MADE MEMORABLE BY THE BATTLE OF YORKTOWN AND THE SURRENDER OF CORNWALLIS
One day in 1740 a baby a little more than one year old, whose name was Thomas Nelson, stood by the side of his father, William Nelson, as the father was about to lay the foundation of his new home in York, Virginia. The babe had been stationed there that the brick for the corner might be placed in the little hands; then it could be said in later years that the babe had helped in the exercises of the day. The little fellow became a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, a General in the Revolutionary War, and Governor of Virginia.
William Nelson was a merchant, who had invested his savings in land and had become quite wealthy. When his son was fourteen years old he was able to send him to Cambridge, England, to be educated. Nine years later the young man married Lucy Grymes of Brandon, and took up his residence in the house whose foundation he had helped to lay.
For many years the home of the young people was noted for the hospitality shown there. Whenever the owner could leave his guests, he rode to his plantation near town. He kept a pack of hounds, which were frequently employed in fox hunting.
When discontent against England became pronounced, he was a leader of the patriots. He was a member of the House of Burgesses of 1774 which was dissolved by Lord Dunmore because of the passage of a resolution against the Boston Port Bill, and he was one of the eighty-nine men who met next day at a tavern and took action that led to the first Continental Congress.
On July 17, when the Convention of Virginia delegates gathered in Richmond decided to raise three regiments for home defence, Patrick Henry was named as commander of the first while Nelson was put in charge of the second.
He was among the patriots who sat in the Continental Congress of 1775, 1776, and 1777, and his name was signed to the Declaration of Independence. On August 16, 1777, he retired from public service because of failing health, but when, a little later, the Governor of Virginia, fearing the approach of the British fleet, asked him to serve as brigadier general and commander-in-chief of the forces of the State, he agreed, on condition that he be excused from accepting payment for his services.
- During the siege of Yorktown he was at the head of the militia. The sketch of his life as given by Sander-son in the ” Biography of the Signers,” says : ” During the siege, observing his own house uninjured by the artillery of the American batteries he inquired the cause. A respect for his property, was assigned. Nelson .
requested that the artillerists would not spare his house more than any other, especially as he knew it to be occupied by the principal officers of the British Army. Two pieces were accordingly pointed against it. The first shot went through the house and killed two . . . officers. . . . Other balls soon dislodged the hostile tenants.” It is said that Nelson gave ten guineas reward to the man who fired the first shot.
Again Thomas Nelson responded to the call of his State when in June, 1781, he became Governor, succeeding Thomas Jefferson. Four months after the beginning of his term as chief executive of the State, George Washington, in general orders, said:
” 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 acknowledgments to his excellency governor Nelson, .for the succours which he received from him and the militia under his command, to whose activity, emulation, and bravery, the highest praises are due. The magnitude of the acquisition will be ample compensation for the difficulties and dangers which they met with so much firmness and patriotism.”
Nelson’s term as Governor was shortened by ill health. In November, 1781, he was compelled to resign.
But he was not permitted to rest. Attacks were made on him for certain courses taken during his term as Governor. When he asked and was given permission to defend himself before the State delegates, he was triumphantly acquitted of all blame. On December 31, 1781, this action was recorded :
” An act to indemnify THOMAS NELSON, JUNIOR, Esquire, late governor of this commonwealth, and to legalize certain acts of his administration. Whereas, upon examination, it appears that previous to and during the siege of York, Thomas Nelson, Esquire, late governor of this commonwealth, was compelled by the peculiar circumstances of the state and army, to perform many acts of government without the advice of the council of state, for the purpose of procuring subsistence for the allied army under the command of his excellency general Washington; be it enacted that all such acts of government, evidently productive of general good, and warranted by necessity, be judged and held of the same validity, and the like proceedings be had on them as if they had been executed by and with the advice of the council, and with all the formality prescribed by law. And be it enacted that the said Thomas Nelson, jr., Esquire, be and he hereby is in the fullest manner indemnified and exonerated from all penalties and dangers which might have accrued to him from the same.”
Nelson lived more than seven years after this act approving his emergency actions. But three years were spent in comparative poverty. Most of his property was sold to satisfy the debts incurred by paying two regiments out of his own pocket, and by going security, with the State, for two million dollars needed to carry on the war. Sanderson says of these acts of generosity:
” He had spent a princely fortune in his country’s service; his horses had been taken from the plough, and sent to drag the munitions of war; his granaries had been thrown open to a starving soldiery, and his ample purse had been drained to its last dollar, when the credit of Virginia could not bring a sixpence into her treasury. Yet it was the widow of this man who, beyond eighty years of age, blind, infirm, and poor, had yet to learn whether republics can be grateful.”
On the simple gravestone in Yorktown, erected to the memory of the patriot, is this eloquent inscription :
Thomas Nelson, Governor of Virginia. He Gave All for Liberty.
Not far from the grave is another historic house that should be named with the Nelson house. This is the Moore house, on Temple farm, then less than a mile from Yorktown. In this house, which was built in 1713, the terms of the surrender of Cornwallis were drawn up. It was once the summer home of the colonial governor, Alexander Spottswood.