contains a ninety-five foot star-studded shaft, supporting thirteen female figures representing the original States. The Goddess of Liberty balanced with out-stretched arms atop the shaft. On the belt beneath their females’ feet, are the words, “One Country, One Destiny, and One Constitution.” The 38 stars on the column represent the States admitted to the Union up to the time the monument was erected. In the midst of the stars is the shield of Yorktown, “The Branch of Peace.” The work costs the Federal Government $100,000, and a considerable amount no doubt expended on the inscription of more than 270 words covering the four sides of the pedestal base. The pediments over these sides were carved; first, emblems of nationality; second, emblems of war; third, emblems of alliance; and, fourth, emblems of peace.

The inscriptions on the monument include:

“At Yorktown on October 19. 1781, after a siege of nineteen days by 5,500 Americans and 7,000 French troops of the line, 3,500 militia under the command of General Thomas Nelson and thirty-six French ships of war, Early Cornwallis, commander of the British forces at Yorktown and Gloucester, surrendered his army of 7,251 officers and men, 840 seamen and 240 standards to his Excellency, George Washington, commander-in-chief of the combined forces of America and France, and to his Excellency, the Compte de Rochambeau , commanding the auxiliary troops of his Most Christian Majesty in American, and to his Excellency, the Compte de Grasse, commanding-in-chief the naval army of France in the Chesapeake.”

“The treaty of peace, concluded February, 1778, between the United States of America and Louis XVI, King of France, declares the essential end of the present defensive alliance is to maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty and independence, absolute and unlimited, of the United States as well in matters of government as of commerce.”

“Erected in pursuance of a resolution of Congress, adopted October 29, 1781, and one approved June 7, 1880, to commemorate the victory by which the independence of the United States of America was achieved.”

Ex-President Taft visited Yorktown while Secretary of State, became interested in the town and the Victory monument. Seeing a little unsteady pale fence around the monument, and learning of the $5,000 lying in the treasury, he decided to have the funds used to improve grounds. The grounds were improved, a granolithic walks laid, and an iron fence added.

The Goddess of Liberty was decapitated by lightning in 1942. Oakar J. W. Hansen, a sculptor from Charlottesville, Virginia, was commissioned to create a new figure rather than repair the old one. The new sculptor was mounted on September 10, 1956, and a lightning rod was installed down the core of the shaft. The monument was rededicated on Saturday, October 19, 1957, part of the Yorktown Day program on the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown.

1895 Shaw Obelisk

John W. Shaw, superintendent of the National Cemetery at Yorktown, Virginia, desired to preserve the identity of the October 19th, 1781, British surrender site. From his own funds and hands he constructed a 21 1/2 foot memorial obelisk.  The material for this monument was slected for historic value.  The rock on which the base was built was brought from a spot near Cornwallis’ Cave.  English bricks taken from the foundation of the old Colonial Court House is the shaft which is heavily coated with German cement.  This symbolizes the assistance of Hessians, who not infrequently served as a prop for the British forces.  Cannon balls were grouped around the base and the shaft was formerly painted red to represent the blood which flowed over our land for the principle of Independence.  The monument was simply dedicated on October 19, 1895 to the School Children of the United States and to Intelligence. (Ref: Historic Yorktown, by Mrs. Conway H. Shield, 1906)

For 79 years until 2013, the obelisk, relocated and prostrate in three pieces, was just off Redoubt Road north of Goosley Road. Nearly camouflaged with summer tree foliage, the winter provided the best view, fifty yards from graveled Redoubt Road. For over 79 years the obelisk remained in this sad state. This conventional, pointed-shaft style of the 1890’s, constructed of brick and covered with a mortar coat, was firmly planted in the soil near the Yorktown National Cemetery where the “West” family graves now occupy.  Superintendent Daniel Smith, CNHP, in the summer 2013 directed maintenance crews move the monument into a  fence secure maintenance area off Route 17..

Superintendent Shaw, seeing there was not a spot of the surrender, was determined to find the location. It was known to be somewhere near the cemetery, and at the place where William Nelson planted four poplar trees. In searching the area he found what he thought to be the stumps of these trees. He constructed the monument at his own expense, believing the government would in time replace it with a large one. The government, doubting the accuracy of Mr. Shaw’s monument location where the sword was given up, and unwilling to erected a monument to a mark such a great event, with the possibility of discovering in later years a mistake, decided not to have anything to do with marking the spot of the surrender until it could be authenticated. Mr. Shaw, disappointed, kept the monument at his own expense while he lived. After his death, no one was interested in looking after it, and it gradually deteriorated.

Superintendent B. Floyd Flickinger, CNHP, wrote a letter to the Director of the NPS, on April 9, 1934, stating an embarrasment to the park as visitors were asking questions regarding the surrender spot which the Shaw Monument proclaims.  He further stated his studies indicated the surrender took place further ‘north’ of the cemetery on property used by the Yorktown Golf Course.  He asked permission to remove the monument before they got iinto the midst of the travel season.  Director Arno B. Cammerer, NPS, gave permission to take it town and store it away.  He said, “Later on, if exact data can be discovered to determine the real surrender point, then we can erect some suitalbe marker to commemorate it.”

According to one description in the diary of Dr. Thatcher, a surgeon of the Continental Army, the Allied armies lined the sides of Hampton Road for more than a mile with General Washington at the head of the American forces on the right side and Count Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807) as the head of the French troops occupying the left. With both line facing the road, Washington, represented by General Lincoln, accepted the surrender of Cornwallis, represented by General O’Hara at the point something more than a half mile from town or approximately at the site of the Shaw monument.

After Superintendent Shaw’s death, his 1895 obelisk standing along Union Road remained in place with little care. Post cards in 1906 show the Shaw monument marking the surrender site where Brigadier General Charles O’Hara handed the surrender sword to Washington’s own second in command, Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Several images survived showing the encroachment of small trees, bushes, and even vines scaling the monument. Strands of wire attached to corner posts, attempting to retard visitor movement. A mortar ball, sits on one side of the base. A square sign staked along the edge states this is the site for the historical surrender site. The obelisk was still standing in 1920 when Mrs. Sydney Smith wrote of it in her “Old Yorktown and Its History.” And again it was photographed in 1934.

Broadside view of the 1890 Obelisk dumped in the woods


Obelisk Deminsions

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