The Custom House in Yorktown, Virginia

Its strategic location, long history and how it relates to General Rochambeau and your blogger, Jini Jones Vail
February 1
This sign marks the wonderfully preserved Custom House on the corner of Read and Main Streets in Yorktown VA. This historic structure has observed history pass by its front door for nearly three centuries. It is only a stone’s throw from the battlefield of the last pivotal battle of the American Revolution. It stands very near the site of the startlingly majestic victory monument raised tall to commemorate the Franco-American cooperation that helped to birth our great nation.In the early 1700’s the lot where the Custom House now stands was owned by Capt. Daniel Taylor. Since Taylor did not build on the lot, it was passed on to George Burton in 1706.After that it was decided that a Custom House was necessary for the mouth of the York River as Yorktown Harbor was the deepest, most navigable harbor between Charleston SC and Philadelphia, PA. Wealthy merchant, Richard Ambler, was appointed Collector for the Port of York. In 1720 he purchased 2 lots where the Custom House now stands, and in 1726 he purchased 2 more lots. He built the brick Custom House and he and his family lived in the wooden home that adjoined it.Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, in 1781, the British Army, under General Lord Cornwallis, occupied Yorktown and used the Custom House as barracks for their troops until the surrender of Cornwallis to Washington and Rochambeau on October 19, 1781.

The building was in the midst of war again during the Civil War. In 1865 the wooden residence to the right front of the building was burned to the ground. At one time thereafter, it is said that pigs lived in the ruins of the cellar.

For the next 40 years the Custom House served as a physician’s office, followed by various uses as school, general store, even  as a bank, barber shop, and housing for military personnel during the first World War.

In 1922 Mrs. Emma Leake Chenoweth established the Comte de Grasse Chapter of  the Daughters of the American Revolution in Yorktown. A building fund was created, and the Custom House property was purchased by the DAR from Mrs. Adele M. Blow, member of the Comte de Grasse. Chapter Fundraisers were held, such as bake sales stand a fancy dress ball. Plays were produced to secure the necessary funds to complete the purchase in 1924.

DAR member Mrs. Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans took over the restoration project and assumed the funding of it on her own. Final results included a walled garden, replicas of original dependencies, and basic structure repair. Finally the building was dedicated in November 1930 and has been open to the public on Sunday’s and holidays ever since.

In 1972 The Yorktown Custom House was designated as one of only twelve historic custom houses extant in the United States. This historic building served as protector of American citizens from 1779 to 1945. It is listed in the Virginia Landmark Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

Every year the Comte de Grasse Chapter of the DAR opens the Custom House to the public on October 19th, the anniversary of the winning of the 1781 Battle of Yorktown under the command of General George Washington and General Rochambeau’s combined Franco-American armies.

In the picture below  Jini Jones Vail, author of Rochambeau, Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant, A French General’s Role in the American Revolution, was invited to set up a book table on the Yorktown Day Parade Route in front of the famous Custom House. She was waiting for the parade to begin. It was an exciting time to be there as the Yorktown Day Parade marched by with all the Fife and drums, marching bands and the local Revolutionary War regiments in regimental dress.  Jini and her  husband, John,  had ringside seats for all the action on the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route ( W3R) that day. Jini was grateful for the kindness shown to her, a sister member of the US DAR Trumbull-Porter Chapter of Connecticut.  She hopes in the future to be able to return the favor at a Connecticut  DAR event.
February 1A
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March into Yorktown: Eye Witness Account

Just two days ago, Sept 28, 1781, marked the last day‘s march on the long, hot road to Yorktown, VA for the allies, French and American combined armies. In many ways it was the hardest as well as the most exhilarating march since they left the Hudson Highlands above New York City. I was there and this is what I saw.
“From my viewpoint along the 12 mile stretch from Williamsburg to Yorktown,     I see hundreds of soldiers, all decked out, “marching as to war”.

Look, there at the head of the first column, it’s General Washington on his horse, Nelson. How fine the general looks. Behind him I see the famous Continental Army and local militias, all following their fife and drum corps. Very impressive!

march Rochambeau

Rochameau’s Army on March by David R. Wagner

I remember reading that at the start of this historic march from New York, Washington’s men were disheartened at the prospect of the 400 mile march in the dead heat of August into the south where it was bound to be much hotter.

A wonderful event occurred that gave our soldiers the courage to carry on, to continue to follow Washington to the ends of the earth as they had done over the past 6 years. The French King, Louis 16, had sent yet another shipment of hard currency to General Rochambeau to aid in the march.

Very generously, he lent Washington a goodly sum of hard cash, not only to fund the long march, but, to give each man some coins to jingle in his pocket and maybe buy a new pair of shoes for the march.  Most of the Continental Army had not been paid for years!

Yes, this gift was a morale-raiser for the American Army. We have Rochambeau and the French to thank for that!

book cover front

“What is the subject of my blog doing on my book cover?” LOL Jini

Rochambeau and his Army are in battle attire with white woolen uniforms gleaming in the light of the new day. I stand here in awe of their multi-colored jackets with contrasting lapel facings, collars, cuffs, piping , and other trim, not to mention their many buffed buttons and shiny buckles.

Each regiment proudly displays its flag. I cannot help but notice the officers’ gold braid and medals glinting on the chests of the officers in the low straight-line rays of the rising sun. Their tricorne hats have been freshly brushed and are adorned with appropriate cockades, some with tall plumes floating in the breeze.  I am thrilled at the sight!!!

Oh, and look at their newly-powdered hair!  Ladies, if you are watching as I am, ooo la la, those French! What an amazing sight, and just think of it, after the blistering month-long march from New York to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay!

Even though food of all types is in short supply here in Virginia, the American officers, not  to be outdone by the French, scoured up enough flour to make themselves look  elegant. Yes, they used flour to powder their hair! Not a bad idea at first suggestion. It did achieve the desired look.

However, I have it on good authority, that as the day wears on and as temperatures rise, and sweat begins to pour off their heads, it will surely begin to mingle with the flour and cause an uncomfortable caking on their heads!  The flour and their sweat will literally cook in their hair as they march. The Continentals may be happy now, but later they will pay a sad price and need tons of water to rid themselves of the mess.

The Continental uniforms may look flimsy, but they are cooler in hot weather than the French. The soldiers do not always march in lines of similar heights, but their hearts are light today as they pass me by.
There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air as they leave Williamsburg this early morning.  I cannot help but feel it too! There is no stopping the allies as the drumbeats direct their step toward the Yorktown redoubts and the waiting, worried, British commander, General Lord Cornwallis.