Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Thomas Nelson, [18 February 1781]

From Thomas Nelson

[Williamsburg, 18 February 1781]

A Flag vessel from the enemy, in which was Lieut. Hare formerly detained at Hampton, has been stopped at Sandy point. The inclosed papers will inform you of the business and the extraordinary Conduct he has observed. His abuse of Characters in this State has been general and his Expressions concerning your Excellency have been such, as from any other mouth but that of an enemy and at the same time a person of very little consequence in any point of view would be extremely injurious. His insinuations were that you had received Gold from New York. I mention this, not as a Circumstance which can affect you but which may perhaps in him be deemed justly a violation or an unwarrantable abuse of his flag. An officer who was sent on board saw in the Fire something which had the appearance of Letters just consumed.

Immediately on receiving information of the arrival of a French Squadron in our bay I went down to Hampton and the day before yesterday went on board the Commodores Ship in the road a few minutes after she Anchored. The Squadron consists of one Sixty four Gun Ship and two Frigates of 36 Guns each. Their present station is a little below Sewells point where when joined by some of our Vessels of smaller size they will be able completely to block up Eliza. river. More than this it will not be in their power to perform, there not being a sufficient Depth of Water, for the largest Ships, in Eliza. river. They are very anxious that something should be done immediately, thinking it unsafe to continue long in their present Station, as vessels from the enemy’s Fleet at Portsmouth have shipped out which are supposed to be dispatched for New York. The Commodore proposed that, until we should be ready to cooperate with them he should cruize off the Capes, by which means he would intercept supplies, distress the enemy, and consult his own safety, should a Superior British Force arrive. I declined giving my opinion though Circumstances considered, I thought such Conduct would be prudent. This fleet brings Intelligence that three seventy fours of the enemy’s Northern Fleet were lost, rendered useless, and missing. The Culloden of 74 Guns, a Copper bottomed Ship was entirely lost, the American was missing, and the Bedford dismasted and no means of repairing her. This renders the French Fleet superior in that Quarter.

Tr (NHi); in an unidentified clerk’s hand; endorsed and with the following at head of text: “Extract of a Letter from General Nelson to The Governor.” Enclosures: Not identified, but see Turberville to TJ, 15 Feb.

Nelson received information of the arrival of a french squadron at three a.m. 15 Feb.; Lt. Col. Charles Dabney, commanding the posts below Williamsburg, wrote Nelson on 14 Feb. that the fleet of De Tilly had arrived and Nelson immediately forwarded the news to Steuben, who he thought was in Richmond but who actually was at Chesterfield. Nelson’s early morning letter to Steuben (of which there are three copies in NHi, along with Dabney’s) reflects the exultation that he felt at this apparent opportunity to capture Arnold and his forces, a feeling tempered on the following day by De Tilly’s prudence: “I have the happiness to enclose you a Copy of a Letter from Colo. Dabney who commands the lower posts. What you expected has taken place. I give you joy with all my soul. Now is our time. Not a moment ought to be lost. I intended to have cross’d James River this day, but I shall first wait on the French Commodore and then cross to afford you every assistance in my power. I have represented to the Governor the Necessity for dispatch in our operations. There will be no occasion now for the boats I had engag’d.” The last sentence appears to be significant; it may refer to TJ’s plan to capture Arnold. For on 14 Feb. Nelson wrote Steuben from Williamsburg: “I have at length procur’d two Vessels proper for the business you entrusted me with. One of them is at York, the other in Kingston Parish Gloster County. As I shall cross the River tomorrow I would advise that the Gentlemen who are to go in the Boats be recommended, one of them to Mr. Reynolds at York, the other to Colo. Peyton of Gloster County, who will give them every assistance” (NHi). If these boats were not employed for the scheme to capture Arnold, it is not clear what other purpose they could have had that would have been rendered obsolete by the arrival of De Tilly’s ships. It is to be noted also that the two boats engaged by Nelson were located in waters controlled by the British. Certainly it would appear that the most promising method of carrying out TJ’s plan to bring Arnold off by a small party would have been to have a few Virginians from the lower counties (perhaps some who had given paroles) approach Arnold’s headquarters by water, endeavor to get him aboard one of the vessels on some pretext, and then put off. Once clear of the British forces at Portsmouth, the rest would have been easy. The fact that Nelson had reported to TJ that the “paroled People require nothing but Assistance to make them very spirited Friends of their Country” and that Nelson had been selected to manage the ill-starred attempt of Captain Joel to lead a fire-ship against the enemy fleet may lend some weight to these conjectures (see Nelson to TJ, 3 and 7 Feb.). No letter from Nelson to TJ between 7 Feb. and 18 Feb. has been found; however, it is likely that the letter in which Nelson “represented to the Governor the Necessity for Dispatch in our operations” was written immediately after he had received Lt. Col. Dabney’s letter—that is, in the early morning of 15 Feb.

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