ECW Weekender: Yorktown — Then & Now

Earlier in the spring, I went on some adventures on the Virginia Peninsula and ended up at Yorktown. Having recently read Wilford Kale’s short history of the area and stuck it in my backpack, I wandered around part of the historic district and started trying to match Civil War era photographs to the modern views. The angles and distances to the buildings or sites didn’t always line up exactly with the 1860s photographs, often due to the need for caution along the roads or changing terrain.

But here’s a look at a few sites around Yorktown in Civil War photography and modern images…

The Nelson House (right) – Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/cwpb.01542/

The Nelson House (right) was used as British Headquarters during the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, and Continentals intentionally fired at the house with the owner’s direct permission. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate doctors used the home as a hospital. Most of the brick and mortar on the house is original and on the left side of the house there is a cannon ball (probably a representative, but I didn’t get definitely information on that point).

Photography Notes: I would have liked to back up and move to the right a little more to copy the original angle from the Civil War photograph, but a steep sloping embankment (also visible in the original) still threatens ankle twisting and it kind of looked like an area that visitors weren’t supposed to go, so I decided to go with this for the close comparison.

Looking along the street of Yorktown (Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2018670688/)

The brick structure at the left is the Yorktown Custom House. Built in 1720 or 1721, it would have been a bustling and important location in the Colonial Era when much of the import/exports for the Virginia tidewater region passed through Yorktown’s port. The 300 year old building has survived two wars and may have been Confederate General John B. Magruder’s headquarters during the Civil War. The Custom House was preserved and restored in the 1920’s by the Comte de Grasse chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural and archaeological studies on or around the Custom House have yielding helpful details and artifacts about the community’s long history.

Across the street from the Custom House, stands the historic Cole Diggs House which was built circa 1730. Still standing and with bright turquoise shutters, the structure houses Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters. (An excellent place to get a light lunch or a nice beverage. I recommend the upstairs attic dining space!)

Photography Notes: I think the Civil War era photographer probably stood in the street to create the image. Since I didn’t want a car coming down the street in my photo, I needed to take it just as the car past my location — meaning I shouldn’t be standing in the road. This was the best angle I could get safely, and I think it’s really, really close. Unfortunately, there weren’t any pedestrians I could bribe into standing in the shot to replicate the officer and civilian.

Battery at Yorktown with Grace Church in the background (Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2018671730/)

Grace Church has been standing in Yorktown since about 1697 — originally called York-Hampton Church. The building was damaged during the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, but then restored and continued use as a place of worship. In the antebellum period, a severe fire gutted the church, leaving just the walls. Reconstructed, the church continued to operate and Reverend Charles Minnigerode pastored for a few years here; during the Civil War, Minnigerode was one of the famous minister in Confederate Richmond.

Photography Notes: The Civil War image is taken at a distance and to attempt to recreate it started with trying to get the correct angle of the church building, using the original back corner. (See first image). Then I started backing up, moving through the cemetery toward Mobjack’s Coffee, then crossed a deep modern lane and stood near the corner to the take the second photo. (See next image) Thanks to the cemetery and the trees, the church is barely visible, but I think it’s close to the photographer’s original location. Which brings up the question…is the modern lane part of the remains of the military battery? There is also a fairly steep area a little closer to the church and cemetery that looks like the parsonage  parking/driveway. That might be the battery location since it would be a little closer to the church as seen in the original photograph. (I didn’t want to be prowling around private property or taking pictures of other people’s cars, so I headed across the road.) I haven’t found an answer yet, but the battery location should be in the vicinity.

“Cornwallis’s Cave” (Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2018670697/)

Cornwallis’s Cave has a lot of legends. As the story goes, Lord Cornwallis himself spent some time in the cave during the fiercest parts of the 1781 bombardment of Yorktown. The story circulated for decades, and Civil War soldiers were aware of the site and it’s legendary significance. In fact, Edmund Ruffin — the die-hard secessionist who attended John Brown’s hanging and is credited with firing off the first gun at Fort Sumter — took a tourist trip there in 1838. (He found a literal pig pen in the cave.) During the Civil War, General Magruder stored ammunition in the cave, ensuring plenty of activity in and out of the subterranean shelter along the waterfront.

Photography Notes: I think the shape of the cliffs around the cave may have changed over the decades. Not able to find the exact angle which should have been more to the left of my photograph angle, I decided to the take the best photo possible and had to forego a sentry figure this time.

There is a ton of history to explore in Yorktown — both Revolutionary War and Civil War. Playing with photographs and looking at old buildings was a nice and relaxing way to enjoy an afternoon and feel like I was being a photography sleuth for a little while!

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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5 Responses to ECW Weekender: Yorktown — Then & Now

  1. John+Foskett says:

    Nicely done.

  2. Mike Crossin says:

    Great job, Sarah.
    As a total RevWar junkie; love everything about Yorktown.

  3. grandadpookers says:

    Thank you for the new historical information.

  4. From my blog, nine years ago. The ravine view of Sessions House and the Nelson House is very difficult to achieve. https://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2013/04/siege-of-yorktown-1862-then-and-now.html

  5. As for Cornwallis’s Cave, that view is not the way everyone imagines. I’ll be illustrating that in the near future. Here is a facebook album of a tour I conducted in March of 2020, right before the pandemic shut the world down. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?vanity=john.cummings.1671&set=a.10157055735718123

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