Yorktown, VirginiaThe Illustrated London News, vol.39, no. 1111, p. 338.
One of the most important strongholds in Virginia is the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, on which are Williamsburg, the ancient capital of Virginia; Jamestown, where was the first English settlement; and Yorktown—these three localities being still in the possession of the Virginians, and strongly fortified; while the extremity of the peninsula is occupied by the Federalists, together with the fortress (Monroe) at the point. Independently of its importance in the present war, the old city of Yorktown is full of interest both to the antiquarian and lover of the picturesque.
Originally Virginia was divided into only eight counties, of which York was one, Yorktown having been made the capital in 1705. The counties have been gradually added to and subdivided subsequently, in proportion to the increase of population and extension of the settlements west of the mountains, there now being upwards of one hundred and fifty.
During the early history of Virginia, Yorktown was a place of much commercial importance, and there are again anticipations of a magnificent future for this dilapidated and desolated village. For many years it has been only an unimportant fishing town, having remained in its original condition and retained its old associations: only two buildings have been erected since the revolutionary war. The old church, built 170 years ago, was burned down in 1814, a "frame" edifice having since replaced it. The churchyard, like those of several other early settlements, bears quite an English appearance. Old family tombstones, with broad slabs and carved inscriptions, lie broken and half buried in weeds and rubbish.
The Swan Tavern, still standing, and now crowded with soldiers, is said to be the oldest in Virginia; but the building exciting the largest share of interest is the old Nelson Mansion (from which our View was taken), the family residence of the Nelsons, who emigrated from Cumberland, occupied a high standing in the county of York, and were the "ancestors of all the Nelsons" in Virginia. During the revolutionary war, when this place was occupied by the English, and bombarded by the allied armies of France and America, Lord Cornwallis made the Nelson House his headquarters until one day, whilst his Lordship was at dinner, his favourite servant in attendance was shot by a cannon-ball which entered through the wall. After this unwelcome visitor Cornwallis removed his quarters to a less prominent abode.
Two or three months ago the quiet and unoffending citizens of Yorktown were pursuing their peaceful avocations when a couple of war-steamers appeared off the shore, and several cannon balls came flying through the air, without, however, doing any other injury than to the nerves of the women and children, who forthwith "packed up" and departed for safer localities, while the men took immediate precautions to defend the place, which is now one vast military encampment. There is a long line of camps on the ridge of the high river banks, another in an open space of the woods beyond, and a third is down on the shore; behind you, around you, which ever way you turn, the pointed tents dart up in bright relief before the broad river and blue line of distant coast, or lie snugly embedded in the dark green woods; and from one or another of these encampments one's ears are perpetually assailed by the drum and the fife, which comprise the principal military music of Yorktown. The Southern stock of band instruments is nearly exhausted, so the fife rings changes on the martial airs of "Dixie Land" and the "Marseillaise," varied by Irish jigs; and the drum beats time to the march or parade. Round the corner of an old building pour forth a company of soldiers in "undress"—very "undress"—costume, looking like a troop of navvies, though one-half may be men of fortune and position, who at home command their hundred servants and their carriages and horses, but here willingly, eagerly, shoulder their axe, and sally forth at dawn of day to throw up breastworks and erect batteries.
Across that field march a company to drill, along that road goes another; there a patrol of Zouaves are keeping guard before the head-quarters of the General, which is an old, dilapidated building of revolutionary times. Here comes a troop of horses, then a line of baggage-waggons of crazy form and uncertain motion; yonder is a train of a hundred mules. The old town is alive with bustle, the whole scene is bewildering. It is not English in spite of the antique buildings, which are at variance with the character of the foliage, the bright sky, and glaring sun. The river reminds one of the Exe below Powderham, without its background of Haldon and Warborough. It is dotted with little butterfly fishing-boats, which, peacefully gliding here and there, add another contradiction to this scene of warlike preparations, and with a telescope you may even see the malicious Pawnee cruising about the mouth of the river, some fifteen miles off, not daring, however, to come within gunshot. The scene is not American, with those dull, dingy, old dwellings, in place of the gaily-painted, fanciful little eggshell residences of modern America. The groups of loungers are perfectly American though, entirely at ease and at home, whether perched upon fences, sitting on doorsteps, or lounging under the trees. But along come a company of Zouaves, and the American associations are wafted to Algeria or the Crimera, which are again destroyed by the most unoriental scenery, and the negro women in Eastern turbans and very Western crinolines. It is a scene of itself, of the times and the occasion, a scene in this second great American revolution, which will take its place in the world's history as far different in its complication of causes and results as is the scene above descibed.
The whole scenery of Yorktown is picturesque, even in its present most desolate and rugged condition. The foliage of locust and linden trees is everywhere beautiful—the tramp of soldiers cannot affect that—and there is a sad poetry in the luxuriance of the vines and wild flowers which spring up in every corner, the broken fences and the trampled gardens smiling again under the magnificence of the gaudy trumpet-flower, and every heap of rubbish covered with the delicate passion-flower. The embankments freshly thrown up are soon green with vegetation, and a few minutes' walk will take you into woods where war and strife seem but a dream or a history of the past. From wooded banks deep ravines and romantic roads wind down to the shore, which, covered with fine sand, is washed by a few semi-saline waves and marine plants.