In the window of the Credit Agricole bank on Belle Isle, off the coast of Brittany, a poster invites attendance at the "Bicentenaire de la Victoire de Yorktown." Inquiries about the celebration arrive daily at the Yorktown, Va., Victory center from France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Sudan, and other countries. orders for souvenir medallions come from Sicily and more distant places. The Yorktown Bicentennial Celebration, Oct. 16-19, beckons across the seas, international in scope and bidding fair to eclipse all previous commemorations of the American victory at Yorktown.
The first was Oct. 19, 1824, when General Lafayette, on a state visit to the US, made a pilgrimage to the battlefield where he had served 43 years earlier. John Marshall, chief justice of the United States, and a crowd of more than 10, 000 welcomed him. Washington's tent was erected on the battlefield, and Lafayette dined with war veterans by the light of wax candles taken from Cornwallis's stores.
In 1881 a four-day celebration was held, attended by President Chester A. Arthur, the Congress, the Supreme Court, state governors, and the ambassadors of France and Germany. A fleet of American and French warships rode at anchor in the York River.
The Sesquicentennial celebration in 1931 attracted more than 200,000 people. President Herbert Hoover and the governors of the 13 original states took part in the program, which included balls, reenactments, and fire- works. In the Words of Douglas Southall Freeman, many citizens "went to perform a duty rather than to learn a lesson," but found "something reassuring in contact with the scenes of so much faith and courage." The victory represented, as he expressed it, "answered prayer, rewarded patience, vindicated faith."
Months ago the date began triggering the collective memories of historians around the world, bringing polite reminders to Yorktown officials: "Sirs, are you aware that October 1981 marks the 200th anniversary of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis?" Federal, state, and local planners had, in fact, been at work for a number of years. In 1968 the Commonwealth of Virginia began planning the Yorktown Victory Center, which opened in April 1976. Yorktown Day, Oct. 19, was desigrics. In the bathroom, the hot and cold saltwater taps were in place, thought they no longer gushed seawater for Part 1 of a two part bath.
There are four restaurants on the ship, and for dinner I chose Sir Winston Churchill's -- once the posh Verandah Grill. The decor had the somber tone of an English club, and the walls were covered with black and white photographs depicting Churchill's life. The service was attentive and an excellent Steak Diane was prepared and cooked right at the table.
"Oh God: It is all over!" exclaimed Lord North, the British prime minister, when informed of the surrender. Miraculously, the Continental Army under Generals Washington and Lafayette and the French units led by General Rochambeau had successfully opposed Cornwallis's Army of 7,500 soldiers. Only that May Washington had written despairingly in his diary that "instead of having everything in readiness to take the field, we have nothing." But on Sept. 5 the French fleet under Adm. Comte de Grasse successfully blockaded the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, forcing the British fleet to abandon its plan of evacuating Cornwallis and his Army.
The Continental Army marched its combined forces from Rhode Island to Yorktown in October and defeated Cornwallis. Beginning Oct. 10 in Providence, the march will be reenacted. Approximately 1,000 colonial militia and French-Canadian troops, some descendants of Rochambeau, will participate, wearing authentic reproductions of period uniforms. They will march through towns in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, using campers between towns. Yorktown, N.Y., Liberty Corner, N.J. , and Philadelphia, Pa. are among those scheduled for visits.
At Yorktown they will join other troops representing 27 states and Canada to form 160 re-created revolutionary war units of over 4,000 militiamen, outfitted as American, French, and British soldiers and officers. On Thursday, Oct. 15, advance parties will set up a living history military encampment with 1,000 18 th-century tents where the troops will live, cook, and eat.
Friday, Oct. 16, is Festival Day, with a parade, address by Gov. John N. Dalton, siege demonstrations, reenactments of the storming of the redoubts, and opening of the Colonial Heritage Festival with 16 acres of exhibits and entertainments. There will be period ships and demonstrations on the York River.
On Military Day, Oct. 17, cannon barrage will cease to permit reenactment of the famous "call for parley" by the British drummer boy, who stood unnoticed amid the exploding shells, the sound of his drum drowned out by the roar of cannon. The actual note he carried, with the message from Cornwallis, "I propose a cessation of hostilities," is on display at the Victory Center. There will be addresses by military leaders and further tactical demonstrations, along with a seafood festival at Gloucester Point.
Oct. 18 is Patriots' Day, with interdenominational religious services, battle reenactments, music, and dramatic shows. A feu de joim (bonfire series) will be staged on the battlefield, followed by a fireworks display over the York River.
On Victory Day, Oct. 19, plans call for a reenactment of the British surrender beginning at 2 p.m. President REagan has been invited to give an address; plans also call for speeches by the heads of state (or their representatives) of the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, and France. Six tall ships, including the first United States Navy flagship, the Providence, will be in Hampton Roads waters.
The Victory Center has mounted a special exhibit, "The World Turned Upside Down," named for the tune the British played as they retreated. It will run through December 1981. Among the memorabilia on display are two paintings by Nicholas van Blaranberghe, "The Siege of Yorktown" and "Surrender at Yorktown," on loan from Versailles and never before exhibited in America. Washington's trunk and diary, the surrender table, two French cannons captured by the British and recaptured at Yorktown, and the only surviving Purple Heart medal given to an enlisted man are amont the many treasures of the exhibit. A French engraving shows Yorktown with fanciful castles. There is also a filmed re-creation of the battle, made in Hollywood.
The National Park Service Visitor Center at the battlefield is a separate museum, well worth seeing, with displays of military equipment, Washington's tent, orientation film, and bus tours to the redoubts and surrender field.
The Yorktown Bicentennial Committee is offering bronze souvenir bicentennial medals engraved with John Turnbull's painting "The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown," whic appears on all Virginia telephone books this year but which cannot, under the terms of the bequest, leave the Yale University Art Gallery.
Visitors may also see Cornwallis's Cave, where he is believed to have lived during the final days of the siege, the Moore House, where the articles of surrender were signed, and the Victory Monument built in 1881 for the centennial celebration.
A number of additional events are also scheduled, including a commemorative ceremony in which French naval vessels will participate on Sept. 5 to mark the battle off the Virginia Capes and a British Tattoo at Hampton Coliseum Oct. 6 by the Coldstream Guards and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
Many visitors to Virginia, having explored Williamsburg to the point of exhaustion and perhaps made a foray to Jamestown, sadly confess they never reached Yorktown. the remedy is at hand this October with a visit during the bicentennial celebration, both emblem and exposition of what Thomas Paine called the "celestial article," freedom.
For details and accommodation lists write the Yorktown Victory Center, Box 1976, Yorktown, Va., 23690. For lodging in the Williamsburg area (14 miles away), call (800) 582-8977 (Virginia) or (800) 446-9244 (elsewhere).