James Madison Papers

Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson, 18 September 1781

Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson

RC (Virginia State Library). Written and franked by Theodorick Bland. Addressed to “His Excelly. Thos. Nelson Esqr. Govr. of Virginia.” “No. 10” is written at the top of the letter. It was opened in Richmond by the Council of State during the absence of Nelson and then forwarded to him in “Camp before York.” The delegates would not number their future letters.

Philadelphia Septr. 18th 1781


We have been honord with Yr. Excellency’s favor of the 2d. Inst: with its enclosures by Post.1

We with great Sincerity return Congratulations to your Excellency and our Country on the happy event of the Arrival of so large a reinforcement to our aid, and felicitate them on the Pleasing prospect of Complete Success—not doubting but that the Ardor of our Countrymen on this occasion to cooperate with our Allies, will equal Generous efforts to relieve us. We are informed that our Army on the North River is daily increasing by large accessions of recruits from the Eastern States, and is now in a very respectable Situation as to Numbers;2 Sufficiently so we hope to keep the Enemy in New York in Cheque notwithstanding the powerfull reinforcement which has marchd to the Southward with the Commander in Cheif, however, from the Enemy’s Possessing the Command of the Water in that Quarter we are Sorry to inform you it has not been in the power of our Army to prevent them from sending a Considerable detachment to New London in Connecticut, where Mr. Arnold, who Commanded, Landed and attackd a fort Garrisond by about two hundred & fifty men, which, (after a Severe Conflict in which he was twice repulsed) he carried, and put the Greatest part of the Garrison to the Sword; his loss is estimated at near two Hundred men killd wounded &.c. After seting fire to the Towns of New London and Groton which were in a great measure consumed he reimbarked, and tis said is returnd to New York.3 We are also Sorry to Inform you that the frigate of our Ally (the Magicienne), in going out of the Harbour of Boston with a Convoy of American Vessels was attacked by a Superior force of the Enemy and taken after an obstinate and Gallant defense, in which she gave time to her Convoy to escape.4 By the best accounts we have from N York—the Enemy are preparing an Embarkation of troops—whose destination it is supposed will depend much on the Success of the operations of their fleet to the Southward—tho, some are of opinion that they mean to extend their burning Plan to this City. A large Body of Militia from this State and Jersey are orderd to hold themselves in readiness to oppose such an attempt shd. it be undertaken.5 We have reports that a Squadron of Men of War under the Command of Ad: Digby is arrived on this Coast. the report seems Probable but wants Confirmation. it is supposed to consist of not less than Six and not more than ten Ships of the line. tis said he is to take the Command of the whole fleet on his arrival.6 By some intercepted letters we find there are great discontents in New York at Sr. Henry Clintons Conduct—that they are much distressed for want of Men—giving Six Guineas bounty for Men for three Months—that Arnold has been greatly disappointed in raising his Legion which after all his promises and efforts amounts at present to little more than forty Men the chief of them officers, and that even that number is daily diminishing. they seem to expect he will be laid aside.7 Mr. Finnies letters shall be handed to Col: Petit,8 and every exertion in our power used to procure him and the State redress; But in order to ensure Success in this attempt, we cannot too strongly inculcate the necessity of the accounts of the state and of his department being adjusted, and sent on to the office of Finance for Settlement—for without such an adjustment and a Balance appearing due to the State, we concieve it absolutely impracticable to bring Congress to assent to an advance on any consideration having heretofore used our Utmost efforts in Vain for that Purpose. we have a report that a fleet of Six French and Six Dutch Ships of the line with a Considerable Body of Land Forces is arrived in the W Indies, but of this there is yet no certainty.9 We Cannot refrain from informing Your Excellency that altho An Agent10 is appointed to furnish the delegates with money & we have been long in expectation of remittances of Specific Articles to fix a permanent Credit for us here yet we see little prospect of its being accomplishd soon, and in the meantime it is with Infinite difficulty we have been able to procure the means of Subsistence for ourselves and families which [w]e have been constraind to do by borrowing small [sums?] on our personal Credit—or by Bills drawn at lon[g term?] by the agent in our favor which cannot be discounted at less disadvantage to the State than from 12½ to 20 P Ct. this we cannot help thinking a ruinous and disgracefull mode of obtaining money—of which it is our duty to advertize11 your excellency in hopes that a less ruinous, more honorable and certain expedient may be adopted and that we shall stand excused with our Country for the enhanced expences which such an enormous discount subjects it to.12

we are with great respect Yr. Excellys. most obedt. & very H:Sets

Jos: Jones.

J Madison Junr.

Theok. Bland

Edmund Randolph.

The Parchment Mr. Beckeley wrote for may be obtained had we funds for so doing13

1Not found. Nelson’s brief dispatch of that date to the president of Congress reported the arrival of Grasse’s fleet and expressed the hope of “a speedy & happy Conclusion” to the war (McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 30). The beginning of the second paragraph of the present letter indicates that Nelson had given much the same information to the delegates, although perhaps at greater length.

2In a letter of 5 September, read in Congress five days later, General William Heath reported that militia were daily joining his army on the Hudson River (NA: PCC, No. 157, fols. 286–89).

3On 6 September 1781 Benedict Arnold’s force of some seventeen hundred men easily took Fort Trumbull on the New London side of the Thames River. The more formidable Fort Griswold on the Groton side was manned by about 150 militia under Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard. After a stubborn resistance, during which only six of his men were killed, Ledyard surrendered. Thereupon, he and about seventy-five other prisoners were massacred by the victors. On 13 September Governor Jonathan Trumbull wrote to Washington that in the two towns the British burned a church, courthouse, jail, seventy-one homes, sixty-five stores, and twenty-two barns (NA: PCC, No. 20, I, 283; Christopher Ward, War of the Revolution, II, 626–28). Letters to Congress and motions made in Congress, detailing atrocities committed by the British in every theater of war since 1775 and demanding retaliatory measures, including the burning of British cities and the summary execution of British prisoners of war to a number equal to the murdered defenders of Fort Griswold, were referred on 28 September to a committee under JM’s chairmanship (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 969–70, 972–74, 977–78, 1017–18, 1023). See Report on Retaliation, 1 October 1781.

4“La Magicienne,” of thirty-two guns, was captured off Boston on 2 September by the fifty-gun “Chatham” (Wm. L. Clowes, Royal Navy, IV, 74, 114; Pennsylvania Journal, 19 September 1781).

5See Jameson to JM, 15 September, n. 8; and JM to Pendleton, 18 September 1781, n. 3. In a letter of 24 September Clinton told Cornwallis that he would be reinforced with five thousand troops, sailing from New York on about 5 October. According to the report which reached Congress on 19 September, the embarkation had already taken place and the enemy’s objective was probably Philadelphia. Congress thereupon prepared to have the city defended by “a large body of Militia” from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and by detaining “General St. Clair and the recruits of the Pennsylvania line now in the State, for a few days in the neighborhood of this city” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 159–60; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 222–23; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 974–75).

6See JM to Pendleton, 18 September 1781, n. 2. Digby took over the command of the North American Station (W. M. James, British Navy in Adversity, p. 298).

7This news is from letters intercepted in South Carolina which were sent to Congress with Greene’s dispatch of 25 August and received on 17 September. The dozens of intercepted letters are in NA: PCC, No. 51, I, 530 ff. JM was on the committee to which they were referred. The Loyalists in New York City were especially critical of what to them appeared to be dilatoriness in refitting the fleet intended to rescue Cornwallis (Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Father Knickerbocker Rebels, p. 244). The statement concerning Arnold, “Entre nous, I believe he will be laid aside,” was in a letter of Major Nat. Coffin of 20 June 1781, printed in the Pennsylvania Journal of 19 September 1781. Arnold received permission to go to England on 5 November and finally sailed on 15 December 1781 with Cornwallis on the ship “Robust” (Willard M. Wallace, Traitorous Hero, p. 284). It is doubtful, however, that Arnold would have left America at that time if Cornwallis’ army had not been surrendered.

8For William Finnie’s accounts, see Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 6 April, and n. 6; and Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 17 April 1781. Charles Pettit (1736–1806) served as an assistant quartermaster general of the continental army from 1778 to 1781. Born in New Jersey, he was a lawyer who held the office of deputy secretary of that province and state from 1769 to 1778. By the close of the Revolution he had become a merchant in Philadelphia. He was a member of the legislature of Pennsylvania in 1783–1784, and of Congress in 1785–1787 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , X, 210; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, xcv).

9This “information” was probably sent by Samuel Parsons at Martinique in his letters of 14 and 20 July, read in Congress on 17 September 1781 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 968).

10David Ross, commercial agent of Virginia, or Thomas Pleasants, Jr., who represented Ross in Philadelphia, following George Nicolson’s return to Virginia about 20 August (Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 21 August 1781).

11Used in the sense of “notify.”

12See Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 8 May, n. 1, and 22 May 1781.

13John Beckley’s letter to the delegates has not been found. In all probability, as clerk of the House of Delegates, he wanted the parchment for the engrossing of such statutes as would be enacted by the General Assembly, which was scheduled to convene on the first Monday in October (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, March 1781 Session in Bulletin of the Virginia State Library, XVII, No. 1 (January 1928). description ends , May 1781, p. 32). See Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 20 March 1781, n. 10.

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