The Revolutionary War made heroes of men such as George Washington and Patrick Henry. But thousands of people you’ve never heard of also risked their lives for freedom. A new museum in Yorktown, Virginia, tells the stories of these “ordinary” people in the hope that you come away with a deeper understanding of the causes and the costs of the war.
“Why does the individual want to fight for liberty?” asked Peter Armstrong, senior director at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. “What we really wanted to do was the story of those individuals and the heroic stories attached to them.”
The museum, whose grand opening celebration begins Thursday, replaces the 40-year-old Yorktown Victory Center. The center’s focus had been the 1781 patriot victory that put an end to seven years of fighting. The new museum, combined with a military encampment outside, takes a much broader look at the Revolutionary War.
The exhibit begins with “Liberty Fever,” a movie set 40 years after the revolution. In it, a traveling theater group uses a shadow puppet show, called a crankie, to tell war stories. There are stories of unusual alliances. One features Billy Flora, a free black man who, with white soldiers, helped kick the British out of Virginia in 1775 at the Battle of Great Bridge. And there are stories of families divided. Isabella Ferguson warns her husband not to join his brother in the British Army. “I am a rebel. My brothers are rebels. And the dog Trip is a rebel, too,” Ferguson declares, with the Wheaten terrier at her side. (Ferguson’s husband didn’t join up.)
You can learn more about Flora, Trip and others who lived through the war as you wander through five galleries, which include the prewar period through the postwar struggles of a new nation.
There are elements you might expect — a statue of George Washington, weapons and a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence. But several short films and interactive elements make the experience come alive.
One interactive is a large touch screen that allows visitors to listen to stories from 20 people — and Trip the dog — about how the war affected them. Another area features a video game in which you can pick sides and strategies in Revolutionary War battles and then see whether your side wins.
The film not to be missed is “The Seige of Yorktown,” a nine-minute movie that transports you to the battlefield. You can feel the wind and the vibrations as cannons fire. Smoke appears, the seats shake and the air smells of gunpowder as the story unfolds on a 180-degree screen.
But if you really want to play the part of soldier, the action is outside at the re-created Continental Army
The area, which was taking shape on a recent visit, is both educational and fun. Historic reenactor Sally Stook sized up visitor “recruits,” telling them to smile so she could check their teeth.
“What would missing teeth or bleeding gums be a sign of?” Stook asked.
“Scurvy,” someone called out, naming one of the illnesses that would make you an undesirable candidate for the Continental Army. After a promise of money and land to those who would sign up, Stook showed the new soldiers their tiny six-person tents and the spot on the ground where they would cook meals.
Trainees can also learn to march on the drill field and help ready a battalion gun, which is fired several times each day.
If soldier life isn’t for you, head to the re-created 18th-century farm next to the camp and learn how civilians fared.
Walking through the area and talking to the reenactors help explain the demands and sacrifices of the war. But the takeaway is hopeful. The patriots did, after all, win the war. And as curator Tom Davidson said, what began as 13 colonies’ fight for independence became something larger.
“America became the beacon on the hill for people seeking opportunity,” he said.
IF YOU GO
What: Grand opening of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
Where: 200 Water Street, Route 1020, Yorktown, Virginia.
When: Thursday to April 4, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How much: $7 youth, $12 adult. (Admission to the Yorktown Battlefield is separate.)
Special events: Each day of the grand opening will focus on one of the first 13 states, with historians, musical groups and officials from that state. Maryland’s day is March 29. Virginia’s is April 1, which is also the day of the museum’s dedication.
For more information: A parent can call 888-593-4682 or go to historyisfun.org.