Thomas Nelson -- At War
Thomas Nelson must have left
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 Philadelphia New York into . Would New
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 America that had been driven from their homes by
Lord Dunmore’s troops. Now, as York Washington was retreating across , 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. New Jersey
Following the victory at
Nelson, in Baltimore, sent a letter to his
friend Thomas Jefferson, in ,
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). Virginia
With Howe in
New York, the Continental
Congress left Baltimore, where it had fled, to convene
in . 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. Philadelphia
Nelson returned to
then to his simple plantation, Offley Hoo, “located far back in , 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 Hanover County
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
Neither the Virginia House of Delegates nor General Howe allowed him the opportunity to rest. Before he had returned home., the freeholders of
had elected him (and Joseph Prentis) to be their representatives in the House
of Delegates. In late May, Nelson
journeyed to York County
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 Williamsburg 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
Making their way along Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, they would continue
south, eventually reaching New York
(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 Albany 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 .
“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). Albany
“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 . If Howe proceeded northward into New
Jersey New York, Washington
could conceivably retake .
His solution was to attack New York City Philadelphia and draw
Washington's army into open battle” ( 1). Rather than travel by land, he would attack Saratoga Philadelphia from the south, transporting his soldiers up the Chesapeake Bay to land them in Maryland,
leaving behind a residual number of soldiers in under the command of General
George Clinton. New York City
It was on the 16th day of August that the government in
learned of a British fleet entering the capes.
The first real British invasion of Williamsburg soil seemed imminent. The county militias, approximately four
thousand in number, were quickly ordered to march to Virginia Williamsburg,
and other places that seemed likely to be attacked. Portsmouth ’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
“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
. Nelson explained how he had divided his
troops among Virginia Portsmouth, York,
Hampton, and .
return letter offered Nelson thoughtful advice. Washington
“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 in 1781. York Peninsula
After it became evident that Howe’s intention was not to invade
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 Virginia
forces, 5,000 men, to reinforce . 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
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 ( ) 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 Fort
On September 12, the Northern Department of the American Army, commanded
by General Horatio Gates, had begun “to build formidable defenses on Hudson .
This ridge of bluffs, two miles north of the Bemis Heights 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
to meet up with Burgoyne's army.” On
September 22, Burgoyne had gotten word from Fort Edward Clinton
that he could send troops north from . Expecting assistance, Burgoyne had
thereupon ordered his troops to dig in and wait. New
While Thomas Nelson read and thought about George Washington’s letter declining
reinforcements, 's men, moving northward, were capturing several American
forts. Then, in mid-October, Howe, occupying
Clinton Philadelphia, worried about what Washington might do to him from New
Jersey, believing he needed reinforcements, ordered Clinton back to . New
“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
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” ( village of Saratoga
1). On October 17, 1777, after a week of
negotiations, Burgoyne surrendered. Saratoga
Boyd. Julian P., ed. “Nelson to
January 2, 1777.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
Princeton, New Jersey:
Press, 1951. II. Print. Princeton University
Evans, Emory G. Thomas Nelson of
Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian. Williamsburg, Virginia:
Foundation, 1975. Print. Williamsburg
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. “
to Nelson, September 2, 1777.” The Writings of George Washington. Washington Washington, D.C.:
Government Printing Office, 1933. IX. Print. U.S.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. “
to Nelson, September 27, 1777.” The Writings of George Washington. Washington Washington, D.C.:
Government Printing Office, 1933. IX. Print. U.S.
History and Culture.” National Park
May 30, 2015. Net Saratoga
Virginia Gazette, May 23, 1777. Microfiche.