Terra cotta medallion depicting Benjamin Franklin Jean-Baptiste Nini 1777

This terracotta portrait medallion of Benjamin Franklin, owned by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, was produced by Jean-Baptiste Nini in 1777 while Franklin was serving as an American representative in France, where he had a key role in persuading the French to aid the American cause.

If George Washington is aptly called the father of his country, Benjamin Franklin, born January 17, 1706, could be called the grandfather of our nation. As a young man, Franklin opened his own printing office in Philadelphia and by 1728 was publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack. A man of diverse interests, Franklin was a leader in forming America’s first lending library – in 1731. He was instrumental in establishing a firefighting company, an academy and the Pennsylvania Hospital. He also was a prolific inventor, and his experiments with electricity gained him an international reputation as an experimental scientist.

Franklin’s political vision was far-reaching. He was one of the first Americans who had the foresight to realize that the 13 separate colonies needed to put aside their differences and present a united front. Franklin was the first person to publish the famous “Join or Die” snake image in 1754. During the Albany Congress, he submitted a proposal for an inter-colonial union to defend the colonies from French and Indian attack. His Plan of Union was rejected by the colonies but later became a precedent for the government adopted by the Continental Congress. The “Join or Die” image was revived during the 1760s when the colonies resisted Parliamentary attempts to tax them without their consent.

Benjamin Franklin’s vision of an independent, united America led him to serve in the Continental Congress, where he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He also served his country during the war as a diplomat, working to obtain badly needed French support and later by negotiating a favorable peace with Great Britain. His last great service to the nation was to act as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he was a voice for moderation and compromise. He died in 1790 just as the new nation was being born.


Like other states during the American Revolution, Virginia had to issue paper money to pay the costs of the war. Virginia’s first paper money came out in 1755 to help finance the colony’s involvement in the French and Indian War. Strictly speaking, Virginia paper notes were bills of credit backed by the colony, to be paid off out of future tax revenues, but they functioned like currency.

Two examples of Virginia currency issued during the Revolution, both in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, will be exhibited in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” opening March 1 at Jamestown Settlement. An eight-dollar note issued in 1777 features the new state symbol, a figure representing Virtue with the motto SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS (thus always to tyrants), which was adopted by Virginia in 1776. Sometimes Virginia’s wartime government issued currency to pay for an immediate and specific need, exemplified by a 1780 note, signed by the state’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson, to fund clothing for Virginia troops in the winter of 1780-81.

Revolutionary currency

Christmas 1776 – The Battle of Trenton

“Washington at the Battle of Trenton,” engraving by Illman Brothers, from painting by E.L. Henry, 1870.

“Washington at the Battle of Trenton,” engraving by Illman Brothers, from painting by E.L. Henry, 1870.

Christmas of 1776 marked the first major victory for the Continental Army.  Several months earlier, General Washington’s troops lost New York City to the British and eventually retreated south.  The British army chased the Americans through New Jersey and Delaware en route to Philadelphia, the Continental capital.  The situation was made even more dire by the prospect of a vastly reduced number of Continental troops after December 31, when enlistments were due to expire.

In early December the Continental Army crossed the Delaware and destroyed or captured all watercraft for a 75-mile stretch along the river to deter the British from crossing.  The British leaders evidently thought the Continental Army was no threat, and General Howe decided to move his men into winter quarters in Trenton, Pennington and Bordentown, New Jersey, with a base of operations in Brunswick.

Washington decided to make a bold move and attack Trenton, where Hessian troops were wintering.  On December 25, the Americans formed into three divisions and were to cross the river at three separate locations once night fell.  Washington personally led one division.  The weather was poor.  Ice chunks were floating in the river, and the falling snow soon turned to sleet and hail driven by a bitterly cold wind.  Once the troops – many lacking warm winter clothing and shoes – crossed the river, they marched nine miles to the town of Trenton.  The Hessian soldiers were celebrating Christmas in a traditional German style, never expecting an attack on the morning of December 26.

The Continental Army’s overwhelming victory at Trenton had several important consequences.  The Americans managed to capture more than 900 men and their weapons and accouterments, and lost only two soldiers.  British General Howe was so stunned by the outcome of Trenton that he sent for General Cornwallis, who was about to board a ship for England, to return to New Jersey to command the army.  For the American cause, Trenton was a great morale booster, and General Washington became an overnight hero.


Medical practices during the American Revolution are interpreted at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s re-created Continental Army encampment.

Medical practices during the American Revolution are interpreted at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s re-created Continental Army encampment.

By the time of the American Revolution, the state of medical knowledge was entering a period of transition that would result in major advances in health care more than a hundred years later.  The physicians of the Revolutionary era, however, had to go about their work in the face of handicaps that are almost unimaginable today. 

The Continental Army’s medical department was established in 1775.  The regimental surgeons with the army and the physicians in the hospitals were given an almost impossible task.  An underpaid staff that was often unfamiliar with military medicine and handicapped by serious shortages of drugs and instruments was expected to provide competent care for an army that faced problems caused by poor hygiene and inadequate supplies of food and clothing.  During the course of the war, nearly 90 percent of the deaths in the Continental Army resulted from disease, not battle wounds.

The usual pattern in the army was outbreaks of respiratory illness, including pneumonia and pleurisy, in the winter and dysentery in the summer.  “Fevers,” probably malaria, yellow fever, typhus and typhoid, were always a threat, and scabies, or “the itch,” was a constant problem.

Most treatment involved bleeding, purging and the use of drugs, including mercury, opium and wine, when they were available.  The only disease physicians knew how to prevent was smallpox.  Immunization through inoculation was effective but involved some risk.  General Washington bravely ordered his entire army to be inoculated several times during the Revolution.

Surgical treatment consisted primarily of dealing with bayonet and musket ball wounds.  Little could be done for chest or abdomen wounds.  Fractured limb bones often resulted in amputation.  Although this was a routine procedure, the mortality rate for major amputations was often as high as 50 percent because of subsequent infections.

Despite all of the problems encountered by the physicians in the army, they struggled to ease the suffering of sick and wounded American soldiers.  The Marquis de Chastellux wrote in 1781, “The Americans … are well pleased with their doctors, whom they hold in the highest consideration.”


Hand-colored Thomas Jefferson portrait 1907

This hand-colored photograph of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson was exhibited at the 1907 Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition and is now in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

It seems that college students will be college students, even in 18th-century Williamsburg, Virginia, and even if one of those students would become one of our country’s most esteemed revolutionaries.

All around the Tower (east) entrance to Bruton Parish Church, you can see many initials carved into the soft bricks.  A close examination of this early graffiti will reveal the initials “TJ.”  In the 18th century, the east gallery of the church was reserved for students at the College of William and Mary.  If you are seated in the east gallery today, and your eyes begin to wander, you might spy the initials “TJ” carved into the gallery’s railing.

One of the longest-standing legends around Bruton Parish Church is that these two sets of initials were placed there by Mr. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. 

After attending the College of William and Mary and reading law, Jefferson quickly became one of youngest of political thinkers who became involved in the conflict between British authority and American rights.  In his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson defended self-government, asserting that political power ultimately derived from the people and that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”  Two years later, Jefferson expanded this philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, where he set forth the principles behind America’s revolution and justified to the world its bold bid for independence.


George Washington after Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait ca  1800

A circa 1800 copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington is on exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The original was commissioned as a present to the Marquis of Lansdowne, who as British prime minister helped negotiate peace with America at the end of the Revolution. This copy, executed soon after the original Lansdowne portrait, is in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

As an ambitious and earnest young man, George Washington approached all of his endeavors with the energy, thoroughness and determination he was to exhibit throughout his life.  Washington worked very hard to mold himself into a model Virginia gentleman, and as a young man he developed a keen sense of honor and duty.  Although he was not one of the leading spokesmen who advocated American independence during the crisis years of the 1760s, it is clear that by 1775 he had developed his own vision of republican liberty.

The decision of the Continental Congress to name Washington as commander-in-chief of the army was largely based on political considerations and to ensure intercolonial unity.  Nevertheless, Washington turned out to be an exceptional leader of men, with a well-defined vision of what the American army should become.

Washington may not have been a brilliant strategist, but he understood the importance of mobility and timely offensive action.  He was a bold, tenacious commander but was careful not to risk the total destruction of his army.  Washington learned from his mistakes, and he won the respect and loyalty of his men.

Washington looked forward to retirement as a farmer when peace arrived, but his sense of duty and unwavering vision of a free, strong, self-sufficient America led him to leave Mount Vernon and once again provide leadership for his country.  His moderating influence as head of the Constitutional Convention, his efforts to ensure the Constitution’s ratification by the states, and his willingness to serve as the first president of the new federal government were all critical to  the preservation and success of the American republic.


Yorktown survived the 1781 siege but never regained its pre-Revolutionary War status as a bustling commercial center.  This 1787 sketch of the seal of the “Borough of York” is in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

Yorktown survived the 1781 siege but never regained its pre-Revolutionary War status as a bustling commercial center. This 1787 sketch of the seal of the “Borough of York” is in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

Today Yorktown is best known as the site of the decisive battle of the American Revolution and a travel destination.  But at its zenith in the 18th century, the town was one of the most important centers of trade and shipping in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay region.

Yorktown was established as a result of an “Act for Ports and Towns” passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1691.  The town started to grow in 1697 when a courthouse for the county and a new church for York Parish were built.  From the beginning, Yorktown’s success was closely tied to the tobacco trade, and during the first half of the 1700s the town was a thriving port.  Large quantities of tobacco and other commodities were exported, and shipments of enslaved people and European goods were imported from across the Atlantic.  By 1750 Yorktown consisted of more than 250 buildings and 1,800 inhabitants.

As the center of tobacco production shifted west to the recently settled Piedmont region, changing patterns of trade began to affect the town’s commerce.  By the 1750s the York River’s share of commerce had dropped to third place among the Virginia colony’s six naval districts, and by 1776 Yorktown was one of the lesser ports.

Lord Cornwallis’ occupation and fortification of Yorktown in the summer of 1781 began a series of events that resulted in the Yorktown campaign later that year.  At the end of the siege on October 19, 1781, the allied American and French army had won a great victory, but more than half of the town had been destroyed.

Although Yorktown survived the Revolution and siege, it never fully recovered.  The devastated town gradually became a sleepy hamlet, which according to Benjamin Latrobe in the 1790s, was famous only for the “best fish and oysters, the best tavern in Virginia and hospitality and friendliness of its inhabitants.”

If The Boot Fits …

18th-century engraving of Benedict Arnold

18th-century engraving of Benedict Arnold, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

The only monument to an American war hero that does not contain the hero’s name was erected near the spot at Saratoga where Benedict Arnold led the Continental Army’s victory over the British on October 7, 1777.

Arnold had been wounded in the foot during the Battle of Quebec and suffered further injuries when his horse was shot out from under him at the Battle of Ridgefield.  Another leg injury at Saratoga effectively ended his career as a fighting soldier. 

A few years after Saratoga, Arnold was the brunt of what he perceived as a series of slights and insults by the Continental Congress.  He then opposed the treaties that brought the French into the Revolution and ultimately began a series of maneuvers that led to his changing sides.

Arnold attempted to hand over his American command, the key fortification of West Point, to the British, an attempt that failed because of the capture of Major John André.  Benedict Arnold escaped to the British lines.  He was given the rank of a British brigadier general and was paid £6,000.

The nameless monument at Saratoga is “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT 7th October, 1777 winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and the rank of Major General.”

There is an apocryphal story about this monument.  When Arnold was leading British forces against his former compatriots in Virginia, his prisoners included an officer who, in answer to Arnold’s question, “What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?”  The witty officer is said to have replied, “They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet.”

If the boot fits…!

The Morris Brothers Choose Different Sides

 Gouverneur Morris is depicted in a 1783 portrait after a drawing by Pierre Eugène Du Simitière.

Gouverneur Morris is depicted in a 1783 illustration after a drawing by Pierre Eugène Du Simitière.

The Revolution forced Americans to decide whether to support independence or remain loyal to Britain.  Sometimes members of the same family came up with different answers to this vexing question of loyalty.  In the early 1770s the rich and politically powerful Morris family of New York faced the problem of choosing sides.  Some members of the family were patriots and played important roles in creating the new United States of America.  Lewis Morris was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  His half brother Gouverneur Morris was a member of the Continental Congress and later authored substantial parts of the United States Constitution.  A third brother, Richard Morris, who was a British Vice Admiralty Court judge before the war, resigned his position and joined the patriot cause, becoming a New York State Supreme Court judge. 

A fourth Morris brother, Staats Long Morris, took a different political course.  Staats Morris was born in America and educated at Yale, but as a young man joined the British Army.  He decided to make the military his career, and by the time the Revolution began he was already a Brigadier General.  He also became a member of the British Parliament in 1774 and served in that body at the same time his brothers were in the American Continental Congress.  General Morris chose to remain loyal to the King.  He stayed in the British army and eventually became a full general, although he was never required to fight in America.  After the Revolution, Staats Morris travelled to America briefly to settle some business affairs with his brothers but soon returned to Britain.  He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Success to Trade

A new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown exhibit case illustrates the theme of trade between the American colonies and Britain prior to the Revolution.  Located at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the case contains several objects acquired in recent years for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

A circa 1765 English firing glass, a form of drinking glass used for delivering toasts, is inscribed “Success to Trade,” a popular sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic.  The American colonies were tied to Britain by a complex network of trade relationships, and this transatlantic trade was important both to Britain and the colonies.

In return for exporting mostly agricultural products like tobacco, America received manufactured goods from Britain, exemplified by a side-pillar microscope made by John Cuff in London about 1750 and a pair of 18th-century paktong candlesticks.  Paktong, a Chinese alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, was used in 18th-century Britain to make a range of domestic objects.  Paktong looks like silver, and candlesticks made of this alloy became a popular alternative to genuine silver candlesticks.

Work is under way on transforming the museum site, and when the project is complete, in approximately four years,  the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown will become the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Artifacts from the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

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