James Madison Papers

Thomas Nelson to Virginia Delegates, 26 July 1781

Thomas Nelson to Virginia Delegates

Draft (Virginia State Library). Docketed, “The Delegates July 26th. 1781.” In 1929, when H. R. McIlwaine published this letter in his edition of the Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, Volume III, he stated on page 12 that the original manuscript was among the “Continental Congress Papers, Library of Congress.” The present editors have been unable to find the recipients’ copy, or any other copy, among the Papers of the Continental Congress, now in the National Archives. Besides many unimportant differences in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation between the McIlwaine version and that given below, there are a few variations in words which are pointed out in the footnotes.

Richmond July 26th1 1781


I wrote to you on the 21st Instant2 since when the Enemy have embark’d part of their Troops and have fallen down to Hampton Road. Whether they mean to operate up Chesapeak Bay and its Rivers is uncertain, but I am rather inclin’d to think they will proceed to New York, the Winds having been fair for them to have gone up the Bay3 which they have hitherto declin’d; a party landed on Old Point Comfort where they remain’d only a few hours.4 It is to be fear’d they may attempt to repair that Fort, which should they effect, (and without Naval assistance we can not prevent it,) will be to this state5 a ruinous measure, as by having a post there with a ship or two they will effectually keep possession of this River and York and prevent any ships6 rendering assistance to our Troops should an attack on Portsmouth be thought practicable.7 You are the best Judges whether Naval assistance can be obtaind

It is impossible for us to prevent their effecting this work, because our Troops will be oblig’d to pass along a narrow sand beach that may be guarded on one side by their ships and on the other by their Gallies8

The more I reflect on the Resolve of Congress respecting the Bermudians9 the greater my concern is, well knowing that from them we had the only prospect of supplying this state with the necessary article of salt. The distress10 that some Individuals have lately experienc’d by the ravages of the Enemy, when join’d to the impossibility of procuring so essential an article will I fear create great uneasiness in some parts of this state. Our situation is very different from Eastern and Northern states. Their Trade free busy and extensive, they can procure that Article11 with certainty[.] Our Ports are totally blockt up; were12 they at this time open we should have but few advantages from Trade all the Vessels in the state having been destroyd by the Enemy, so that unless salt can be brought to us, which we expected the Bermudians would do for Corn, we shall be in the horrid distress.13

But [it] is needless to enlarge further on this Subject to you, who from your Knowledge of our situation, must be fully sensible of all the bad Consequences of this Determination of Congress.

1Although not so indicated in the McIlwaine version, the recipients’ copy may have been dated 27 July, because the Virginia delegates acknowledged Nelson’s letter of that date in their letter to him on 14 August 1781.

2This letter, approved by the Council of State on 21 July, has not been found (Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (Richmond, 1931——). description ends , II, 363). In the draft of the present dispatch, Governor Nelson wrote and crossed out, “In my former Letter I mention’d the Resolutions of Congress respecting prohibiting the exportation of Grain to Bermuda for This was never done but with a view to import salt, subjecting the Bermudian Vessels to be made prizes.” For more of the possible contents of the missing letter, see Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 7 August 1781, and n. 2.

3Between “Bay” and the semicolon, Nelson first wrote, then deleted, “and they have laid still except.”

4Following “hours,” Nelson struck out “and embark’d again.” In the McIlwaine version, “landed on” is “landed at.”

5After this word, Nelson crossed out “and Maryland.”

6“York” is “Fort” in the McIlwaine version. After “ships,” “save of the first rate” is deleted. See Pendleton to JM, 23 July 1781, nn. 4, 5.

7In separate dispatches on 11 and 12 July, respectively, General Clinton and Admiral Graves advised Cornwallis that, from the standpoint of both the army and the navy, he should shift his army from south of the James River to Yorktown and fortify Old Point Comfort, which they understood would secure Hampton Roads (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 62, 68). Within another two weeks Cornwallis caused the ground at the “Point” and the depth and width of the channel of the neighboring waters to be surveyed by his engineers. Their report was adverse. Enemy ships could readily bombard a fort into ruins or, because of the great width of deep water, easily sail by the fort beyond effective range of its cannon (ibid., II, 95–97). On 28 July Cornwallis began to move his troops by water from Portsmouth to Yorktown and Gloucester, on opposite sides of the York River near its mouth, in his view “the only harbour in which we can hope to be able to give effectual protection to line of battle ships.” Headwinds so delayed the transports that they did not reach their destinations until 1 and 2 August. Even then, Cornwallis estimated that the complete evacuation of Portsmouth would require nearly three weeks more (ibid., II, 108, 124–25, 127).

8Nelson crossed out “which will rake the Troops the whole length of the Beach.” In the McIlwaine version, “Gunboats and” precedes “Gallies.”

9See n. 2, above, and Motion on Non-Intercourse, 16 March 1781, and nn. 5, 9, 27. For the delegates’ action on trade with Bermuda, see Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 14 August 1781, n. 2.

10In the McIlwaine version, “distresses.”

11After “Article,” Nelson at first wrote, “when from any of the Islands.”

12Between the opening of the sentence and “were,” Nelson originally wrote, “Our trade is totally blockt up; we are deprived of the probability of supplying ourselves.”

13This sentence at first closed with “not having the means of importing it.” Following this sentence, Nelson deleted a paragraph reading, “This is an advantageous determination of Congress for the Eastern & Northern States that abound with Privateers, for I have no doubt they will capture many of their Vessels. Not so with us.”

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