Plunged into the Revolution

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - It's October 1777, 15 months since the Declaration of Independence was read here from the Capitol's West Balcony, and there's reason for the colonists to celebrate.

The Continental Army has won a great victory at Saratoga, barkeep Jack Burgess shouts to the townspeople outside Raleigh Tavern. "The hero was Gen. Benedict Arnold. Let's give three cheers to Gen. Benedict Arnold."


"Hip, hip, huzzah! Hip, hip, huzzah! Hip, hip, huzzah!" shouts the crowd filling Duke of Gloucester Street.

Fast-forward to April 20, 1781, and the same townspeople hiss and boo Benedict Arnold, now a British general, as he leads his troops down the same street.

"The Continental Army is in disarray. . . . You are paying 100 times more in taxes than you did before the war," he says, offering food to everyone, including slaves, who joins the king's army.

And with that, the traitorous occupier seems to win over some of the townspeople, even though we are mostly 21st-century tourists who know how the war turned out.

That's the point of Colonial Williamsburg's Revolutionary City: to bring the historic capital to life and make it real and relevant for many of the 767,000 or so visitors it hosts in a year.

I admit, I was skeptical when the not-for-profit educational foundation that runs the re-created historic area started this program of street dramas a year ago. My family and I had visited the stately brick buildings, manicured grounds and realistic reenactments several times. The children were younger, though - still willing to pose in the stocks and pillory for pictures and wear three-cornered hats or an apron and bonnet.

And we'd seen and talked to historic interpreters as we toured every inch of Duke of Gloucester Street and the neighboring blocks, from the must-see Governor's Palace, Capitol, and Peyton Randolph House to the Raleigh, Shields and King's Arms taverns, restaurants and shops.

So how would a series of seven mini-dramas spanning two hours and shifting up and down the main thoroughfare be different? Would it hold our interest? Wouldn't we get tired, standing in the hot sun from 10:30 in the morning to 12:30 in the afternoon?

The scenes were different from anything I'd seen here, because they portrayed everyday life in the colony's capital from 1776 to 1781. They featured both the giants of the Revolution - Benedict Arnold, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette - and men, women and children who had to cope with the hardships of wartime.

On July 14, 1779, for example, Frances Southall, whose husband owned Raleigh Tavern, complained that "bacon costs twice as much and butter 10 times as much as when the war started." John Carter, one of the biggest merchants in town, was accused of hoarding flour and driving up prices. With the townspeople's anger rising, Carter reminded them that he had extended credit to most of them, then hustled off with a parting, "God save the King."

As the crowd debated the need to set prices, James Honey, a carpenter from Yorktown, asked me and my family what we thought.

"Couldn't it create shortages?" he asked. "Why not let the market decide?"

Surprised, we mumbled that we weren't sure, so Honey, played by Daniel Cross, moved on.

Afterward, it was this scene that had the most impact on my son, Eric, 17, who linked Colonial Williamsburg's escalating food costs to the $2.75 a gallon he was paying for gas.

And that's just the reaction William Balderson, the manager of public history development, was hoping for when he helped develop the scripts for the two-day program. (The first day covers 1774-76.)

"I have heard people make the connection with the [Iraq] war and its effects," he said after directing that day's program. "It's all relative. Rising gas prices affect the price of vegetables."

For the people of Williamsburg, he added, "the cost of freedom, of declaring independence - there was a cost."

There were about 450 visitors at the Capitol for the start of that day's program, which Balderson said was a manageable number. "We don't want this to be bigger than the buildings and historic shops," he said. "We want to give it a face - real people."

Each of the interpreters wore a wireless microphone connected to a state-of-the-art sound system designed for Revolutionary City, making it easy to hear the dialogue. And because we followed the interpreters around a section of the historic area, we didn't stand or sit for two straight hours. Some spots were in the shade and had benches.

Through to the end, when Gen. Washington proclaimed, "I am not the savior of the Revolution" as he prepared to defeat Lord Cornwallis in the "town of York," we were captivated and educated.

Revolutionary City wasn't our only new experience in the historic district. One night, we took the one-hour Legends, Ghosts, Mysteries and Myths Tour. Our guide, Phyllis Dadd, led 24 of us by lantern to the Governor's Palace and the James Geddy House, where we heard stories by candlelight.

Interpreters skillfully and dramatically recounted tales, based on letters, diaries and books from the 18th century, of the unfaithful wife of an innkeeper, an elderly gentleman turned vampire, and two star-crossed Indian lovers.

For me, though, Dadd's stories were the best of the night.

"I came to Williamsburg when I was 9 years old, and I fell in love with it," the spry 63-year-old said as we waited to begin the tour. "When I came to a point of change in my life, I moved here and have been giving tours for seven years. It's called living your dream."

Later, as she prepared to say goodbye, she offered one more story - The Spirit of America:

"In 1769, the same brothers who made the Liberty Bell made another one for Williamsburg, as legend has it, and it's mounted in Bruton Parish Episcopal Church.

"So, we can hear what seven of the eight presidents from Virginia and every president since Calvin Coolidge have heard - we can hear what the Liberty Bell sounded like.

"They did a better job on our bell."

Revolutionary City: Season 2

Because of the popularity of the Revolutionary City street dramas last year, "we're expanding the concept," says Rex Ellis, vice president of the Historic Area. "We're taking the Revolutionary City stories outside the boundaries" of the Capitol section of the Historic District "to the Governor's Palace and the Peyton Randolph House."

Starting March 19, other changes will include:

A new program, Nation Builders, presented every Monday. It will portray Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, and people who lived with them, such as Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved preacher; Lydia Broadnax, the enslaved cook of Jefferson's mentor; and Martha Washington.

Some new scenes in the two-day program - Collapse of the Royal Government: 1774-1776 and Citizens at War: 1776-1781. Day 1 will be presented on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday;

Day 2 on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

New stories and characters, including Eve, a young slave girl, and Royal Governor Lord Dunmore and his wife.

New evening programs with a connection to Revolutionary City, including a gunpowder incident at the Magazine, a Capitol Ball, and a concert series. They will start on weekends in the spring and expand to weeknights in the summer.

If you go

400th Anniversary Commemoration tickets

Adults - $30 per day

Youths 12 and under - $15

One-day pass

Adults, $36; youths 6-17, $18

Two-day pass

Adults, $49; youths 6-17, $24

Freedom Pass

Full access for one year.

Adults, $59; youths 6-17, $29

Independence Pass

Full access for one year, including evening performances.

Adults, $79; youths 6-17, $39

Seniors discount - $5

For information

Colonial Williamsburg


- Bill Reed

Contact assistant travel editor Bill Reed at 215-854-2459 or