Revolutionary War: Road to Yorktown

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We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.

– General Nathaniel Greene, July 1781

We are excited to offer an exclusive new tour: Revolutionary War: Road to Yorktown. This 9-day tour explores the final days of this epic American conflict, the battles that raged across the southern theater and the key players in that drama.

The American Revolution midwifed the birth of a new nation. Many battles immortalized by history—Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga—took place in the northern colonies. But the southern campaign from Charleston, South Carolina to Yorktown, Virginia, was the final, decisive struggle. From a massive British victory in March 1780, their biggest of the war, to the surrender of an entire British army at Yorktown in September 1781, the ultimate days of the American Rebellion tell a tale of ferocity, incisive strategy, and rash opportunism that ends in a stunning turnabout.

This Revolutionary War tour follows this fascinating, often overlooked campaign. Battles large and small raged across the Carolinas and Virginia. British commander Lord Cornwallis strove to seize control of the south, leaning heavily on his talented and aggressive subordinate, Colonel Banastre Tarleton. George Washington sent generals Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan south to face them. Hundreds of engagements and skirmishes, more than in any other part of the country, frequently involved local militias facing each other. From the swampy lowlands to the backcountry, bloody struggles resembling civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor, father against son.

At famous battlefields such as Cowpens and King’s Mountain, as well as lesser-known but crucial spots like Ninety-Six and Blackstock Plantation, we will walk the battle lines and meet the British soldiers and Loyalists seeking to vanquish the rebels, as well as the Patriots who thwarted Britain’s last attempt to win the war. Our historian will lead the group and conduct informal discussions throughout the tour as we learn more about the dramatic final campaign that led to the ultimate victory in the American Revolution.

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Highlights

  • Charleston, South Carolina: We’ll tour Revolutionary war sites in this picturesque and celebrated city.
  • Battle of Camden: Here General Charles Cornwallis matched wits with the victor of Saratoga, General Horatio Gates.
  • Kings’ Mountain Battlefield: One of the most dramatic and bloody battles of the Southern theater—a clash between Patriot and Loyalist militias—that handed the Americans a decisive victory.
  • Cowpens Battlefield: How did American commander Daniel Morgan turn the tables on the infamous Colonel Banastre Tarleton? Find out what led to this significant British defeat.
  • Battle of Guilford Courthouse: Study the clever tactics General Nathaniel Greene used in one of his most famous battles. This is why they called him “The Savior of the South.”
  • Yorktown, Virginia: Stand on the spot where the British laid down their arms. See how Washington and his French allies trapped the wily British general. Relive the signal victory of the war.
  • Colonial Williamsburg: Travel through time in this historic district and living-history museum where the colonial era comes to life before your eyes.

Day-By-Day Itinerary

DAY 1 Charleston, SC

Guests organize travel to Charleston, South Carolina. Opening night reception, presentation, and dinner at the hotel.

DAY 2 Charleston, SC

During the Revolution, Charleston was the fourth largest city in the colonies, the largest and richest in the south. Twelve thousand people lived here—half free and half slave.

Prelude: At Sullivan’s Island, the Patriots under Colonel William Moultrie successfully defended Charleston against a combined British sea and land attack by Admiral Peter Parker and General Henry Clinton in 1776—foreshadowing the 1780 campaign.

The heart of the campaign: A brief walking tour through the venerable streets of historic Charleston will lead us to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, built in 1771. We’ll see where Patriots held secret councils and hid precious supplies of gunpowder, and where the British later imprisoned Patriot leaders—one of whom they hung!

After lunch in Charleston’s charming French quarter, we travel to Drayton Hall, an elegant 18th century estate. Briefly a headquarters for Lord Cornwallis, this stunning un-restored plantation house offers a unique window into the role of slavery during the revolution—and the way the war fractured one prominent family.

At day's end, we visit the only remnant of the city’s 1780 fortifications and understand how a 42-day siege led to one of the Patriots’ worst defeats in the war. The surrender of a 5,000-man army put the entire American cause in jeopardy.

DAY 3 Charleston, Fort Watson, Camden and Columbia, SC

After Charleston was captured in 1780, Lord Cornwallis faced guerilla resistance as well as an army sent south by George Washington.

First stop: Fort Watson. Two colorful Patriot irregulars, Light Horse Harry Lee and Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” used a tactic dating back to Julius Caesar to capture a fort built on an Indian burial mound.

In historic Camden, we pay a visit to the battlefield there. It is little changed from when the Americans under Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, confronted Cornwallis head-on – and suffered a major defeat. Gates, in fact, ruined his reputation by fleeing the battlefield. “Was there ever an instance of a general running away as Gates has done from his whole army?” wrote Gen. Washington's aide, Alexander Hamilton.

Here we will also meet a general who did not flee to save his own skin. The Frenchman, Baron De Kalb proved himself a hero. He might have become more famous than Lafayette—if only he had survived the battle.

On to Waxhaw, among the most notorious battlefields of the war. Here Colonel Banastre Tarleton led a Loyalist militia attack on a column of American cavalry under Colonel Abraham Buford. In the grisly fighting that followed, Tarleton’s men allegedly cut down American soldiers even as they tried to surrender. More than three-quarters of the Americans were killed or seriously wounded. We’ll pay our respects at a mass grave on the battlefield. Was it a massacre, or just a one-sided victory? No matter. Tarleton's supposed cruelty became a byword among the Patriots, and the cry of “Tarleton’s Quarter” would haunt the British in battles to come.

DAY 4 Columbia, Ninety-Six, Blackstock Plantation and Spartanburg, SC

The day begins with a presentation from our historian illuminating how the Patriot resistance to Cornwallis came together, providing context for the five RevWar battlefields we will visit in the next three days,

Then we head to the town of Ninety-Six, which General Cornwallis fortified in his attempt to pacify South Carolina. It came under siege from General Nathaniel Greene, sent by Washington to replace Horatio Gates.

Ninety-Six is unique. You can still see the original earthworks where the British fort stood, as well as the siege trenches dug by Greene’s men. Even the entrance a tunnel dug to mine the fortifications is visible. Rare and compelling, this is among the best-preserved sites of the Revolutionary War.

Next, we will travel to a little-known battlefield at Blackstock Plantation. At this beautiful spot, nearly untouched in the last 250 years, Patriot partisans under General Thomas Sumpter delivered a check to the famed British commander Banastre Tarleton.

DAY 5 Spartanburg, Cowpens and King’s Mountain, SC; Greensboro, NC

We will visit two of the best-known battlefields of the Southern Campaign: Two American victories that changed the trajectory of Cornwallis’s campaign, paving the way for his eventual defeat.

Retreating from the British in January 1781, General Daniel Morgan searched for a place to make a stand. He found it at Cowpens. “On this ground, I will defeat the British or lay my bones,” he told a fellow officer. Here he gambled all by launching a risky double envelopment maneuver against Banastre Tarleton.

Next stop, Kings Mountain. Here, in October 1780, Patriot and Loyalist militia clashed in a dramatic hilltop engagement. Virtually everyone who took part was American-born. Savage fighting was the order of the day. “The dead lay in heaps on all sides,” wrote one soldier, “while the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction.” The resounding American victory was due in large part to “Over-Mountain Men” – frontiersmen from Tennessee and Kentucky who trekked over the mountains with their long rifles to come to grips with the hated Loyalists.

DAY 6 Greensboro and Alamance, NC; Williamsburg, VA

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse neatly sums up Nathaniel Greene’s entire campaign strategy. He lost the battle, but made the victory so costly for Cornwallis that it forced the British general to abandon North Carolina and retreat toward Virginia. "I never saw such fighting since God made me,” wrote Cornwallis after the battle. “The Americans fought like demons." 

On this battlefield we will not only explore the tactics that led to this “victory in defeat,” we will also dive into the story of one of those “demons,” an extraordinary Patriot soldier named Peter Francisco. Born in Portugal, known as “The Virginia Hercules,” he became perhaps the most celebrated enlisted man of the Revolutionary War. But how much of his incredible story is real, and how much is myth and exaggeration?

We’ll pay a visit to the museum at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park to view their particularly fine collection of relics dug up from the battlefield.

Next, we travel back to an intriguing pre-revolutionary war battlefield in Alamance, North Carolina. Here in 1771, the “Regulators,” Back-country men angry at high taxes, fought a pitched battle with a militia commanded by North Carolina Governor William Tryon fully five years before the battles of Lexington and Concord. We’ll find out why a monument there refers to it as “The first Battle of the American Revolution” and explore how much truth there is in that claim.

From there we make the drive to Virginia. In May 1781, Cornwallis moved his army to the Virginia peninsula for what would be the final act of the Southern campaign. 

DAY 7 Williamsburg, VA

Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Meticulously preserved in the 1930s, it is now the largest living-history museum in the country. Cornwallis came through here with his army in the spring of 1781, followed soon after by American and French forces under Washington and Rochambeau determined to finish off the British Army.

We begin the day with a curator-led walking tour of Williamsburg to orient ourselves to the town and understand the part it played in the final campaign.

We visit the extraordinary Dewitt museum, preserving everything from case clocks to furniture, to vintage maps and clothing.

In the afternoon, explore Colonial Williamsburg at your own pace

DAY 8 Yorktown, VA

Lord Cornwallis waits: He fortified Yorktown anticipating the British Navy to reinforce or remove him. Alas for Cornwallis, a French fleet drove off the British ships, leaving him cornered with little chance to escape.

But first, we visit the site of a little-known battle that preceded Yorktown. At the Battle of Green Spring, the Marquis de Lafayette and "Mad Anthony" Wayne barely evaded a trap set by Cornwallis that could have had huge repercussions for the American cause. A unique feature of this battlefield is a carefully preserved site in the middle of a modern subdivision.

On to Yorktown! We travel along the re-constructed siege lines and visit Redoubt #10, where Alexander Hamilton’s nighttime bayonet attack made him a certified war hero. Just steps away is Redoubt #9 where a German unit in the French army attacked a German unit serving the British Army!

The trip to Yorktown ends on the surrender field. Yes, you will stand on the exact spot where Redcoats marched between lines of American and French soldiers to lay down their weapons, effectively ending the major fighting of the Revolution. Here you can also see Washington’s actual tent and a cannon personally identified by Lafayette as being at the battle.

After a visit to the Yorktown Victory Monument, we will visit the museum of the American Revolution in Yorktown. Indoor galleries feature period artifacts, immersive environments, and films. “The Siege of Yorktown” puts you at the center of the action with a 180-degree surround screen and dramatic special effects. Outside, visit a re-created Continental Army encampment.

We will gather for a final cocktail reception and dinner.

DAY 9 Richmond, VA Airport

Thank you for traveling with Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours. As we develop future chapters of our Revolutionary War tour, we will send you the information. Have a safe trip home!

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Tour Dates

  • October 2022
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TRIP COST $4,490

Price is per person based on double occupancy. For a single room add $900.

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