The governor of Virginia, successor to Captain John Smith and Thomas Jefferson, stood above this grassy battlefield today with 4,000 revolutionary war soldiers at his back, 1,000 white tents reflecting the sunlight behind them, and told his audience that the lesson of Yorktown is crucial to our less glorious time.
"We forget that the war of independence was not an unbroken string of victories," said Gov. John N. Dalton, opening the four-day bicentennial celebration of the British surrender at Yorktown in praising the steadfastness of the revolutionary soldiers. "The ragged army that followed Washington left bloody footprints in the snows of Valley Forge."
Day one of this commemoration of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War was dominated by patriotic speeches and military maneuvers. Army parachutists fell through a blue sky holding American and French flags and trailing orange smoke. A mock battle of modern war ships was held on the York River, which trapped Lord Cornwallis and his British troops. On another battlefield, American and French soldiers recreated centuries-old sound and fury as they retook two hills from the British.
Sharing the stage with Dalton were the governor of Rhode Island, the French ambassador, county supervisors, state legislators and a small army of the well-connected who won their own battle at Yorktown to get such choice seats.
Playing a part at Yorktown this time around seems doubly attractive because of the cherished place it has retained in American folklore and because of the media attention this reenactment has created. There are an estimated 1,000 reporters photographers and television crew members here.
The spotlight on Yorktown has drawn to it dozens of historical societies with flags to present and memorials to observe. It has also attracted a share of individuals with causes to promote.
"We had a guy come in here yesterday who said he had been sent to read the Constitution," said Ross Weeks, the director of the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission. "We never could find out who sent him."
Nick Mathews has been predicting for years that during 1981 Yorktown would become "the eyeball of the world." Mathews and his wife, Mary, Greek immigrants who own a seafood restaurant in Yorktown that is famous across the state, also own bragging rights to the biggest chunk of local patriotism.
In the mid-1970s, the Mathews donated 25 acres of choice land overlooking the York River to the state of Virginia to build its $4.2 million bicentennial victory center. This year they have taken advantage of the world's attention to try and recover a stretch of historic beach that Mary Mathews complains has become an "unmarked swimming hole with a crescent-mooned privy."
"We honor our heritage only with bathrooms," says Mrs. Mathews, who wants the York County Board of Supervisors to remove the recently constructed, red brick bathhouse from the beach where Lord Cornwallis was trapped. "You don't go to church to have disco."
Last week, after much publicity, Mathews won a skirmish but apparently lost her war. The county board ruled it would not remove the bathhouse but would replace the crescent moon window with a more conventional round one.
The Rev. H. Stein-Schneider, pastor of French St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington and president of the Lafayette-Rochambeau Society, came to Yorktown on his own mission. Stein-Schneider is trying to spread the word about a fellow Frenchman, Nicolas Martiau, who Stein-Schneider says was the first French colonist in America and the first American ancestor of George Washington. On Sunday, Stein-Schneider and his society will conduct a memorial service for Martiau.
"As it happens it is exactly the 350th anniversary of Martiau's arrival in Yorktown," says Stein-Schneider, who is confident George Washington wouldn't mind making room on his historic stage for a member of the family.