YORKTOWN AT WAR
The terrorist attacks of 9-11 occurred less than three months from the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On September 10th, people of Yorktown were busy with their every day activities. By September 12th it was clear that this town, along with all of America, had been changed by an event which has been compared to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Yorktown Herald, predecessor to The North County News, captioned in its weekly paper on December 11, 1941, “Yorktown Is At War”:
“In the past, wars were fought on the actual battle front, but today war has a new battle front-the Home Front, where grim determination and hard discipline and the gravity of risk has neither excitement of battle nor good fellowship of comrades. The morale of armed forces is not as likely to break as the morale of civic population under grueling attack from the air, the demoralizing effect of death to women and children, fire and confusion.”
Sixty years later, those words are pertinent today; however, they weren’t exactly true, then or now.
“Yorktown At War” is the title of a book by John Martino, which chronicles the events of the Revolutionary War right here on the “Home Front”- the town of Yorktown, NY. In 2006, America will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Revolutionary War, marking its victory over Great Britain with the battle of Yorktown, Virginia. It was during that war, the first actual American “civil war”, when the “Battle Front” and the “Home Front” were one and the same.
This town’s response to 9-11, besides shock, anger and fear, was to gather our loved ones close to us and look to the “Home Front” for comfort and solace. We withdrew to our dens, our shelter, and mourned the loss of so many innocent lives.
In 1942 a proactive call was sent out, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for all Americans to participate in the war effort. The December 11, 1941 issue of the Herald proclaimed “The Home Front must be organized-the agency for its organization is the local Defense Council-Yorktown is at War.” The succeeding issues of the Herald were focused increasingly on the “Home Front”. A new weekly column appeared on the front page on December 18th called “Bulletins On Defense”. It was used to inform Yorktown residents how to react during an attack, how to ration, information on subversive activities, evacuation, Red Cross courses, air warden training, etc., all geared to ready the civilian population in the event of an enemy attack.
Today, we realize that our enemy is invisible and among us. There is little we can do to protect ourselves from attack, when the attack may come in our mail or drinking water. President Bush has asked Americans to continue with their daily lives. Quite a different approach, given the fact that more American civilians died on U.S. soil on September 11th than in the bombing of Pearl Harbor or throughout World War II.
The Home Front is not a “new” battlefront, as the Herald’s article declared. Martino’s book “Yorktown At War” describes the actual march of armies through Yorktown, NY: raids, skirmishes and battles fought between, on one side British soldiers, with the help of German Hessians and American Loyalists, and on the other the American Revolutionary “Patriots” and the French. The home battlefront, as stated before, was also the first real civil war among Americans, most of whom had ancestral ties to Great Britain.
Westchester was declared the “Neutral Ground”, but unlike Swiss neutrality, it actually took sides. The population was divided in thirds: one third was loyal to the King of England and the “Mother Country”; one third was ready to revolt against the government it believed was oppressive and tyrannical; and one third was unable to choose a side because of mixed loyalties. The division lines were non-existent. Divisions were created among families, neighbors, friends, and business partners. The clergy and its congregations were divided, as were local leaders and politicians. The local revolutionary militiamen wore uniforms; however, there was nothing to identify the loyalty of an ordinary man or woman.
The neutral numbers were probably higher. Like President Bush has declared to the world “If you are not with us, then you are against us.”, the local Patriot Committee of Safety forced residents to sign allegiance to the cause or be declared a traitor. Many signed the papers, only to retract the statement when it was published in the paper or announced at public meetings. The act was considered treason by the British Crown.
Local Yorktowners, mostly farmers who just wanted to be left alone, had to contend with many hardships during the war. Beside the threat of being tar and feathered and/or jailed for failure to join the Patriot cause, or hanged for committing treason, they were forced to supply local militia, and French, British and Loyalist regiments with supplies on demand. Both sides of the conflict had marauders, called Cowboys and Skinners, who were sent out to find provisions for the troops, but who were unscrupulous in their dealings with the local population. Yorktown was a dangerous place to live during the Revolutionary War!
In December, a friend of mine astounded me with a remark she made at the mention of one of our “Historic Yorktown” signs. She is a long-time resident of Yorktown, raised her children here, and has been active in the social welfare of the community. She said she laughed the first time seeing one of the signs, remarking, “There is nothing historic about Yorktown!”
Yorktown may not be Gettysburg, the Alamo or Colonial Williamsburg, but it does have a diverse and interesting history. From the Revolutionary War to the attack on 9-11, our “Home Front” has experienced many changes. It has witnessed and been part of an evolving world. We will soon, hopefully, be a part of a National Heritage Trail, marking the route taken by General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (General Rochambeau) from Newport, R.I. to Yorktown, Va. and back. General Rochambeau and his troops camped twice in Yorktown and these two sights will be designated local landmarks by the Yorktown Landmarks Preservation Committee.
Congress has designated the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Heritage Act of 2000 which has enabled the National Park Service to conduct a study to see if a National Historic Trail is warranted. For more information on that ongoing study, go to www.nps.gov/revwar.
Celebration has already begun for the 225th anniversary of the Revolutionary War. The 225th anniversary of the Battle of White Plains took place on October 27-28, 2001, which was a tremendous success, according to one observer who attended. The next anniversary celebration is that of the Northern Campaign, which will take place from February to October 2002 in upstate NY, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, R. I. and Connecticut. For more information, contact Richard Swartwout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The John Martino book “Yorktown At War” is currently out of print, but copies will be made available shortly. The cost is $10, which includes shipping and handling. A check can be sent to the Yorktown Historical Society, P.O. Box 355, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598. Please specify the book and enclose a mailing address and phone number.
In honor of the Yorktown Historical Society’s 25th Anniversary, the Society commissioned local artist Paul R. Martin, III to create a portrait of a Revolutionary War local militiaman in colored pencil, with the Yorktown Presbyterian Church in the background. This work of art, Paul titled “Eternal Vigilance”, was unveiled at the Society’s meeting in October of last year to rave reviews! Paul is an accomplished artist whose work appears at Gettysburg and West Point, as well as in private collections. Prints, both framed and unframed will be available soon. The original artwork can be seen and orders can be placed at www.paulmartinart.com/EternalVigilance.html. Questions about framing, etc. can be directed to Paul Martin at email@example.com after viewing his work.
If you would like to be a part of this important anniversary celebration, or participate locally with the National Park Service on the Washington-Rochambeau Heritage Trail, please contact us on our website Guestbook, the above mail address, or Linda Kiederer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Linda L. Kiederer
The Yorktown Historical Society updates the home page with seasonally appropriate articles and information. Click here to read our past issues.