View Full Version : From Landed Gentry to an Unmarked Grave

07-05-03, 07:10 AM

From the Editor:

From Landed Gentry to an Unmarked Grave

By Ed Offley

He was born in 1738 into the land-owning gentry of planters and traders who dominated colonial Virginia’s rural economy and political system. Yet Thomas Nelson Jr. of Yorktown would die 51 years later so deeply in debt that his sons were forced to bury him secretly in an unmarked grave so that his creditors could not seize his remains as collateral for their unpaid loans.

It was no mere crop failure, business collapse or natural disaster that brought Nelson down. It was his conscious decision that American freedom was more important than his own personal gain.

Confronted by an intolerable system of British imperial edicts that American colonists perceived as a political and economic tyranny that threatened their very existence as a people, Nelson was typical of the small group of leaders who gambled their lives, pocketbooks and futures to win American independence and set the young nation on its course to become the modern United States.

The nation observes the July 4 holiday this week locked in conflict with a 21st-century terrorist network dedicated to the murder of Americans and the physical destruction of American society - and the devolution of the world to a form of Medievalism that is the antithesis of freedom. Our soldiers endure wartime conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other dangerous places. It is appropriate this week to remember that this is not the first time we as a nation have been confronted by hard choices between freedom and security, and between self-interest and the national welfare.

The generation of Americans who came of age in the 1760s and 1770s faced an equally daunting challenge, as Thomas Nelson’s own experience attests.

The eldest son of a wealthy planter and trader whose family had turned Yorktown, Va., into the second-largest seaport in the Old Dominion, Nelson at the age of 14 was already earmarked by his family to carry on its legacy of leadership. He was sent to England for education at the elite Eaton school, and later graduated from Cambridge University, returning to Virginia in 1761 at the age of 22.

Even while still aboard the sailing ship enroute to Yorktown, his family engineered his election from York County to the colonial House of Burgesses. The following year, he married Lucy Grymes, the daughter of another landed gentry, receiving from his father, William Nelson, the marriage gift of a landed estate. They would raise a family of 11 children. His plantations covered thousands of acres of lush farmland, and his personal wealth ranked him in the top handful of powerful families who directed the affairs of their colony under the suspicious eyes of the British royal governor in Williamsburg.

Like most colonists who later rose in rebellion against King George III, Nelson’s transition from gentry to rebel began with the infamous 1765 Stamp Act passed by Parliament in London that assigned a tax on every official document created in the colonies. (The colonists’ fury over the tax was that it was imposed by the British government with input from the Americans it affected, sparking the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”)

Soon thereafter Nelson, like many other prominent colonists, joined the Virginia Convention (a precursor of the Continental Congress) and offered the first formal proposal to create an independent Virginia militia. This little-remembered legislative ploy is recognized by most historians as Virginia’s first major turning point away from compromise and toward outright revolution against the British Empire.

The following year, Nelson became one of Virginia’s seven delegates to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence authored by his friend and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. As the history, The Centennial Book of the Signers, recounts, Nelson was proud to have signed because of his particular background:

“He admitted proudly that he was the only person out of nine or ten Virginians that were sent with him to England for education that had taken part in the American Revolution. All the rest were Tories.”

Many colonial-era Americans, even of high social status, failed to leave detailed personal histories, diaries or correspondence for future study, and Nelson was one of them. However, the physical and mental strains he suffered during the seven years of the American Revolution are well known to historians. In 1777, while continuing to serve in Congress in Philadelphia, Nelson was stricken “with a disease of the head, probably of a paralytic nature,” and was forced to return home and resign his seat.

When he recovered his health, Nelson in 1778 would receive a more important appointment: commander of the Virginia militia. In addition to leading the volunteer force in several engagements, Nelson himself advanced money to supply and arm his soldiers. When the Congress appealed to men of financial substance in the colonies to form troops of light cavalry, Nelson, at his own expense, raised and trained a unit.

But by early 1781, Virginia was in dire straits. Attacked several times by powerful British raiding parties led by turncoat Gen. Benedict Arnold, the colony was economically bankrupt and its leadership scattered in to the western foothills when then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson’s term came to an end. The legislature elected Nelson to succeed him on June 12, 1781. Within several days of his appointment, Nelson and the rest of the state government were forced to flee again, from Charlottesville to Staunton, when British Col. Banastre Tarleton led a surprise cavalry raid deep into Virginia seeking to capture them and decapitate Virginia’s leadership.

But the tide was about to turn, and Nelson would play a major role. A combined Franco-American army consisting of French troops under the Compte de Rochambeau and Gen. George Washington marched south from New York state into Virginia in an attempt to intercept Gen. Lord Cornwallis as his British force marched north from Charleston, S.C.

As commander of the Virginia Militia, about one-third of the American troops under Washington, Nelson marched down the Virginia Peninsula through deserted Williamsburg to join the siege of the British force at Yorktown, his home town and family seat.

He was a brigadier general commanding soldiers many of whom wore rags as uniforms and muskets paid out of his own dwindling fortune, and the stress of simultaneously managing a bankrupt state government and organizing a final military blow against Cornwallis, apparently caused a relapse in his health. Historians note that Nelson vanished from sight for two weeks in the summer of 1781, presumably because of his illness.

By September, Nelson was forced as governor to make emergency decrees for arming and provisioning his soldiers that exceeded the formal limits of his power, a step that would come back to haunt him later. But by the middle of that month, it scarcely mattered: He left Richmond for the last time and joined Washington, Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette at the siege camp outside of Yorktown.

On Sept. 27, 1781, the allies with a combined force of 16,000 troops moved into position, digging trenches and laying artillery in a semi-circle around the town, and on Oct. 9, a combined artillery force of 52 cannons opened fire, forcing the 7,200 British and Hessian defenders to take to ground.

One of the more fascinating incidents in the Yorktown battle concerned a stately, two-story brick mansion that dominated the town skyline - then and now. When word came to Gen. Washington that Cornwallis had moved his headquarters into the house, Nelson reportedly recommended to his commanding general that the allies bring heavy artillery fire upon the new target. As one history recounted, the two men held a brief conversation:

“Whose house is that?” Washington asked.

“Sir, it is my house,” Nelson replied.

Ten days after the firing began, Cornwallis surrendered his army to the allies, and the Revolutionary War fighting came to an end (formally concluding with the Treaty of Paris nearly two years later in 1783).


07-05-03, 07:11 AM
Victory did not bring a return to prosperity and contentment to Nelson and his family. In fact, it brought economic ruin as the debts he had co-signed or sponsored to fit and feed the Virginia militia - including one personal note for $2 million - came due. To add insult to injury, Nelson’s political enemies in 1782 accused him as governor of impressing supplies for the revolutionary Army without constitutional authority. After an ailing Nelson personally pleaded that his acts were from “the necessities of war,” the legislature formally indemnified him of any liability. It also failed to compensate him for the personal fortune he had spent arming his men.

But in one of the few direct statements on record, Nelson later responded to a friend who asked if the effort had been worthwhile, “I would do it all over again.”

His health failing, Nelson and his family retired to a small family farm in central Virginia, where he died at the age of 51 on Jan. 4, 1789.

One of the few things that Nelson proudly kept in his later years was the memory of this praise from George Washington, his military commander at Yorktown:

“The General would be guilty of the highest ingratitude, a crime of which he hopes he shall never be accused, if he forgot to return his sincere acknowledgements to his Excellency, Governor Nelson, for the succors which he received from him, and the Militia under his command, to whose activity, emulation, and bravery, the highest praises are due.”

A physical reminder of Nelson’s dedication and sacrifice to win his nation freedom, can be seen today at his restored family home in Yorktown, where several cannon balls still lodge in the brick exterior 222 years after the siege. Of course, the greater symbol of Nelson’s commitment rests in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where the original Declaration of Independence carries his signature and that of 55 other men who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” for American freedom.

Ed Offley, Editor of DefenseWatch, is the 5th great-grandson of Thomas Nelson Jr. of Yorktown. He can be reached at dweditor@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this column appeared in DefenseWatch on July 3, 2002.




07-05-03, 07:45 AM
Men like this will never cease to amaze me! The sacrifices they gave and the hardships they endured to see America become what she is today! We will always owe a debt to the people who cut the course of our America, a continuing debt of keeping America free.

People like Thomas Nelson Jr should never be forgotten!

Semper Fi!