Virginia Department of Historic Resources
For Immediate Release
August 9, 2023
Department of Historic Resources
Marketing & Communications Manager
—The Department of Historic Resources (DHR) will administer the funds, which were allocated as part of the National Park Service (NPS) Semiquincentennial Grant Program recognizing the 250th-year anniversary of the founding of the United States—
RICHMOND – The Commonwealth of Virginia has been awarded $75,000 in grant funds from the NPS Semiquincentennial Grant Program to conduct an underwater archaeological survey of the maritime battlefield of the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
DHR will hire a consultant to perform the survey, which will use remote sensing technologies to recover data and identify sunken shipwrecks and other submerged artifacts associated with the Siege of Yorktown. This survey is hoped to be the first phase in a comprehensive survey of the entire submerged landscape of the battlefield. Results from the survey will be published in a report. New information about the site and the battle will be made public through educational outreach programs.
“This grant provides a tremendous opportunity for us to examine these submerged resources. Many people assume that because this is such a significant site from a critical battle in the War for Independence, that we already know what ships lie under the water and how to protect them,” said Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Virginia’s State Archaeologist. “In fact, we know little about the ships that lie on the riverbed and their condition.”
According to Moore, conducting this first phase of a comprehensive survey will allow the Commonwealth to better steward the Siege of Yorktown’s maritime battlefield. “The survey will enhance our ability to provide public access to the interpretation of that survey data through exhibits, publications, and posts on our website,” she said.
The maritime battlefield of the Siege of Yorktown comprises more than 3,300 acres of submerged land within the York River. Located between Yorktown and Gloucester Point, Virginia, it became the first underwater archaeological site to be placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register (VLR) and the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1973. Previous investigations of the site located remnants of 11 ships dating to the Siege of Yorktown. One of those ships, the Betsy—a British supply vessel constructed in Whitehaven, England, in 1772—was excavated and studied in the 1980s. Artifacts recovered and conserved from the site are currently housed at DHR’s curatorial facility in Richmond, where state conservators continue to care for them.
“Imagine pulling back the waters of the York River at Gloucester Point,” said Brendan Burke, Virginia’s State Underwater Archaeologist. “You would see dozens of shipwrecks in the sand and mud, sunk in a futile attempt to save British land forces at Yorktown. That sunken fleet was meant to be a roadblock to our independence,” he said. “Today, it is a national resource with more questions than answers.”
During the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781, dozens of vessels were sunk in the York River. In efforts to protect themselves from the French fleet, British forces scuttled, or deliberately sank, more than 25 of their own vessels to create a submerged fortification. Other ships were destroyed by Continental and French forces. Cannonballs that were fired onto ships also ended up on the river bottom.
While the maritime aspect of the Yorktown battle played a pivotal role in the Thirteen Colonies’ war for independence, little is known about the conditions of the historic resources that lie within the boundaries of the underwater battlefield site. According to Burke, analysis of the submerged battlefield landscape is every bit as important as the data gleaned from research on the land battle. Of the 11 ships located in the submerged site, only three have been identified by name.
“Important archaeological work has been done at Yorktown, but no comprehensive survey of this sunken battlefield has yet been completed,” Burke said. “We know that there are intact features from the Siege of Yorktown hidden beneath the waves. To properly understand the battle, its outcome, and those who fought for our independence, it is our duty to properly assess and map the wrecks.”
Virginia’s grant award for the Yorktown underwater survey was derived from a second round of NPS Semiquincentennial grants, which distributed $10 million this year to support 20 cultural resource preservation projects across 14 states. Congress created the NPS Semiquincentennial Grant Program in 2020 by way of the Historic Preservation Fund to commemorate the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence that officially marked the nation’s founding. The grant program was established to restore and preserve state-owned sites, buildings, structures, objects, and districts listed on the NRHP that originated from the earliest years of the American Revolution to December 31, 1800. For more information about the Semiquincentennial Grant Program, visit the NPS website.