Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- At War
 
Thomas Nelson must have left Philadelphia in the fall of 1776 harboring doubts about the future of his country’s newly proclaimed independence.  Surely the doubts must have increased as General William Howe pushed George Washington’s outmanned forces out of New York into New Jersey.  Would America’s independence for which its signers could quite probably lose their lives be so terribly short lived?  Nelson had cast his lot for independence quite early, regardless of consequences.  If those consequences were bad, worse than bad, he would be a man about it.  He would fight for his country’s future until it was no longer possible to fight.  His aid might not accomplish much, but he would do what he could.  Earlier in the year he had provided for a number of families in York that had been driven from their homes by Lord Dunmore’s troops.  Now, as Washington was retreating across New Jersey, Nelson would travel north, to help his former House of Burgesses friend some way.  Then it would be time for the Continental Congress, again, to meet, providing it had a place to meet.  Nelson was 39.  Many people that winter would not live to see their next birthday.
 
Washington was not about to relinquish his country’s future.  Having put the Delaware River between Howe and himself, the Virginian re-crossed it, struck detachments of Howe’s forces at Princeton and Trenton, and netted Americans two great morale-building victories.  Howe retired to New York and Washington established his winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, 30 miles from the big city.
 
Following the victory at Trenton, Nelson, in Baltimore, sent a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia, that reflected clearly the renewed hope of the revolutionaries.  “Our affairs have had a black appearance for the two last months, but they say the Devil is not as black as he is painted.  We have at last turn’d the Tables upon those Scoundrels by surprise…”  But the country’s situation was very dangerous; Nelson knew it.  All the hate for the British comes forward as Nelson continues: “Could we but get a good Regular Army we should soon clear the continent of these damn’d Invaders.  They play the very Devil with the Girls and even old Women to satisfy their libidinous appetites.  There is Scarcely a Virgin to be found in the part of the Country that they have pass’d thro’ and yet the Jersies will not turn out.  Rapes, Rapine, and Murder are not sufficient provocations I despair of anything working them up to opposition” (Boyd 3).
 
With Howe in New York, the Continental Congress left Baltimore, where it had fled, to convene in Philadelphia.  Placed on several committees, Nelson worked in his customary energetic fashion.  On May 2, while seated in the hall of Congress, he was suddenly seized with a violent headache which forced him immediately to leave the room.  His ailment persisted.  Nelson wrote to his friends that his memory was so impaired that he had great difficulty recollecting things.  He was reluctant to leave his post, hoping that he would gradually recover.  Recovery did not occur; he resigned from the Congress May 22.
 
Nelson returned to York, and then to his simple plantation, Offley Hoo, “located far back in Hanover County, where, separated from the world’s problems, he could hope to recover his health in peace and quiet.  … his system that spring of 1777, sustained a shock from which it would never fully recover.  … But the possibility of an enforced absence from political life did not stop him from fretting about the critical situation of his country.”  To George Wythe, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, he urged “that a delegate be appointed speedily to fill his place in Congress, … ‘now engag’d in forming the [Articles of] Confederation, in which Virginia is deeply interested.’  In closing he made this apology: ‘Nothing but necessity could have induced me to leave Congress at this critical time, and I hope I shall stand excus’d’” (Evans 64). 
 
Neither the Virginia House of Delegates nor General Howe allowed him the opportunity to rest.  Before he had returned home., the freeholders of York County had elected him (and Joseph Prentis) to be their representatives in the House of Delegates.  In late May, Nelson journeyed to Williamsburg to begin his state legislative duties.  He sponsored a bill to provide tents or barracks for the housing of state soldiers instead of allowing the continuance of quartering them in private dwellings.  Nelson was elected to the newly created, influential Council of State.  On June 27, the last day of the Assembly, he declined the position and returned to Yorktown to spend what he hoped would be a quiet July. 
 
The British high command, meanwhile, had devised a plan, mostly of General John Burgoyne’s making, to bring a swift conclusion to the war.  Burgoyne would bring an army of approximately 10,000 men “south from Canada into New York. Making their way along Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, they would continue south, eventually reaching Albany (a mid-sized port city and convenient meeting point). Once in Albany, they would set up winter quarters and open communications lines with the City of New York, also in British hands” (Saratoga 1).  A second British army was to depart from Lake Ontario and invade New York via the Mohawk River.  It was to join Burgoyne’s army at the Hudson River.  General William Howe’s forces, situated in New York City, would push north up the Hudson River toward Albany.  “The American forces would, in theory, have no choice but to divide and address both invading armies at the same time. It was hoped the smaller American force facing Burgoyne would provide little resistance; the small American force further south would become stuck between then-British held Albany and British held New York City” (Saratoga 1).
 
“Howe realized a potential flaw in the plan. American General George Washington, whose forces had been chased out of New York City the year before, were somewhere in the north part of New Jersey. If Howe proceeded northward into New York, Washington could conceivably retake New York City. His solution was to attack Philadelphia and draw Washington's army into open battle” (Saratoga 1).  Rather than travel by land, he would attack Philadelphia from the south, transporting his soldiers up the Chesapeake Bay to land them in Maryland, leaving behind a residual number of soldiers in New York City under the command of General George Clinton. 
 
It was on the 16th day of August that the government in Williamsburg learned of a British fleet entering the capes.  The first real British invasion of Virginia soil seemed imminent.  The county militias, approximately four thousand in number, were quickly ordered to march to Williamsburg, York, Portsmouth, and other places that seemed likely to be attacked.  Virginia’s commander-in-chief in 1775, Patrick Henry, was now governor.  Responsible citizens favored Nelson as the new commander-in-chief.  The Council of State appointed him a brigadier general in full charge of Virginia’s forces.  Nelson accepted the appointment August 19, refusing to receive a salary.  The Virginia Gazette’s report of the appointment was very flattering.
 
“The appointment of a gentleman so universally beloved and esteemed for his zealous attachment to our sacred cause, cannot fail of giving the most unfeigned pleasure to every friend to his country, who reflects, that, except our noble general in the north, there is not a native of America to whose standard so great a number of warm friends and respectable persons would repair as to that truly noble and worthy gentleman’s” (Virginia Gazette 1).
 
Six days after the British fleet had been sighted in the Capes, Nelson sent a letter to George Washington in which he expressed his fear that his lack of military experience might hinder his efforts to defend Virginia.  Nelson explained how he had divided his troops among Portsmouth, York, Hampton, and Williamsburg.  Washington’s return letter offered Nelson thoughtful advice.
 
“The want of military experience you mention, is no obstacle to your serving your Country in the Capacity in which you have undertaken.  In our infant state of War, it cannot be expected, we should be perfect in the business of it; But I doubt not, that your zeal and assiduity will amply supply any deficiency, your diffidence of yourself leads you to suppose …  It is without doubt a disagreeable task to Command Militia, but we must make the best of circumstances, and use the means we have …  The reasons you assign for a garrison at Portsmouth are good; but I can by no means think it would be prudent to have any considerable Stationary force at Hampton and York.  These by being upon a narrow neck of land, would be in danger of being cut off.  The enemy might very easily throw up a few ships into York and James’s River … and land a body of men there, who by throwing up a few Redoubts, would intercept their retreat and oblige them to surrender at discretion” (Fitzpatrick 163-164).  Washington’s warning, ironically, foreshadowed British General Henry Cornwallis’s surrender to Washington on the York Peninsula in 1781. 
 
After it became evident that Howe’s intention was not to invade Virginia, Nelson fell out of favor with the House of Delegates’ Council of State.  For financial reasons, the Council wanted Nelson’s militiamen disbanded; Nelson, fearing a reappearance of the enemy, wanted a majority of the militia kept on duty.  By the thirtieth of September all were discharged.  Nelson, thanked for his “Activity, Diligence & good Conduct,” was discharged as well.  He pressed the Council to send Virginia forces, 5,000 men, to reinforce Washington.  Persuaded, the Council ordered the state quartermaster general to gather tents, camp utensils, horses, and wagons to accommodate such a force.  Washington received Nelson’s letter relating his desire to reinforce the Continental Army September 12, a day after the Battle of Brandywine Creek.
 
Washington had made a stand against Howe’s advance toward Philadelphia, had been outflanked, and had retreated northward.  Howe captured Philadelphia September 26.  On September 27, Washington responded to Nelson’s letter: “I am exceedingly obliged by your readiness to afford me any assistance in your power.  Were the Season not fast approaching when the Weather will be cold, I should perhaps request it.  But as that is the case, and the Militia cannot be provided with the necessary Clothing and covering, I must decline it” (Fitzpatrick 271-272).
 
By then, the execution of the British high command’s plan to split the colonies in half had reached its climax.  Burgoyne had advanced as far south as the upper Hudson River.  In early September, after a brief stay at a supply depot (Fort Edwards) on the river, his army had resumed its march southward.  Soldiers marched on the river road, while many of the supplies were floated on boats down the Hudson.”  On September 12, the Northern Department of the American Army, commanded by General Horatio Gates, had begun “to build formidable defenses on Bemis Heights. This ridge of bluffs, two miles north of the village of Stillwater, overlooked both the Hudson River and the river road.    Cannons there could hit the river and the road. Fortified lines on the flood plain controlled the road. The natural ‘bottleneck’ in the river valley would funnel the British right into American gunsights. Nor could the British go east around the position, for the rough terrain there and lack of good roads prevented much movement.”  On September 19, fighting had begun “on the farm of John Freeman, a loyalist who had gone north to Fort Edward to meet up with Burgoyne's army.”  On September 22, Burgoyne had gotten word from Clinton that he could send troops north from New York City. Expecting assistance, Burgoyne had thereupon ordered his troops to dig in and wait. 
 
While Thomas Nelson read and thought about George Washington’s letter declining Virginia reinforcements, Clinton's men, moving northward, were capturing several American forts.  Then, in mid-October, Howe, occupying Philadelphia, worried about what Washington might do to him from New Jersey, believing he needed reinforcements, ordered Clinton back to New York City.
 
“Burgoyne's army grew short on time, supplies, and manpower; their now 6800-man army had been on half-rations for the last two weeks, and winter wasn't far away.”  Burgoyne ordered a tentative attack on one position of the now 13,000 men American defenses.  It was beaten back.  Eventually, Burgoyne’s army attempted to retreat northward.  “They trudged through cold rain, mud, and hunger until reaching the village of Saratoga. Finding themselves boxed in by American militiamen north, west, and east of the village, they set up a fortified camp and waited. Two days later, the Americans had completely surrounded them” (Saratoga 1).  On October 17, 1777, after a week of negotiations, Burgoyne surrendered.
 
Works Cited:
 
Boyd. Julian P., ed. “Nelson to Jefferson, January 2, 1777.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951. II. Print.
 
Evans, Emory G. Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian. Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975. Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. “Washington to Nelson, September 2, 1777.” The Writings of George Washington. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933. IX. Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. “Washington to Nelson, September 27, 1777.” The Writings of George Washington. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933. IX. Print.
 
Saratoga: History and Culture.” National Park Service.  http://www.nps.gov/sara/learn/historyculture/index.htm. May 30, 2015. Net
 
Virginia Gazette, May 23, 1777.  Microfiche.