James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Newton Jr., 18 April 1814

From Thomas Newton Jr.

Norfolk April 18. 1814.

Dear Sir.

I take the liberty of giving you such information, as I possess, of the state of things in this place. Independent, of the regard, which I feel for my Country—If I know my own sentiments, I am conscious of no less, for the success of your administration, as it relates not only to the public welfare, but to yourself. In the production of mischief, the subordinate is always overlooked, while every eye is directed to the man, who fills the Chair of State.

I trust these prefatory remarks will evince a disposition friendly towards you. You know me well enough, to know that no personal considerations influence me. Permit me then to state to you, that I consider the situation of this place more critical at this time than it has been since the commencement of the war. Every moment the enemy is expected, in force, on our Coast. We know not, what moment, he will make his appearance and approach. With this awful and gloomy prospect, before us, eighteen hundred militia have been dismissed. The force now here cannot be estimated more than eighteen hundred men, viz about eight hundred regulars and one thousand militia, a force altogether incompetent for the defence of a fronteir of such importance not only to the State of Virginia but to the whole Atlantic Coast, from its middle position, and the advantages it would give to the enemy if should be taken by him. If under such circumstances Norfolk should be attacked, it will fall inevitably into the hands of the enemy.

If the Campaigne should open, with such a disasterous result, no one can calculate the effect, it would produce on the public mind; despondency would pervade every rank and order of Society. No one would experience more poignant sensibility at such a result than yourself. Pardon me, Sir, when I express to you, a belief, that, in the War department, a right apprehension of our situation is not entertained; should there be, even resident in it, feelings for our safety, on the apprehension of approaching danger. From the limited views I have of military affairs, it appears to me that a place of the importance of this should be defended by regulars. The militia should be looked to merely as an auxiliary force. The former would be infinitely less expensive to the United States. The present mode of defence is not only expensive, but it is also distressing and harrassing to the militia. It will produce much discontent, and afford no prospect of certain security.

Every army on its first assembling is subject from the Change of habit, to a Camp Seasoning, as it is called, this is peculiarly the case with the Militia. The renewal of the force at stated periods is no less fatal to the public Service, than it is to the men.

Instead of a force, from such an order of things, in the garrison—it may be, with more truth Said, that we have an army in the Hospital. Let not this be attributed, to Climate solely—the experience of the past proves, that our troops, whatever has been their situation, have suffered much from diseases incident to Camps. The regulars are as healthy here, as at any garrison in the United States. The records of the War office for eight or ten years past will prove the fact.

I have ventured, from the best of motives to present to you this sketch. From the temper in which it is executed, I flatter my self, you will properly appreciate them. I have heard a rumor, of an Armistice, but as I have no certain information on this subject, the above view is given, without any regard to it. I speak of things only, that are visible and tangible. I remain with great respect & esteem yr. Obt Servt

Tho: Newton1

*N.B. Should Norfolk be taken—it will cost the U.S. An hundred times more to retake it than to defend it properly. Colonel Constant Freeman Commands.2


1Thomas Newton Jr. (1768–1847), the son of Thomas Newton (1742–1807), was a native of Norfolk, Virginia. Educated at the College of William and Mary, he read law and became a merchant. He was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1796–99, and of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1801–33, with a year’s break due to a contested 1829 election. In 1804 he served as one of the managers of New Hampshire district court judge John Pickering’s impeachment trial. As tensions rose in U.S. relations with Great Britain, Newton advocated strong measures against that nation, including military and naval protection for U.S. trade. A member of the House Committee on Commerce and Manufactures as early as 1801, he served as its chairman during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth congresses (James A. Padgett, ed., “Letters from Thomas Newton,” WMQ, description begins William and Mary Quarterly. description ends 2d ser., 16 [1936]: 192–93; “Newton of Norfolk,” VMHB 30 [1922]: 87; Clarke and Hall, Cases of Contested Elections in Congress, 520–24, 557, 600).

2On 9 Apr. 1814 the U.S. adjutant general, Col. John Walbach, ordered Col. Constant Freeman to turn over command of the troops at Norfolk to Virginia militia Brig. Gen. William Chamberlayne pending the arrival of Brig. Gen. Moses Porter, recently assigned to the post. Freeman had refused to relinquish command to a militia officer without direct orders from the War Department, which had evidently occasioned Chamberlayne’s departure from Norfolk. In a 14 Apr. 1814 letter to Virginia governor James Barbour, Freeman noted that he was unable to comply with Walbach’s order due to Chamberlayne’s absence. He also reported that the force at Norfolk was very weak, since no provision had been made to replace the militia whose six-month terms of service had recently expired (CVSP, 10:310–11, 319–20).

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