With the Fourth of July weekend on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to head to some of Virginia’s notable American Revolution sites. While the battles of the war started in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in the end it was Virginia, the richest and largest of the 13 colonies, that played the pivotal role.
In addition to producing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and so many other important figures, it was in Virginia that some of the most important events took place. In Virginia you can walk down a colonial street that is almost unchanged from the 1770s, visit the homes of the most important leaders, sit in a church pew and watch costumed actors re-enact a dramatic moment of the conflict, tour Revolutionary War farms and military encampments, and stroll the battleground of the last and most crucial engagement. Along the way you’ll meet soldiers, women, enslaved Africans, Native Americans, Loyalists, British subjects, and German mercenaries, hearing their stories of what America’s fight for liberty meant to each of them.
Here are six destinations to celebrate America’s incredible history this 4th of July weekend in Virginia.
Patrick Henry & St. John’s Church in Richmond
Every school kid knows Patrick Henry’s stirring words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but few people know the context of those words or how important they were at the time. That’s easily remedied by visiting St. John’s Church in Richmond, where every Sunday in the summer at 2 p.m., actors in costume re-enact the dramatic event exactly where it took place on March 23, 1775.
Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame
As you walk the pretty church grounds, enter the building and sit in the old wood pews, you are transported back to a deeply divided America of 13 colonies who had been feuding with England about taxation and representation for five years. Boston, hundreds of miles away, had gone into open rebellion and as a result, the King sent thousands of British redcoat soldiers to the town to restore law and order. In the process, Boston’s economy was destroyed.
What was Virginia going to do about this? Would they too risk destroying their economy and even their lives to help a fellow colony hundreds of miles away? Or would they opt instead for compromise with the King?
That was the question before the regular meeting of Virginia representatives, called the House of Burgesses. They should have met in the capitol of Williamsburg, but that’s where the Royal Governor had his palace and power. So instead, they met secretly in the then small village of Richmond, away from prying British eyes. Though very small, the St. John’s Church (then known as Henrico Parish Church) was the only place large enough to hold a meeting. Into it came one of the most remarkable group of men in history. They were all young and fairly unknown. For three days men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee and others debated the big question: Was it madness to support Massachusetts and go to war against the strongest army and navy on earth? Or was it more important to risk everything they had – even their lives — on a chance of creating a new society based on liberty and personal freedom?
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
Dramatic actors in authentic clothing and wigs portraying all the key participants, throwing charge and countercharge across the room, shouting, interrupting each other, and all making a good argument for their opinion, especially the safe opinion that it was insanity to challenge the British Empire when there was still an opportunity to submit for peace.
And then Patrick Henry makes his last speech, ending with, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Your hair will stand on end. In this church, with those words, Patrick Henry narrowly carried the vote, Virginia went into a state of military preparation in support of Boston, and less than a month later the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington and the Revolution had begun.
As you exit the church, all the re-enactors stay in costume and in character and line a path to meet you, pose for selfies, and discuss the history of what you just witnessed. It is an event not to be missed. However, if your travel plans to not allow you to be in Richmond on a Sunday, the church is still open to visitors during the week, and you can always get the video of the re-enactment in the gift shop.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Of course, George Washington was Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary forces and, in the end, played a vital role in the Revolutionary forces winning the war. But what type of general was he and how did he perform in battle?
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
There are dozens of reasons to visit Mount Vernon and learn about George, but the not the least of which is to review his record in the Revolutionary War. And this is the place to do it. A remarkable 12-minute, 4-D film traces his battlefield history. Snow falls from the ceiling when he crosses the Delaware, you can feel cannon blasts in your face during the battles, you share his victories (actually few and far between) and admire his remarkable optimism to continue after defeats.
If you think you can do better than George, that’s easily tested in a new game exhibit area when you can play George Washington on the battlefield. You get to receive video information from spies, from your own generals, and from intelligence reports, and have only seconds to decide a course of action or face being crushed by overwhelming British forces under Cornwallis at the Second Battle of Trenton. Judging by the results flashed on the screen at the end of the game, about 43 percent of the people playing would have underperformed George and lost the Revolution right here.
Another fascinating exhibit shows how George’s face and bone structure was scientifically examined from a death mask so that now we can see what he actually looked like at different stages of his life, including during the Revolution. The biggest disservice ever done to George Washington was selecting the 1796 Gilbert Stuart painting of him to be on the dollar bill. At the time the painting was done, George was an old man, near death, his teeth rotted and removed, his face shallow and sunken. It’s hard to remember that in his youth, George Washington was an athlete, considered by many as the greatest horseman in America and fearless in battle. Mount Vernon does an amazing job of presenting this image of George Washington and letting us know why he was so admired in his lifetime. The next stop shows what the world he lived in was like.
Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum covering some 301 acres — an area one mile long by a half mile wide that is filled with 88 original colonial buildings and hundreds of reconstructed ones. It is Virginia’s capital city from the 1770s, transported to the 21st century with horse-drawn carriages, craftsmen, taverns, brick sidewalks, colonial gardens, costumed actors portraying both famous and ordinary people, fife and drum bands, 18th century shops, white picket fences, and palaces.
Photo Credit: Rich Grant, @richgrantdenver
What’s difficult for first time visitors to understand is that Williamsburg is not a fenced off historic theme park. This is a living and working town. Cars are not allowed in the historic center, but many normal residents live near the historic zone, and anyone is free to walk around the village any time they like at no charge. See a garden that looks inviting? Push open the white picket fence gate and walk in. Visit in the early morning and you’ll see residents jogging, women pushing baby carriages, and shopkeepers and living historians walking to work in their colonial clothing.
However, I’d recommend purchasing the Colonial Williamsburg pass. The pass allows you to enter more than 200 period rooms, interact with craftsmen, attend special programs, and get a feel for what life was like in the turbulent times of the American Revolution. You can tour the Capitol, where Virginia delegates voted for independence from England two months before the other colonies did in Philadelphia in 1776, or you can enter Raleigh Tavern, a favorite watering hole of George Washington and Patrick Henry.
Photo Credit: Mark Atkinson, @markedwardatkinson
The pass allows you to enter the grand Governor’s Palace, where Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both lived when they were governors during the Revolution. You can tour the Public Goal, where 15 members of Blackbeard’s pirate crew were once jailed or stop by two world-class museums, where you’ll share rooms with more than 60,000 colonial items, including famous paintings, clothing, furniture, and weapons.
But most important, the pass allows you to interact with the town’s craftsmen, who are busy about their daily life in shops, the same way they would have been 250 years ago. Printers are setting type to produce a newspaper, soldiers are standing guard at the Magazine, and silversmiths are making jewelry while gunsmiths work on decorating their long rifles.
Hear from interpreters as they share the untold stories of the enslaved peoples that lived and worked in the region during the colonial era. These individuals made up approximately 50% of the population of Williamsburg in 1770, yet they had no representation or influence on the decisions that shaped the country.
For kids, there are any number of interactive programs. They can watch the fife and drum parade, take in a musket firing demonstration, talk to America’s Founding Fathers, or hear about pirates on a haunted ghost tour, led along the dark streets by lantern light. It’s even possible for kids to rent full colonial outfits so they feel right at home riding a carriage and joining in a parade.
Williamsburg is not an exact re-creation of the 18th Century, but rather a celebration of its architecture, craftsmanship, and ideas. No 18th Century town was ever this clean or charming. In the real 1770s, there were no trees along the Duke of Gloucester Street. The street itself was a pit of mud and filth churned up daily by wagons pulled by horses and oxen.
But today, it’s one of the most beautiful streets in America, shaded by huge trees and lined with impressive homes, shops, and taverns. It’s a place where the ideas of Revolutionary America are still alive. But it took more than ideas to win the war, as you’ll discover at the next stop.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
The American Revolution can be summed up in one sentence: “It’s complicated.” Only a third of the colonists supported the Revolution and a third supported the King, while the remaining third just hoped it would all go away. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 that, “all men are created equal,” it wasn’t true in America. One out of five people living in the 13 colonies at that time was enslaved, while women had very limited rights.
Opened in 2017, the American Revolution Museum addresses this paradox. Owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the museum teaches history in an exciting, interactive way. There are 4-D films where smoke fills the auditorium during battle scenes, and you can smell sea spray, coffee, and chocolate at times. The seats shake when cannons go off and the battle sequence at sea is quite thrilling, with cannon balls coming right at you.
Photo Credit: Gregory Durieu, @globereporter
There are interactive displays, games, videos, a soldier’s camp, cannon firings, and a working farm where kids can learn that food doesn’t come from the supermarket – it comes from the ground in orchards and crops. Most of the farms in the South at this time had enslaved individuals, and the museum’s farm features an example of the quarters typically provided to them.
Some 9,000 Black Americans (free and enslaved) fought for America in the Revolution. But even more fascinating is the story of the 50,000 enslaved who escaped from bondage to join the British army because England offered freedom to any enslaved person who enlisted in their army. Seventeen of the enslaved who became British volunteers had been owned by George Washington! It is truly remarkable to see British uniforms on display with the words, “Liberty to Slaves” written on them.
Throughout the museum, descriptive videos help you meet and hear the stories of the men and women who endured the Revolution; people like Peter Harris, a Catawba Indian who sided with the patriots, while many other Native Americans saw an opportunity in aiding the British. All Native Americans would suffer in the end, and many of the enslaved who left to join the British were abandoned when England lost the war.
This is not a naive look at war with heroes and villains, but rather a realistic examination of how America was born. And there are thrilling stories, especially the build up to the siege of Yorktown. You’ll have a better understanding of the Yorktown campaign if you visit the museum before venturing down the road a few miles to the actual battlefield.
Yorktown Battlefield National Park
Even a short visit to Yorktown will leave two impressions: America could not have beaten the British without the help of the French, and victory usually goes to the side that has the most men and equipment.
In August 1781, British General Cornwallis was ordered to take his 8,000 soldiers and 241 cannon to Yorktown peninsula where they could be reinforced by sea. Unbeknownst to the British, Washington and the French had secretly begun a march of 400 miles from Rhode Island. The allied armies used spies to pretend they were going to attack New York, but they were actually heading for Virginia. When they arrived in September, they had an army of 7,800 French, 8,000 Continental troops and 3,100 militia, plus 131 heavy siege guns. Meanwhile at sea, a French fleet of 26 warships kept the British navy from rescuing or resupplying Cornwallis. The British were trapped.
Working side by side, the French and Americans built siege lines and began a round-the-clock bombardment of 1,700 shots of cannonballs and bombs a day – more than one a minute.
Photo Credit: Fred DeSousa
The siege lines and artillery are still there at Yorktown Battlefield National Park, and while you can’t walk on the actual 200+ year old earthworks, there are trails and interpretive signage nearby.
Most thrilling is Redoubt No. 10. To move the siege lines closer, the Americans had to capture this British fort. In a daring night attack, Alexander Hamilton led 400 men with unloaded muskets, and relying on the cold steel of bayonets and courage, they hacked their way through British obstructions, stood on each other’s shoulders, and climbed up over the fort’s earthen walls. The British fired on them and threw hand grenades, but in brutal hand-to-hand combat with the American’s crying, “The fort is ours!”, Hamilton’s men carried the walls and captured nearly the entire garrison.
The bombardment continued and on October 17, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army. When British Prime Minister Lord North finally heard the news in England, he cried, “Oh God, it is all over!”
And it was. The British never mounted another campaign and peace negotiations started and were signed in 1783.
You can visit the surrender field where 8,000 British troops marched out and laid down their guns and flags. It must have been an incredible sight. Ironically, the British soldiers were issued brand new uniforms just hours before the surrender.
Image Courtesy of Yorktown County Tourism
From the National Park Visitor Center, a free shuttle bus runs the short distance to the town of Yorktown, which is a delightful place to spend an afternoon, complete with a beach, a tall ship, riverside restaurants, shops, bookstores, and colonial homes. It’s a wonderful thing to see people at outdoor cafes sipping wine, laying on the beach, shopping, eating ice cream, and just enjoying the outdoors in peace and freedom in the very place that ensured the final victory of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America.