Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- "Point of No Return"


The First Continental Congress, meeting in September 1774, adopted a non-intercourse agreement similar to that passed by Virginia’s Burgesses.  It called for the establishment of association enforcement committees in the counties of the respective colonies.  The Congress adjourned in October.  It would reconvene in the spring of 1775 because of Britain’s failure to redress their grievances.  Delegates from the counties of Virginia met in Richmond March 20, 1775, to decide upon what policy Virginia should now take in its relations with Great Britain.

At the convention Patrick Henry introduced a resolution that called for the immediate raising of a “well regulated militia” to defend the colony.    The proposed resolution caused a stormy debate.  Many of the moderate members considered the measure premature and dangerous.  Friends in London had sent favorable reports about British intentions.  Henry’s supporters argued that the hope of a favorable change in British policy was delusive.  Virginia must defend herself against whatever dangers might arise.

Richard Henry Lee delivered an eloquent speech in defense of the resolution.  Thomas Nelson then rose, for the first time as a burgess to take an active part in a serious debate.  Edmund Randolph later wrote that Nelson “convulsed the moderate by an ardent exclamation, in which he called God to witness, that if any British troops should be landed within” his county, “he would wait no orders, and would obey none, which should forbid him to summon his militia and repel the invaders at the water edge.”  Randolph recalled that Nelson’s temper, “though it was sanguine, and had been manifested in less scenes of opposition, seemed to be more than ordinarily excited.  His example told those, who were happy in ease and wealth, that to shrink was to be dishonoured” (Sanderson  287-288).  Soon afterward Patrick Henry delivered his famous “give me liberty, or give me death” speech, and the Convention adopted the resolution with a majority of five votes.

The business of the Convention turned to the election of delegates to the Second Continental Congress.  The delegates to the First Congress were reelected.  Falling short, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Nelson were eighth and ninth in the balloting with 18 and 16 votes respectively.

Governor Dunmore had been watching the activities of these leading men of the colony with great concern.  Now the Richmond Convention delegates had voted to defend the colony.  “Between three and  four o’clock on the morning of April 21, Captain Collins of the armed British schooner Magdalene carried out the governor’s order to remove the entire powder supply of the colony from Williamsburg and place it on board his vessel anchored at Burwell’s Ferry on the James River” (Evans 46).  The seizure caused an immediate and violent reaction throughout the counties.  “One thousand men poured into Fredericksburg, six hundred of them ‘good riflemen’ attired in hunting shirts with tomahawks in their belts.    In Hanover County Patrick Henry was also raising an independent company.  Several patriotic leaders, including Peyton Randolph and George Washington, prevailed upon the Fredericksburg and Albemarle companies to disperse; but Henry, after haranguing his volunteers at Newcastle on May 2, began a march on Williamsburg” (Evans 46). 

Dunmore “sent his wife and children on board an English-bound schooner in the York River, placed cannon in the Palace yard, armed his servants, and asked for a detachment of marines from the man-of-war Fowey, anchored at Yorktown” (Evans 46).  Before daybreak May 4, the Fowey’s Captain Montague and a party of marines roused Thomas Nelson’s aged uncle, Secretary Nelson, from his bed.  Montague warned that if they were molested by any of the townspeople the ship would fire upon the town.  The ultimatum enraged the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside.  Not only was the threat of bombarding the town considered barbaric.  The person who would suffer most from such a bombardment would be Thomas Nelson, who had assumed the responsibility of meeting Henry and his troops (fifteen miles outside Williamsburg) to prevent harm to Dunmore from occurring. 

Although most of the colonists did not know it then, the time for peaceful conciliation with Great Britain had passed.  Anger and the desire for reprisal had dislodged reason.  The contentious events of the past ten years had pushed many colonists to a willingness to bear arms against the soldiers of their mother country.  On April 26, Virginia had received the news that Massachusetts militiamen had fired upon British soldiers in route to Boston from Concord.  Massachusetts’s military governor General Thomas Gage had sent an army of 700 redcoats to Concord to seize stored munitions and gunpowder.  America had reached a point of no return.  She would take a little while yet to realize it.

The crisis of the confiscated powder was settled soon after Montague’s ultimatum.  Several Virginia patriots – Nelson included -- bought the seized gunpowder for 320 pounds.  The ship Fowey remained off Yorktown.  On June 6, Dunmore and his family went aboard, never to set foot in the colony again.

On June 17 British soldiers and Massachusetts militiamen clashed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

On July 17, the representatives of the counties of Virginia met for the third time during the course of a year.  They passed an ordinance that called for the raising of three regiments of regular troops, to be commanded by a colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major appointed by the general convention.  Patrick Henry, Thomas Nelson, Hugh Mercer, and William Woodford were looked upon as candidates for commander-in-chief of the regiments and colonel of the first regiment.  Henry openly solicited the appointment.  Mercer, born in Scotland, had some degree of military experience.  Nelson acknowledged Mercer’s abilities, said he would not oppose Mercer’s appointment, and declared that he hoped he would not be voted for.  Woodford also supported Mercer.

Seeing that Mercer would be his chief adversary, Henry sought to undermine his qualifications, instilling in the minds of many the thought that Virginia had to be sure loyal patriots commanded her forces.  On the first ballot Mercer received 41 votes, Henry 40, Nelson 8 and Woodford 1.  Henry won a run-off election by a small majority.  Nelson was appointed lieutenant colonel of the second regiment.  Woodford was appointed the major of the third regiment.

The Convention then turned its attention to the election of delegates to the next session of the Second Continental Congress.  Of the seven delegates who had been previously elected, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, and Richard Bland were considered eligible for another term.  George Washington had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.  Patrick Henry, as head of Virginia’s forces, was also considered ineligible.  Pendleton asked to be excused from serving due to ill health.  Three positions were open for new delegates.  They were filled by Thomas Jefferson, Nelson, and George Wythe.  Bland later declined his appointment because of infirmities of age and was replaced by Francis Lightfoot Lee.  After Nelson had been appointed, he declined the command of the second Virginia regiment.  Woodford was appointed his replacement.

One of the most dramatic periods in American history was rapidly approaching.  Thomas Nelson, wealthy merchant and country gentleman, steadfast opponent of British economic and political authoritarianism from its inception, would be an active participant in Virginia’s struggle to attain independence.  “Yet the course he chose to follow was not an easy one.  He felt close to the mother country for many reasons.  He had spent eight years of his life there, and he had many friends and several relatives who still lived in England.  Furthermore, the patriotic cause by no means had the full support of all Americans … Nelson’s wife’s brother, John Randolph Grymes, left Virginia because of his sympathy for the British position.  Both Thomas and Lucy Nelson were related to the Randolphs, and they saw that family torn apart when John Randolph, the attorney general, left Virginia with Dunmore, while his son, Edmund, remained a firm patriot” (Evans 49, 50).  For Nelson, the loss of natural and constitutional rights mattered above all else!

Works Cited:

Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975.  Print.

Sanderson, John.  Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence.  Second Edition. Philadelphia, William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828.  V.  Print.