Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Benedict Arnold Invades
 
Of great aid to the Americans would be the French fleet.  It would be most valuable at the Battle of Yorktown.  But the fleet had to be kept in provisions and armament, and it was America’s responsibility to see that it was.  Early in June of 1780 the Continental Congress called for $2,000,000 to be placed in the Continental Congress Treasury to help provide for the French fleet.  Thomas Nelson set out personally to raise as much money as he could in Virginia.  His excursions took him through most of the southern counties of the state, but he had great difficulty finding people willing to advance their money.  The resources of the state were drained and people were poor.  Those who possessed money were afraid to trust it to no better security than that of the government, already too deeply involved financially to extricate itself from its difficulties.  Nelson was turned down everywhere.  But seeing that the need of the money was great, he decided he would add his own personal security to that of the government.  The people of the state trusted Nelson, and many accepted Nelson’s offer of security and loaned to the government what money they could spare.  Ultimately, Nelson succeeded in raising a good sum of money, through his own personal efforts, and through the efforts of his agents, whom he sent out with authority to use his name and pledge his fortune.
 
Nelson would take a great financial beating in this enterprise.  It seems that he kept a record of the amount of money he pledged to back these loans.  But during the year of war that came to Virginia the records were lost.  When it came time for the loans to be redeemed, the government was practically without funds.  And Nelson was forced to pay back the debts personally.  Nelson could not furnish the Continental Congress with an accurate record of these expenditures.  Consequently, he was never reimbursed for his losses.
 
In 1780 the British, under the generalship of Charles Cornwallis, opened in earnest their campaign to recover the southern colonies.  Having already captured Savannah in December of 1778, the British seized Charlestown in May 1780.  The Carolinas had little to oppose Cornwallis but hastily drawn militia.  Congress then sent Horatio Gates with an army of regulars south to aid the southern militia.  Gates was soundly beaten August 16 at Camden, South Carolina, and was replaced soon afterward by the competent Nathanial Greene.  Moving though Virginia on his way southward, Greene left General von Steuben as the temporary commander-in-chief of the Continental forces in Virginia and Greene’s personal representative.  Greene would need reinforcements from Virginia, and he thought this could be accomplished more easily with von Steuben in Virginia.  Thomas Nelson placed himself and his state militia under von Steuben’s authority.
 
On December 31, 1780, Thomas Nelson received a letter from a citizen informing him that 27 sails had been sighted entering the capes.  The arrival of the French fleet in Virginia had been eagerly awaited.  But no one knew yet whether this fleet was friend or enemy.  Nelson immediately informed Governor Jefferson of the fleet, and Jefferson sent the general down into the southern area of the state with full power to “take such steps as the exigencies of the moment might require” (Bowers 262).
 
Learning that the fleet was British, but believing it to be another raiding party, the governor called out half of the militia of the counties closest to the enemy, as well as one fourth of the militia from the more distant counties.  Jefferson intended to put 4,600 militiamen in the field.  On January 3, 1781, a force of 1,500 men sailed up the James River under the command of the recent American patriot turned traitor, Benedict Arnold.  At this time Nelson was about 13 miles above Williamsburg on the Chickahominy River watching the advance of the enemy and waiting for bands of militia to gather.  He wrote Jefferson in Richmond January 4 that the enemy had passed by the former state capitol and seemed headed for either Richmond or Petersburg.  He theorized that the enemy would “proceed as high up the river as they can for fear of desertion among their troops, to which they are much disposed” (Kimball 132).  Then, Nelson wrote the same day that the enemy had landed their full force at Westover and were marching for Richmond.  With militiamen from the counties of King William, King and Queens, Gloucester, and New Kent arriving daily, he expected his strength to be about 350 in a day.  He would then follow the movements of the enemy from the rear.
 
The enemy was able to reach Richmond and capture the town, but not before Jefferson had been able to flee to safety.  The militia had not gathered in time to join von Steuben’s regulars to attempt to turn back Arnold.  But soon the American forces were large enough to exert pressure.  However, considerable lack of supplies and ammunition handicapped them.  “Muskets and cannon that had been hidden from the British could not be found, other weapons had been handled so roughly in the excitement that they were unserviceable, and it was difficult to get wagons to transport usable arms to the troops who needed them” (Evans 92-93).  Von Steuben, on the south side of the James River, wrote to Greene about this time complaining bitterly of the shortage of arms, and of the lack of “tents and camp kettles.  It is impossible to describe the situation I am in – in want of everything” (Malone 141). 
 
In writing to Jefferson January 8 Nelson exhibits great disappointment at not being able to help prevent Arnold’s capture of Richmond.
 
“I am pained to the very soul that we have not been able to prevent the return of the enemy, but even the elements have conspired to favor them.  On Saturday night a flood of rain poured down as to render my plan abortive by almost drowning the troops, who were in bush tents that they (the enemy) may not go off without some injury.  I have ordered two pieces of cannon to be planted … where I am told we may do them mischief.  These cannon I propose to defend by infantry as long as I can … It is better to lose the guns than not to attack somewhere” (Kimball 142-143).
 
On January 13 Nelson reported the enemy’s withdrawal from Richmond and felt certain it intended “nothing further on the North side of James River at present” (Boyd 351).  He was right.  Arnold returned to Portsmouth, where he could feel safe from American resistance.  Von Steuben, “a fine organizer and trainer of troops, was not noted for brilliant tactical leadership in the field; he was, in fact, overly cautious and his brigade commanders soon appeared to be of similar inclination” (Evans 94).  He met with Nelson in Williamsburg January 20.  They decided that an attack on Arnold would be inadvisable.  Von Steuben decided instead “to concentrate on trying to contain Arnold at Portsmouth, keeping him from again raiding the heart of the state” (Evans 94).
 
Although Virginia’s forces outnumbered Arnold’s troops, the numbers were illusory.  “Absence from home and expiring enlistments were not the only things that made militia hard to keep.  Food, though plentiful, reached the troops only with difficulty and consisted largely of corn meal.  The men were housed badly in brush huts or tents, which in a typically cold, wet, Virginia winter was a circumstance not conductive to the highest moral.    Through late January and early February of 1781 Nelson wrestled with these problems, but despite his efforts his force dropped to eight hundred men” (Evans 95).
 
Arnold seemingly content to remain in Portsmouth, Virginia’s leaders hoped for the arrival of the greater portion of the French fleet.  With the fleet blockading all possible retreat by the sea after destroying Arnold’s ships, and American land forces engulfing Portsmouth on all other sides, Arnold’s army would be forced to surrender.  When three French ships (one 64 gun ship and two frigates of 36 guns each) arrived at the posts below Williamsburg on the James River, Nelson felt the time for Arnold’s destruction had arrived.  To von Steuben, February 14, he wrote, “What you expected has taken place.  I give you joy with all my soul.  Now is our time.  Not a moment ought to be lost” (Boyd 678n).  However, Nelson’s enthusiasm was dashed the next day after consulting the commander of the small fleet, Captain Arnaud Le Gardneur de Tilly.  The Captain’s three ships blocked Arnold’s passage out of the Elizabeth River into the James River and Chesapeake Bay; but one of Arnold’s ships had managed to slip past “which was reportedly dispatched to New York, and de Tilly, fearing that if he lingered he would be caught by a superior fleet, decided to leave” (Evans 97).  The Frenchman told Nelson that he would cruise off the capes to intercept British supplies, distress the enemy, and watch for the possible arrival of a superior British force.  In fact, he sailed directly to Newport, Rhode Island to join the main French fleet.
 
Nelson was ill in Williamsburg February 19 with a severe cold.  He remained sick for a month.  Not surprisingly, he was bitter about de Tilly’s departure.  He wrote to Jefferson that Arnold would now “make use of all the Advantages which their Command of the Water gives them over us” (Boyd 650-651).  Because of some losses at the hands of the French fleet they would probably “wreck their Vengence on the Parts of the State most exposed,” especially Hampton, that had furnished pilots for the French.  “It gives me the utmost pain that I find myself unable to give them the Protection they merit” (Kimball 153).   He had now only a force of about 400 men.
 
“As February drew to a close, Nelson began to regain his strength, but a relapse forced him to remain in bed throughout the month of March.  Steuben was especially upset, for he had come both to like Nelson and to depend on his advice.”  In March he wrote Nelson that the Virginian’s indisposition “deprives me of your council and assistance at a time I am in the greatest want of it.  You are better acquainted with the Strength and weakness of this state and you have the confidence of the People – judge then how much I regret your absence” (Evans 98). 
 
Washington had also hoped that Arnold’s troops could be bottled up and taken.  Accordingly, the commander-in-chief sent to Virginia in March the French patriot, Marquis de Lafayette, and an estimate 1,200 troops, the “elite corps” of Washington’s army, the Light Brigade.  Rear Admiral Charles René Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches’ fleet, sent to augment Lafayette, was driven away March 16 near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in the Battle of Cape Henry by a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot.  Destouches returned immediately to Newport, while Arbuthnot protected the bay for the arrival of land forces dispatched from New York to reinforce General Arnold.  Lafayette had landed in York March 14.  Because he had been deprived of the fleet, the plan for trapping Arnold was abandoned.
 
Works cited:
 
Bowers, Claude G.  The Young Jefferson 1743-1789. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945.  Print. 
 
Boyd, Julian F., ed.  The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951, IV.  Print.
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia, 1975.  Print.
 
Kimball, Marie.  Jefferson War and Peace 1776 to 1784.  New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1947.  Print.
 
Malone, Dumas.  Jefferson the Virginian.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948.  Print.