Entertaining look at Battle of Yorktown’s shipwrecks

Published 11:15 pm Tuesday, June 16, 2020

short rows headerSoutheast Virginians live in one of America’s most historic areas, and none of the historic sites hereabouts are more important than Yorktown, where it may truly be said the nation was born.


The defeat of British Gen. Cornwallis in October 1781 by allied American and French troops essentially ended the American Revolution and allowed the Paris Peace Talks to proceed from a position of strength on the part of America.

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Yorktown is so important to U.S. history that I am drawn to any television show featuring it. Recently, that led me to watch the reality show being produced by National Geographic titled “Drain the Oceans.”

The show had a segment about the identification of yet another ship in a fleet of British vessels sunk during the siege of Yorktown. A group known as JRS Explorations had found the transport ship with the unique name of Shipwright on the Gloucester side of the river, where its burned-out hulk lay alongside the also burned-out British frigate Charon.

There was no nothing, so far as I could tell, that wasn’t true in the mini-documentary, though you would certainly expect nothing less than factual material from National Geographic.

However, if you had never studied the Battle of Yorktown or read anything about the ships the British either scuttled or lost to French and American cannon fire, you might be left with the impression that much of the information in the show was new, even though the only thing “new” appears to have been the exploration of the Shipwright and another look-see at the Charon.

It was reality television at its best, but reality TV nonetheless. It certainly was not a discussion on C-SPAN by a marine archaeologist. If it had been, it would likely have been Donald G. Shomette of Maryland or some other noted Chesapeake Bay archaeologist who was doing the lecturing.

Oddly enough, in fact, I had just finished reading, for the second time, Shomette’s “Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.” In well-documented and often engaging prose, Shomette catalogued most of the major shipwrecks that have occurred in the Chesapeake Bay during the past four centuries, including the British fleet at Yorktown. That book was written in 1982 and included material on the Charon and the Shipwright that had been recorded far earlier, including a diary written at the time of the battle in 1781.

None of this is to put down National Geographic or its series, which is very entertaining. The computerized images of the ocean and river bottoms containing wrecks are beautifully done and Geographic can be depended on to treat matters factually, even if “discoveries” are hyped a bit to suit a television audience. It’s “history light,” and that’s an important concept in an age when most people are simply not going to sit down and read scholarly material produced by people like Donald Shomette.

It’s a similar approach to history that is being used by museums, including the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, to attract a new audience that simply won’t settle for static displays and isn’t going to read lengthy books.

So, good for National Geographic. They highlighted Yorktown’s importance in American history and did so in an enjoyable way. But if you’re truly interested in Chesapeake Bay shipwrecks or any other regional history, find a good book. Shomette’s is just one of many.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.