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
’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 America . 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. Virginia
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
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
In 1780 the British, under the generalship of Charles Cornwallis, opened in earnest their campaign to recover the southern colonies. Having already captured
in December of 1778, the British seized
in May 1780. The Charlestown 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 ,
and was replaced soon afterward by the competent Nathanial Greene. Moving though Camden, South Carolina 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 Virginia, and he thought this could be accomplished more
easily with von Steuben in . Thomas Nelson placed himself and his state
militia under von Steuben’s authority. Virginia
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
eagerly awaited. But no one knew yet
whether this fleet was friend or enemy.
Nelson immediately informed Governor Jefferson of the fleet, and Virginia 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.
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 watching the advance of the enemy
and waiting for bands of militia to gather.
He wrote Jefferson in Chickahominy River Richmond January 4
that the enemy had passed by the former state capitol and seemed headed for
either Richmond or .
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 Petersburg . With militiamen from the counties of King
William, King and Queens, Richmond ,
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. Gloucester
The enemy was able to reach
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 . 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 Arnold 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
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 ,
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 Portsmouth
January 20. They decided that an attack
on Williamsburg would
be inadvisable. Von Steuben decided
instead “to concentrate on trying to contain Arnold Arnold
keeping him from again raiding the heart of the state” (Evans 94). Portsmouth
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, Arnold 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). Virginia
Nelson was ill in
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 Williamsburg
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 Arnold ,
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. Hampton
“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).
Bowers, Claude G. The Young
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945. Print. Boston
Boyd, Julian F., ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
Princeton, New Jersey: Press, 1951,
IV. Print. Princeton
Evans, Emory G. Thomas Nelson of
Revolutionary Virginian. Charlottesville, The University Press of , 1975. Print. Virginia
Jefferson War and Peace 1776 to 1784. : Coward-McCann, Inc., 1947. Print. New
Jefferson the Virginian. :
Little, Brown and Company, 1948.