YORKTOWN, Va. | Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Saturday dedicated the American Museum of the Revolution at Yorktown, not far from where British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered his forces to Gen. George Washington in October 1781 — presaging the end of the American war for independence from the Crown.
“When we think about the American Revolution, you think about George Washington and the Boston Tea Party, but what you are going to see in this museum is [how] ordinary people you don’t hear about are the unsung heroes,” Mr. McAuliffe said during the dedication ceremony. “They will be [honored] by this great museum.”
The museum officially opened Saturday following a 10-year, $50 million campaign to transform the Yorktown Victory Center into a state-of-the-art interactive facility featuring artifacts and exhibits about the era between the settlement of the nearby English settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, officially recognizing the new United States by Great Britain.
“We would not have won the war were it not for the French,” Mr. McAuliffe said in tribute to the forces of King Louis XVI, who cast their lot with the colonists against their traditional enemy across the English Channel.
Mr. McAuliffe proudly told the crowd he lives in the “oldest governor’s mansion in the country,” and touted the mansion’s Lafayette Room, named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, a crucial French ally of the Colonial Army and who was present during the victorious Battle of Yorktown.
Col. Thierry Casanova, a representative of the French Embassy in Washington, told the crowd it was an honor to “walk in the steps of so many illustrious French who came before us.”
“Two armies faced each other here, and by the fortune of war, this coalition of our countries won this battle of the Revolutionary War,” Col. Casanova said, adding that the two nations would later be allies in both world wars of the 20th century.
The Rev. Carleton B. Bakkum, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Yorktown, offered a prayer during the ceremony paying tribute to Virginia’s long, complicated history. Mr. Bakkum spoke of the American Indians who lived in the area long before it was a colony or a commonwealth, as well as the millions of enslaved Africans whose labors were crucial to the building of early America. (The museum offers exhibits on American Indians and African Americans who fought in the Revolution.)
Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, dedicated the museum in honor of Nick and Mary Mathews, Greek-American immigrants who met in New York and relocated to the “Historic Triangle” area of Virginia in 1944 — Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. The Mathews provided substantial funding to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and donated the land on which the museum sits.
“They were poor, but they were honest, hardworking folks,” Mr. McAuliffe said of the Mathews, whose restaurant, Nick’s Seafood Pavilion, remains a Yorktown institution today. “They fell in love with the charm of Yorktown.”
Mr. McAuliffe related how the Mathews were renowned for allowing military personnel to dine for free in their restaurant, and they were the first naturalized U.S. citizens to sponsor a Navy vessel, the USS Yorktown. Mary Mathews was known to wave an American flag as the Yorktown cruised by on the York River, which would play “God Bless America” from the decks as she passed by the Mathews’ property.
The 29th Infantry Division Band of the Virginia Army National Guard performed at the ceremony. Mr. McAuliffe noted that Virginia is the first state to have ended military veteran homelessness.