James Madison Papers

Thomas Nelson to Virginia Delegates, 3 August 1781

Thomas Nelson to Virginia Delegates

FC (Virginia State Library). In the hand of a clerk.

Richmond August 3d 1781


In the last Letter I wrote to you1 I mentioned that a Fleet of the Enemy’s Transports with Troops on Board had fallen down from Portsmouth into Hampton Road. They have since moved round into York River and have landed both on the York and Gloucester Shores. The uncertainty we were in with respect to their Intentions had induced the Marquis to take a Position not far below this Place that he might have it in his Power to march either Northward or Southward as their Movements should make necessary.2 Few Troops were left below as it was not suspected that they would come to a Place the neighbourhood of which they had lately evacuated.3 From these Circumstances and their being able with ease to transport their Troops across the River as they see fit, They will have it in their Power for a short Time to commit great Devastations. These sudden Incursions into different parts of the State are Calamities which the Geography of the Country and their possessing the Water make it impossible for us to guard against, but I hope the Measures we have taken for our Defence will effectually prevent in future their penetrating far or possessing long what their Command of the Water does not secure to them.

I am anxious to hear what Congress has done respecting the Illinois Country. It is a matter which I think ought not to be deferred if they mean to take it up at all.4

Mr Charles Tomkins and William Buckner Inhabitants of Gloucester County were taken prisoners by the Enemy some time last March in Chesapeake Bay by Arbuthnots Fleet which they mistook for a French one,5 and I am informed are now confined at New York. They are only private Militia Men when taken and by a Cartel settled between the Commanders of the American and British Southern Armies, all the Militia made Prisoners in the Southern Department before the 15th of last June are exchanged and are to be immediately liberated.6 They are then evidently intitled to their Liberty and cannot be refused it on Application being made for this Purpose. I hope you will take the Trouble of doing them this Favour and recovering two good Citizens for the State.

I have for a long Time had no other Information of what has been doing in your Part of the Continent than what vague Report has given me. If any Intelligence has been intended, it has met with some Interruption. This I am inclined to think has been the Case, as I understand the last Mail was robbed near Christiana Bridge.7 I shall on[c]e a week expect to be favored by some one of you with the News of your City. I am &c

Thomas Nelson

2Ibid., n. 7. During the first week of August, Lafayette moved his headquarters from Malvern Hill northeastward to the lower Pamunkey River, with militia outposts both in Gloucester and York counties (Louis Gottschalk, ed., Letters of Lafayette to Washington, p. 215).

3That is, Cornwallis had evacuated Williamsburg, near Yorktown, as recently as early July (Pendleton to JM, 6 July 1781, n. 13). Hence he could hardly have been expected to return so soon to that neighborhood.

4If the delegates received this letter—and no acknowledgment of it is known to exist—they may have been puzzled over whether Nelson was “anxious to hear” that Congress had accepted Virginia’s offer to cede the Old Northwest to the United States or had agreed to co-operate with George Rogers Clark in mounting an expedition against the British in Detroit. The Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (II, 370) permit no doubt that the governor had the former in mind. However the delegates might have interpreted his statement, they could have replied only that Congress had done little since 1 March 1781. On 31 January Congress had appointed a committee, with John Witherspoon as its chairman, to consider the land cessions of Virginia, New York, and Connecticut in their relationship to the claims of the Illinois, Wabash, and Indiana companies to much of the area, the title of which had been offered to the United States by those three states. Finally reporting on 27 June, the committee advised against accepting the cessions until, following the report of a new committee, Congress should agree upon what land the three states could cede legitimately and what western boundary Congress would be willing to guarantee to each of them. Witherspoon’s report further recommended that, after these two complicated problems were solved, Congress name still another committee “to prepare a Plan for dividing and settling the said Territory and for disposing of it in such manner as to discharge the Debts of the United States contracted in the Prosecution of this War” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 99–100; XX, 704). Congress took no action on this report until October (Motion on Western Lands, 16 October 1781).

By June 1781 General George Rogers Clark was disappointed in his hope of leading an expedition, comprised of Virginia and continental troops, from Fort Pitt against the British in Detroit. Neither Virginia, overrun in part by the enemy, nor the Continental Congress, in sore need of money and supplies for the seaboard theaters of the war, was able or willing to furnish Clark with many troops or much matériel. Washington, though attempting to reinforce Clark, found that he could not risk sparing the manpower necessary to render the success of the expedition probable (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 489; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXI, 316, 462, 480, 500–501; XXII, 184–85, 188).

5Captain Charles Tomkies (Tompkies, Tomkins), Jr. (ca. 1745–1801), who had served in 1776 in the 7th Virginia Regiment, continental line, owned a considerable estate in Gloucester County, including fourteen slaves, by 1783. He held several local offices, such as vestryman, 1784–1787, and sheriff in 1789 (Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians description begins John H. Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution: Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, 1775–1783 (Richmond, 1938). description ends , p. 777; Polly Cary Mason, comp., Records of Colonial Gloucester, Virginia [2 vols.; Newport News, 1946–48], I, 117; Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , IX, 398). Captain William Buckner (1750–1804), from that part of Gloucester County which later became Mathews County, was a militia officer and also a shipmaster in the Virginia navy. He was sent by General Steuben to pilot into Hampton Roads what turned out to be Arbuthnot’s British fleet rather than the expected French squadron (Pendleton to JM, 2 April 1781, n. 2). Buckner was captured on 19 March 1781, taken to England, and not exchanged until 7 March 1782. Made prisoner on the same day, Tomkies probably shared Buckner’s fate in this regard. Buckner served as a justice of the peace in Mathews County between 1792 and 1802, and as a member of the House of Delegates in 1797–1798 (Lineage Book of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, LXVIII [1924], 55; Robert A. Stewart, History of Virginia’s Navy, p. 158; William Armstrong Crozier, ed., The Buckners of Virginia and the Allied Families of Strother and Ashby [New York, 1907], p. 157; Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , IX, 310). In view of the military records of Buckner and Tomkies, Nelson was less than accurate in describing them as “private Militia Men.”

6The first article of the cartel of 3 May 1781, agreed upon between representatives of Greene and Cornwallis, reads, “That regular troops be exchanged for regulars and militia for militia” (NA: PCC, No. 172, fols. 138–41).

7See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 31 July 1781; and JM to Pendleton, 31 July, and n. 2. The Christina (formerly Christiana) River flows into the Delaware River near Wilmington.

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