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by William H. Benson

October 19, 2006

    Writing teachers tell us that authors build their most successful stories upon one of two themes: a stranger comes to town or somebody goes on a journey.  In each scenario, an author presents captivating characters, unusual settings, plots guaranteed to enthrall, point of view, and conflict.  Readers gravitate to these stories.

     In August of 1781 the British general Cornwallis and his troops encamped at Yorktown, in Virginia, just inside the Chesapeake Bay.  There, Cornwallis requested supplies from General Clinton in New York, but Clinton dawdled.

     George Washington, the American general, heard that a French admiral, the Count Francois deGrasse, was sailing from the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay with 3000 French troops and 25 warships.  Washington scrapped his other military plans and raced his best units from Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey down the coast to the bay area where he then surrounded Cornwallis.

     Count deGrasse arrived in early September and crippled the British fleet off the coast, forcing a hemmed-in Cornwallis on October 17 to beg Washington for terms of surrender.  And surrender he did on October 19, 1781, 225 years ago today.

     So humiliated was Cornwallis by his defeat that he feigned illness and sent his aide to surrender his sword to George Washington, as the British army band played, “The World Turn’d Upside Down.”

     This final battle of the American Revolutionary War is a story about a stranger who came to town and disrupted the order of things.  King George III had sent his royal officials, military officers, and British redcoats to his English colonies and tried to establish his authority.  The Americans did not appreciate his efforts, and soYorktown is about booting out a heavy-handed King.

     On October 20, 1804 the Lewis and Clark Expedition met the great bear of the West—the grizzly.  Its track was “three times as large as a man’s track.”  The Native Americans had warned them of it, and now they had seen it.  A member of the expedition attempted to shoot it, but its size so scared him that he ran, leaving his tomahawk and gun behind.

     That same day Lewis and Clark met the earthen lodge people of the Upper Missouri, deep in modern-day North Dakota: the Mandan, the Arikara, and the Hidatsa, all Sioux tribes.  Days later they met Toussaint Charbonneau and his slave Shoshone wife, the fifteen-year-old Sacagawea.  For the winter of 1804 to 1805, Lewis and Clark camped there at what they called Fort Mandan.

     At first glance, the Lewis and Clark expedition is a story about someone going on a journey, but seen from the Native Americans’ point of view, it is about a stranger coming to their town.

     For that matter, Yorktown, seen through the eyes of those British officers and soldiers, is about going on a journey to crush the revolting Americans.  A history depends upon the writer’s point of view: opposite sides of the same coin—a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a journey.

     Setting off on a journey to see unknown lands and people represents freedom; seeing strangers in our midst incites fear.  The surrender at Yorktown ended the fear and initiated the freedom, that which we call liberty.  Lewis and Clark was the result and evidence of that freedom.  Fear and freedom seem constantly at war with each other; freedom is never absolute in that governments never destroy fear completely.  But they do have a duty to drive fear into a tiny corner.

     Americans in recent years have gone off on a journey to a foreign land where they had hoped to deliver freedom to the Iraqi people, and along the way they have got themselves lost.  The Iraqi people see these strangers, these Americans, in and around them and are fearful.  They then look around the Americans and see each other—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd—and are suspicious of each other.  Fear has driven freedom into a tiny corner.

     The Iraqi people are yearning for a Yorktown, and the strangers there—like Lewis and Clark—must return home someday, hopefully soon.