While Yorktown is most significant for the Revolutionary War siege of 1781, which effectively ended the conflict, during the American Civil War it was again the site of major siege operations during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. As the Civil War entered its second year, President Lincoln favored an attack on Richmond from the vicinity of Washington, D.C. But the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, persuaded Lincoln that a move on Richmond up what is known as “The Peninsula” was a better approach. Virginia’s York and James Rivers, which formed the Peninsula, would enable the Union navy to support the land campaign. The Union army still held Fort Monroe at the tip of the Peninsula – giving a base from which to begin operations.
Yorktown remained in Union control for the rest of the war and was maintained as a military garrison until the summer of 1864. In 1863, forces from Yorktown participated in what is known as the Second Peninsula Campaign against Richmond. The following year, almost 40,000 troops of the Army of the James used Yorktown and Gloucester Point (across the York River from Yorktown) as a staging area for the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Later in 1864, during the start of the Petersberg siege, Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Yorktown abandoned.
Today, well-reserved Union and Confederate fortifications are reminders of Yorktown’s Civil War history. A National Cemetery, established in 1866, contains over 2,000 interments, mostly Union dead. Nearby is a small Confederate burial ground of undetermined size.