By Jim Jenkins
McClatchy Newspapers

YORKTOWN, Va. — First, we did the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, “America the Beautiful,” and then “God Bless America.” A person is struck with such impulses standing on the edge of the Yorktown battlefield. Nearby Williamsburg has its moments, of course, full of the historic footprints of Thomas Jefferson and the other patriot-revolutionaries who trod its streets now well more than 200 years ago. (“Trod,” I know. But I was feeling very colonial.)
Ah, but for the deep-down feeling, for that wind-laced tingle that reminds Americans of what it all meant, and the measure of sacrifices that were made to win glorious freedom, Yorktown is the place.
Standing on that field, beside a replica of a cannon of long ago, we were struck by what it must have been like, in that fall of 1781. An expanse of field was before us, green and lush and lumpy. It was far from silent in the community of Yorktown on this summer day, the tourist season having gotten under way. There were, on the wide York River before us, everything from 18th-century style ships to those little power-ski machines, backgrounded with the usual sounds of automobiles, the laughter of visitors and their children.
Looking over the Yorktown battlefield, though, there was a silence in the mind, to allow the imagination to transport us back to that October of 1781, when the American Revolution, in progress since 1775, was still two years away from the final settlement. Yet the issue would be settled here, between George Washington (with the considerable help of Comte de Rochambeau, the Marquis de Lafayette and several thousand French troops) and Lord Cornwallis.
The war continued after Yorktown, but the defeat of the British in the last major battle of the Revolution made the outcome all but certain. (Cornwallis, who like many British leaders had assumed the colonies would be dispatched in short order, sent a subordinate to present the sword at surrender.)
And that outcome had been decidedly uncertain for a long time. Even after the guns had been fired in 1775, the Revolution was not yet really a revolution, at least not in name. Debate was intense among the leaders in the American colonies as to whether their revolt would be an attempt to win concessions from the British motherland, or turn into a campaign for independence. Leaders were careful in their choice of words for a while, knowing that a decision to seek that independence would mean no turning back from confrontation with King George III. (My source for this bit of history is David McCullough’s masterpiece, “1776.”)
Early on, the Americans had made mistakes, and the British forces seemed unstoppable. But along those years, the Americans fought through setbacks and enjoyed plain good luck with the weather, or with British overconfidence. Lafayette and the French were a major factor without whom independence would not have been won, for he battled Cornwallis and helped to make it possible for Washington to advance toward the site of victory. American leaders and their people never forgot it. Lafayette made a triumphant tour of the United States in 1824, and saw that many American cities had recognized him, Fayetteville in North Carolina being one of them. And when Gen. John J. Pershing arrived in France to lead forces in World War I, his aide, Colonel C.E. Stanton, uttered the phrase, “Lafayette, we are here.”
Here in Yorktown and nearby were signers of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom might have remained in comfortable lives as British subjects had selfish common sense overcome patriotic fervor.
But standing on this green field, one thinks mainly of the soldiers who somehow endured near-starvation, standing in fields flooded to their waists, burning under the sun in summer and going months in winter without ever being warm. The Americans were known early on in the war for their ability to build fortifications quickly, to adapt to changing conditions of any kind, for fearlessness. Washington, for his part, would accept no less, and his tolerance of cowardice was nonexistent.
Yorktown today has the shops to accommodate a tourist trade, of course, as does Williamsburg, but history is history, and this is where the end of the Revolutionary War, and true independence, began. And for our annual celebration of freedom on July 4th, we can gain a profound feeling of what that means and what was done to accomplish it not by film or lecture or fireworks, but by recalling the sense of pride that embraced us on that windy field.

Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor of The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

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