The battle was over. The dead and wounded had brushed themselves off and the white smoke from a hundred black powder muskets had disappeared into a cloudless sky. The soldiers were back in camp, drinking grog from tin cups and grumbling in traditional foot-soldier fashion.
"The whole thing was a sham," said Ron MacInnis, one of 3,000 citizen soldiers who volunteered for the four-day reenactment of America's victory at Yorktown 200 years ago. A New England engineer portraying an elegantly uniformed officer, MacInnis was standing among a group of other 18th century-uniformed soldiers upset that the National Park Service had kept the spectators too far away to see their faces. "We wanted people to leave here impressed that these guys had really fought, bled and died for our freedom."
Devotees of American history who have made a pilgrimage to this small town on the York River do not have to be told the importance of Yorktown, because they understand. Most Americans may have celebrated the birth of their nation five years ago during the Bicentennial, but if it was born in 1776, it was baptized in blood at Yorktown in 1781. That is when the Revolution finally was won.
In Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis and his 7,500 British troops were trapped, then captured by a combined American and French force. Considering the condition of George Washington's army at the time -- barefoot, bedraggled and deserting in droves -- the revolutionary war may well have been lost without this victory -- and without the help of the French.
"We are at the end of our tether, and now or never deliverance must come," wrote Washington in a letter to the French government, asking for more aid just months before the Yorktown battle.
The aid came in money, men and most importantly, a French fleet commanded by Adm. Comte Francois de Grasse. Commanding 28 warships, the French admiral defeated a British fleet off the Virginia Capes near the Chesapeake Bay on Sept. 5. When the British fleet sailed back to New York for repairs, de Grasse moved into the Chesapeake Bay to blockade the York River and cut off Cornwallis from supplies and escape.
Meanwhile, Washington and French Gen. Jean Baptiste Rochambeau had completed a forced march from New York to Yorktown and surrounded the British. On Oct. 9, the allied forces began a week-long bombardment of Yorktown and its British inhabitants. During the day, artillery was fired into the town while each night the allied army dug itself closer to enemy lines.
On Oct. 17, with the British starving and suffering from an outbreak of smallpox, Cornwallis sent a lone drummer boy over his battlements to call for a parley. Two days later, the British troops -- representing one-quarter of their army in America-- marched out of Yorktown to an old British tune, "The World Turned Upside Down," and surrendered.
By modern standards of war, Yorktown was not much of a battle. There were fewer than 200 fatalities on either side. In the naval battle of the Virginia Capes, for instance, only one English ship sank. And while Yorktown was one of a very few battles America won during the entire Revolutionary War, it was enough to persuade the English that the cost of subduing the colonials and their French allies was higher than they were prepared to pay.
During the Revolutionary War battles were sometimes suspended because of bad weather and muskets did not fire in the rain. Winning the field was more important than inflicting casualties and opposing armies often camped close enough to serenade each other with nighttime songs.
"There was still a lot of honor in war then," says Russell Knower, a gray-haired, Massachusetts business executive who is bearing arms for America this week as a French officer. Why does Knower spend a few thousand dollars and many cold nights in a canvas tent for several weekends each year playing soldier? The love of history, he says, and the sharp smell of burnt black powder, the chance to dress in a green and gold waistcoat, carry a brass-handled walking cane and sport a felt tricorn hat adorned with a tuft of goat hair.
"I do it for the rum ration," laughs Jane Gladding, who with her daughter is among the 1,000 women and children acting as camp followers here. While the men march off to do mock battle each day, the women remain in camp to cook, sew and answer questions from visitors.
"I see a lot of people raise their eyebrows when you tell them you are a camp follower," says Hazel Dickfoss, originally from England, but lately of Racine, Wis., who this week is keeping the American campfire stoked each night. "They think all camp followers were plying the world's oldest profession, but that's not true."
Dickfoss has written an as yet unpublished book on camp followers. Some of the women were prostitutes, she says, known during that era as "draggle tails." But most were either married to a soldier or attached to only one. Women who had often been forced from homes or widowed by war, they traveled and took care of the competing armies for half-rations and the opportunity to scour the battlefield for plunder at the end of a battle.
"The women were known thieves but they had to be to survive," says Dickfoss, who was wearing a linen and lace bonnet and homespun dress and sitting in front of an 18th century kettle that bubbled with day-old crabs.
Night comes to the encampment, and the only illumination outside of a half-dozen cook fires comes from a thousand candle lamps, sparkling among the acres of small white tents. Behind Dickfoss, a collection of off-duty fife and drummer players is playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy." At another campsite, a circle of soldiers sings verses of "Alouette."
But breaks in the fantasy come occasionally. "Do you know where the French are camping?" asks Alexander Cacciola, a 77-year-old patriot from New Hampshire, who wandered into the camp. "I've been walking around lost for two hours."