Friday, July 24, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Raising Troops
 
The American victory at Saratoga was of first importance for it convinced the French that the Revolution in America could be successful.  France officially entered the war against Great Britain in May 1778.
 
The news of General Burgoyne’s surrender October 17, 1777, was received in Williamsburg with great jubilation.  A battalion was formed and reviewed by Nelson; members of the upper and lower houses of the new Assembly spoke to the congregated citizens.  The Virginia Gazette reported that “joy and satisfaction … was evident in the countenance of every one; and the evening was celebrated with the ringing of bells, illuminations, &c.” (Gazette 1)
 
About to go into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Washington was, naturally, pleased with Burgoyne’s capture.  But he had failed to keep General Howe from capturing Philadelphia, and he wrote Nelson that he now regretted not accepting Nelson’s offer to send him some of the Virginia militia.  None of the joyous exuberance seen in Williamsburg following the Saratoga victory existed in Washington’s camp.  Washington could only say that the victory in the north would make a winter camp against Philadelphia possible if “our ragged and half naked Soldiers could be clothed” (Fitzpatrick X, 27).
 
While Washington was facing the prospect of a dismal winter, Nelson was officially thanked by the two houses of the Assembly for the services he had rendered during the British fleet scare.  He was thanked in such glowing phrases as, “actuated by noble principles and generous motives and exemplary diligence and alertness in performing the duty were such as became a virtuous citizen” and officer.  Nelson replied that he hoped he could continue to deserve “the good opinion” and discharge his duty in any office “they may think me worthy of” (Gazette 1).  Nelson would have many opportunities to do just that.  But, for the present, he could only worry about the progress of the war.
 
The want of men and supplies was a serious handicap for the revolutionaries throughout the war.  In late 1777 the Virginia House of Delegates was considering the passage of a bill that would alter how single men could be drafted into the regular Virginia army.  “Each county was given a quota of men necessary to fill Virginia’s line regiments.  All single men were eligible, and on a specified day they were to report to the courthouse where slips were to be prepared for all the able bodied.  If the quota of the county happened to be thirty, then thirty of the slips would be marked ‘Service’ and the remainder “Clear.’  All would be put into a hat and every man would draw a slip, those getting ‘Service’ slips being obliged for duty. The term of service would be one year.   Substitutes were still allowed, but on a one-to-one basis.  The person obtaining the recruit was exempt from the draft for the period of time, after the discharge, that the man had actually served” (Evans 73).
 
Simultaneously, Nelson pushed to have included in the bill a plan to raise 5,400 volunteers to serve six months under the command of brigadier generals appointed by the governor.  Nelson used in argument “Washington’s passing comment, after the defeat of Burgoyne, that he wished he had given more serious consideration to Nelson’s earlier offer to join him with militia.   … as late as December 19, Nelson thought the proposal was lost because many delegates feared ‘it would interfere with compleating the Regular battalions.  … by December 26 authorization to raise volunteers had been approved.    No more than fifty-four hundred volunteers could be raised, for six-months duty, they were to remain eligible for the draft until they actually marched to join the Continental army, and they would be exempt from the draft for six months after their discharge” (Evans 73-74).  The entire bill would become law on January 9, 1778.  To encourage enlistments, Nelson was appointed to be one of the two brigadier generals. 
 
Rather than serve in the next session of the Continental Congress -- which Washington urged that he do -- Nelson remained in Virginia.  “He had developed a near compulsion to lead troops in the field; and he felt certain that a sizable addition of troops would enable the Continental army to quickly defeat Howe, which would, in turn, bring an end to the war.  In his inexperience, he did not comprehend that it was wiser to add men to Washington’s regular forces, where they would serve under seasoned officers and with battle hardened troops, than to bring in a body of untrained soldiers who would be commanded by novices.  The general as much as told his friend this.    Fill up the regular regiments and provide the food to feed them, Washington was urging—then we can talk about separate forces of volunteers.    By the early spring of 1778 the volunteer plan had failed and Nelson was searching for an alternative” (Evans 76). 
 
On March 2, 1778, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that called for the wealthy men of the states to step forward in the service of their country and raise troops of light cavalry.  Each member of a cavalry group would be expected to provide his own provisions, as well as forage for his horse.  All other expenses would be paid by the person who raised the cavalry.
 
When news of the Congressional resolution reached Virginia, Nelson published an address calling for young men of fortune to meet with him in Fredericksburg, May 25, to organize themselves into a cavalry unit.  He also desired to have join with him men with less fortune, but with as much patriotism.  Nelson wrote that it was a “pity that they should be deprived of the opportunity of distinguishing themselves!”  To enable them to enter the service, “I propose that such should be furnished with a horse and accoutrements by subscription in their respective counties; and surely those who remain at home, enjoying all the blessings of domestic life, will not hesitate to contribute liberally for such a purpose” (Sanderson 57-58).  In May the Virginia Assembly gave state support to the plan.  It passed a bill authorizing the raising of a regiment of 350 horses to be commanded by Nelson.  Members of the regiment “would receive the same rations and pay as members of the Continental army.  Those who could not furnish their own horses and equipment would be supplied at public expense” (Evans 77).  Nelson received 4,000 pounds to expend for arms and an equal amount to purchase horses.  Many people believed that at best he would receive half of the 350 volunteers desired.
 
About 70 gentlemen appeared at Fredericksburg, including two of Thomas’s brothers, Hugh and Robert.  In a letter to Washington Nelson vented his frustration.
 
“So great is the aversion of the Virginians to engaging in the Army that they are not to [be] induc’d by any method.  I cannot say they are in apathy for view them in the mercantile way, and they are as alert as could be wish’ed, or rather more so, almost every Man being engag’d in accumulating Money.  Public Virtue & Patriotism is sold down to South Quay and there shipd off in Tobacco Hogsheads, nevermore, in my opinion, to return.  The number of resignations in the Virginia line is induced by officers, when they have returned, finding that every man, who remains at home is making a fortune, whilst they are spending what they have, in defense of their Country.  If a stop be not put to the destructive trade that is at present carried on here, there will not be a spark of Patriotic fire left in Virginia in a few Months” (Evens 77).
 
Washington was happy with the prospect of being reinforced.  The last campaign had greatly reduced his cavalry.  As to the disappointing turnout, he wrote this:
 
“I am sorry to find such a backwardness in Virginia in the Service of the army.  Perhaps it is fortunate for the cause, that our circumstances stand in less need of the great exertions of patriotism than heretofore, from the changes in foreign councils, and the open interposition of the French in our favor.  But I am convinced you have left nothing undone, of encouragement, for the increase of your corps, …” (Fitzpatrick XII, 203).
 
“Through June and July, with the temperature hovering around one hundred degrees, the general tried to whip his volunteers into shape at Port Royal” (Evans 77).  On the eve of the cavalry’s departure to join Washington, Thomas gathered his men about him and tried to assure them there was some hope for remuneration for expenses incurred in the country’s service.  Then he asked if anyone was in need of money; he would like to have that person consult him in his quarters.  A number of men did, and Nelson supplied them personally.
 
When Nelson and his cavalry arrived in Philadelphia during the first week of August, they learned that the cavalry was no longer needed.  Howe had retired from the city and had been on his way to New York.  Washington had intercepted him June 28 at Monmouth, New Jersey.  Although Washington had failed to win a decisive victory, the war in the north was finished.  The colonists did not know it, but they felt reasonably secure.  Nelson’s cavalry had arrived in Philadelphia too late to serve a useful purpose.  Nevertheless, the congressmen were appreciative of Nelson’s efforts.  On August 8 they passed a resolution publicly thanking him and his men for their service.  But they advised that the cavalry return to Virginia.  Nelson had lost a good sum of money in this venture.  Yet he made further advances of money to those who required it to enable their return to their homes.
 
Greatly disappointed, Nelson searched for some way to be of service to Washington.  He offered a favorite horse as a gift.  Washington refused, Nelson persisted, and the commander-in-chief relented.  With great feeling Washington thanked his generous friend.
 
“In what terms can I sufficiently thank you for your polite attention to me, and agreeable present?  And … with what propriety can I deprive you of a valuable and favourite horse?  … as a proof of my sincere attachment to, and friendship for you, I obey with this assurance, that from none but a Gentn. for whom I have the highest regard, would I do this, notwithstanding the distressed situation I have been in for want of one” (Fitzpartick XII, 341).
 
Washington was angry at the dismissal of Nelson’s cavalry.  He felt that since the expense of getting the cavalry to Philadelphia had already been incurred, he should have received it.  The assumption that Nelson’s men would save money by disbanding rather than staying on, he felt to be “very erroneous.” He felt keenly disappointed over the resolution, but hoped he would soon see Nelson in camp.
 
Thomas Nelson returned to Virginia a healthier man.  The physical exercise of raising and delivering his cavalry to Philadelphia seemed to have restored his health.  Consequently, he accepted an appointment as delegate to the Continental Congress and took his seat February 18, 1779.
 
Nelson’s appointment greatly pleased Washington.  His comments are worth quoting.
 
“I think there never was a time when cool and dispassionate reasoning; strict attention and application; great integrity, and … wisdom were more to be wished for than the present …  Unanimity in our Councils, disinterestedness in our pursuits, and steady perseverance in our nation duty, are the only means to avoid misfortune” (Fitzpatrick XIV, 246).  Washington believed Nelson embodied those qualities.
 
“Early in February, the weather turning unseasonably mild, he [Nelson] left home to assume his duties.  Peach trees were beginning to blossom and others to bud, while shrubs were in full bloom.  But the pleasure of an early spring contrasted starkly with the dismal prospect facing the country.  The depleted ranks of the army forced Washington to remain on the defensive.  Neither the necessary men nor supplies were forthcoming from the states.  Inflation continued and Congress, unable to find an alternative, persisted in printing paper money.  The French alliance of early 1778 had given the country hope that the war would end soon, but the events of the year that followed did nothing to encourage this hope.  The best of congresses would have been severely tested, and this one was no more than mediocre.  A general feeling prevailed that the members of Congress were more interested in Philadelphia’s social life than in the pressing business of the country.  Such was the situation into which Nelson stepped” (Evens 79-80).
 
 
Sources Cited:
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Charlottesville, Virginia, The University Press of Virginia, 1975.  Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  Washington to Nelson, November 8, 1777.  The Writings of George Washington.  Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933, X.  Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  Washington to Nelson, July 22, 1778.  The Writings of George Washington.  Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933, XII.  Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  Washington to Nelson, August 20, 1778.  The Writings of George Washington.  Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933, XII.  Print.
 
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  Washington to Nelson, March 15, 1779.  The Writings of George Washington.  Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933, XII.  Print.
 
Sanderson, John.  Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence,
Second Edition.  Philadelphia, William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828). V.  Print.
 
Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter) October 31, 1777.  Microfiche
 
Virginia Gazette (Purdie) November 14 and 21, 1777.  Microfiche.