Insiders Guide to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Outdoor living-history areas. Interactive displays. Experiential theater. All this and more make the new museum a must-visit.

Liberty Fever Stage at American Revolution Museum at Yortown
At siege cannon in the Revolution Gallery
Guests interact with a wooden musket drill

In grade school you may have memorized Oct. 19, 1781, the date when the British at Yorktown surrendered following the last major battle of the Revolution. You likely learned the stories of the great men of the battle: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Lord Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis.

But do you know the stories of Sarah Osborn Benjamin, the wife of a Continental soldier who carried food to soldiers as cannonballs fell around her during the Siege of Yorktown?

Do you know Billy Flora, the free black man who became one of the heroes of the Battle of Great Bridge, an important, but little known victory?

Or how about Peter Harris, a member of the Catawba Nation who joined the 3rd South Carolina Regiment and fought against the British? 

At the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, you'll hear, see and even feel the stories of ordinary people in an extraordinary time, when subjects of a king became citizens of a nation. Through new and expanded outdoor living-history areas, an introductory film, a timeline, expansive permanent exhibition galleries, interactive displays and a 70-seat experiential theater, the 22-acre museum complex showcases a national perspective on the meaning and impact of the Revolution like never before.  

We've scouted the galleries, the films, the interactive exhibits and the sprawling, expanded outdoor area for a taste of what the $50 million museum offers visitors. Here are some highlights:

What's Unique: A free mobile app will guide you from one gallery to another from the vantage of different perspectives. Starting April 1, experience the museum as a Patriot, a Loyalist, a child, a woman or, in June, principals like the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton and the generals. America in the late 18th century was a diverse place with 2 million people by 1770, a quarter of them African Americans. Connect with their differing experiences for a range of views of what the American Revolution really means.

Most Surprising: The people of the late 18th and early 19th centuries gathered to watch moving pictures. They called them "crankies," moving panoramas in which shadowy puppets scrolled on long paper rolls as a narrator told the tale. The crankie is the device used in the museum’s introductory film, Liberty Fever, to tell the story of five ordinary people and their roles in key moments from the Boston Massacre in 1770 through the Battle of Great Bridge in 1775.

Most Kid-Friendly: Easy. It’s a video game. Stop by Battle Game, an interactive exhibit pitting visitors against each other in various battles, including the Battles of Cowpens, Camden and Kings Mountain. Players choose a strategy and watch the battle unfold. Just so you don’t walk away thinking the wrong guys won, the game ends with the reality of how the battles actually played out in history.

Most Interactive: No less than six interactive experiences are sprinkled throughout the 22,000 square feet of galleries. It's a tough choice, but you'll be captivated by the 80-inch-high screen featuring actors portraying 20 real-life characters, including Billy Flora, Peter Harris and even Trip the dog, another way to bring ordinary people into the story. Visitors meet Trip in the introductory film when his owner, a South Carolina woman, refuses her brother-in-law’s request to join the Loyalists. "I'm a rebel. My brother's a rebel, and the dog Trip is a rebel, too," says Isabella Barber Ferguson. Explore their stories and artifacts associated with them on a touch screen that encourages you to enlarge the images to dig deep into the details.

Most Dramatic: It’s The Siege of Yorktown, a 8-minute-long, 4-D immersive theater experience on a 180-degree, 71-foot-wide screen. Talk about living history. By the time, Alexander Hamilton and his soldiers are storming Redoubt 10, a British stronghold, you've endured cannon and musket fire, felt the rumbling percussion of the explosions. Now, smoke fills the air so you smell as well as feel the fog of war. It's an amusement park ride powered by the thrills of history. Do not miss it. 

Most Fun: The boom boom, of course. Colonial cannons fire during daily demonstrations. Here, they don't waste their shot. Make time to explore the living-history area outside. Venture into the Army encampment laid out according to the principles of Major General Friedrich von Steuben, the Prussian credited with getting the Army into shape. Head down on the farm based on the property of Edward Moss who lived in the county.  Participate in an artillery firing. Enlist in the Continental Army, if you pass muster.   See one of the pies or tarts made with Colonial produce and techniques using coals from the fireplace of the farm house. You’ll leave having lived in a time when the stakes were nothing less than liberty.

Don’t miss your chance to see the other gems of American history in Greater Williamsburg with stops at Yorktown Battlefield,  Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne and Colonial Williamsburg. Be sure, also, to check out Alexander Hamilton’s stops in Greater Williamsburg. 

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