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The colonial era ghosts that still haunt the streets of Yorktown, the landmark village of the American Revolution

6 min read

It is said that the town of Yorktown is haunted. From Cornwallis’ Cave on the banks of the York River, to Crawford Road, the town is a magnet for urban legends and ghost stories.
Strange enough, Cornwallis’ Cave, despite its name, not proven to be linked to the General Cornwallis, leader of the ill-fated British Troops at Yorktown during the American Revolution. Some say British troops did shelter in the cave from the incessant bombardment of Colonial and French artillery, while others claim that it was the citizens of Yorktown themselves who did shelter here but, in any case, all stories agree that at some point after the war the cave was enlarged, and used by smugglers. Though it’s now gated, it seems that voices are still heard at night coming from the darkness: some say it’s the voices of Revolutionary War soldiers, the moaning of the injured and dying hiding in the cave, others say it’s the sounds of a satanic sect thought to have used the cave in the 1970s.

But, in any case, just as Yorktown’s claim to fame is tied to the American Revolution, so to are most of the ghost stories from the area. Cannon fire and the sound of drums are heard wafting across former Yorktown Battlefield, now part of Colonial National Historical Park, more than two centuries after the armies left the field.
John “Jackie” Custis had the good fortune (or better depending on the point of view) to be the son of Mary Custis, more famously known from the name she took in her second marriage, Martha Washington. Despite having failed miserably at nearly anything he had tried in his short life, the guy was making a name for himself as aide de camp to his stepfather, General Washington in person. Now as bad as the horrors of war were, the horrors of camp life really could be even worse. In fact, It has been said that more men died from several diseases in that work than in battle. And poor Jackie picked one of these up during the siege of Yorktown, falling deathly ill. Luckily for him, with the commanding officer not only employer, but also step-father, he could afford the best in medical care. However, unfortunately, this meant he got the razor taken to his ankles’ veins rather than leeches, and bleeding the patient wasn’t an effective remedy for the disease (probably typhus) which took his life.
For years afterwards, and occasionally to this day, the transparent figure in a white nightshirt with bloody bandages tied around his ankles has been seen rushing towards Yorktown battlefield.

If you walk into town from the Yorktown Victory Monument, you should know that the remaining houses on Main street are from the Colonial period, and it’s an incredibly tidy walk back into time. In an open field once stood the home of William Nelson, one-time governor of Virginia, appointed by the King himself, and on moonlit nights, still today, British soldiers are seen racing across the yard, fleeing from the sounds of cannon which the living cannot hear.

Across the street is the Thomas Nelson home, son of William Nelson. Thomas was well known as newly instated governor of Virginia, as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, three time member of the Continental Congress and prominent local businessman. Another title which Thomas Nelson held was head of the Virginia militia, consisting of about 3,000 soldiers.
According to legend, as Yorktown was his home, the Marquis de Lafayette invited him to watch Captain Thomas Machin’s battery’s first shells to be launched at the village.
To what particular spot,” Lafayette reportedly asked Nelson, “would your Excellency direct that we should point the cannon.” Nelson replied, “There, to that house. It is mine, and … it is the best one in the town. There you will be almost certain to find Lord Cornwallis and the British headquarters.
Later it is said, that Nelson offered the gunners a financial reward for every shell which hit his house. His money was relatively safe in that there are only three spots in the brick where shells are believed to have struck.
It is an imposing edifice by anyone’s standards. Three stories tall and on a hill overlooking the York River, the house was believed to be for a time, the headquarters of the same British General Cornwallis during the American Revolution, and was a frequent target of American and French cannon fire during the siege of Yorktown. During the Civil War the house became a Union hospital, which meant likely even more pain than that shed during the Revolution, and it was on the third floor where the most grievously wounded were cared for.
Without air conditioning and at the top floor of a brick house, in the Virginia summer there were inhumane conditions, and it is said that the windows, in any case, had to be kept open so that the stench of decayed flesh could escape.
The attic is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a soldier who fell in love with his nurse, and despite her attentions, died in the house. Others have heard the sobbing of a woman on the third floor, so perhaps it’s the unfortunate young man’s nurse?
It’s not surprising then that people have seen specters, expecially on the third floor, and It’s also not surprising that the local young people might wander onto the grounds of the Nelson House at night, attracted to allegedly haunted locations.

Nearby is the Cole Digges house, built early in the eighteenth century, and seemingly with more of the dead (and ghosts) than the living within its walls. The small house has been the site of hauntings from both a colonial era man as well as a woman, both manifesting themselves and going about their business as though the past two hundred years never took place. The apparitions are a regular enough occurrence to have ran two different tenants out of the home, until a couple moved in and enjoyed the ghostly presence.

Ah. Also the old medical shop in historic Yorktown has its ghost: a young lady who lived there tells tales of incredible paranormal activity, including the hurling of flowers and vases, deadbolts closing on their own, footsteps and acts of a more mischievous nature.
If this wasn’t enough, there are ghost tours in the spring and fall of historic Yorktown. Not that you need a ghost tour to have a walk down the city’s haunted main street. Ghosts apart, in the light of a hot Virginia summer, Yorktown retains its colonial era charm. And at night, the present slips away altogether. A walk down the darkened main street, where nearly every house has its ghost story leads to the history of the Revolution, where for every dream dead another began….

Images from web – Google Research

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