Thomas Nelson Jr., a descendant of the Plantagenet House through King Edward III, formed the Virginia militia and served as its first commander. He was a Patriot who supported the War for Independence with his purse and sword, and put his country and liberty above his own profit. Nelson was with the Continental Army at the siege of Yorktown, and according to legend, he urged General George Washington to target his own home, the location of General Cornwallis’ headquarters. Nelson offered five guineas to the first man to hit his house. As with so many of our Founders, Nelson died young, soon after the war ended. As an aristocrat, his sacrifice for his fellow countrymen was higher than most – he could have led a comfortable life ruling over the commonwealth, instead he chose to fight for liberty.
Thomas Nelson Jr. was born in Yorktown, Virginia, on December 26, 1738. He was the oldest son of the former governor of Virginia, William Nelson and grandson of “Scotch Tom”, the founder and planner of York, Virginia. At a young age Nelson was sent back to England, like many young aristocrats, to continue his education. He attended Newcome’s School and Eton before being admitted into Trinity College at Cambridge University. Nelson graduated in 1760 and returned home the following year where he joined his father on the family farm as a gentleman planter. On his return journey, Nelson was elected to House of Burgesses at the age of 23.
In 1762, he married Lucy Grymes who was from a prominent and politically well-connected family through her mother Mary Randolph. Lucy was a cousin of many of the Founders who served with her husband including Peyton Randolph, Benjamin Harrison, Carter Braxton, the Lee brothers and Thomas Jefferson. Together they had eleven children.
Nelson became deeply involved with politics in Virginia just as the colonies began to protest the constitutional violations by the English King and Parliament. The House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1774 because of its resolutions censuring and condemning the closing of the Port of Boston. Nelson was one of the 89 men who famously assembled at the Raleigh Tavern to in protest of the Governor Lord Dunmore’s act. Nelson supported the efforts of the Massachusetts Patriots by sending much needed supplies to Boston, purchased with his own fortune. He also arranged a Yorktown tea party and personally threw tea into the York River.
Nelson was selected to represent York County at the first Virginia Convention which met at Williamsburg in 1774. He became the leading voice in the debate regarding military force, and was subsequently appointed colonel in the second Virginia Infantry Regiment in 1775. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1776 and also helped to draft The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Nelson was elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress, replacing Patrick Henry who chose to remain a colonel in the Virginia militia. Nelson resigned his commission and, as a Congressman, voted for independence and signed The Declaration of Independence. Nelson was forced to resign in 1777, when he suffered a bout of severe asthma. When he regained his health in 1779, he was re-elected to congress. His illness soon returned and he once again retired to Virginia and continued his military service, which benefited both the war effort and his health.
The British forces started to become aggressive against the southern colonies and in 1781, Nelson succeeded Thomas Jefferson, who declined reelection as Governor of Virginia. The Virginia Legislature was on the run from the British cavalry. In September the Continental Army aided by the French were closing in on General Cornwallis. The British decided to await naval evacuation at Yorktown when the French fleet finally arrived at the Chesapeake to cut off the British escape. Nelson led the Virginia Militia during the siege and battle of Yorktown, his ancestral hometown. Nelson had personally organized and supplied the entire Virginia militia with his own funds. A legend from the battle is that Nelson ordered artillery to direct their fire on his own house which was British headquarters. There are three cannon balls still lodged in the outer wall of the house which is part of the Yorktown Battlefield.
In October of 1781, General Nelson was forced by illness to resign as Governor and retire from military service. He moved to his son’s home and remained at the Hanover County estate until his death on January 4, 1789 at the young age of 50. He is buried at Grace Churchyard in Yorktown.
Nelson was a gentleman planter, soldier, and statesman who willingly served and supported his fellow countrymen in the pursuit of liberty although his place among the ruling class of Virginia was secured. He spent his personal fortune on the cause of independence supplying the Boston Patriots, equipping the Virginia militia, and funding the French fleet’s assistance to the colonies. He used his own funds and credit and was never compensated. His many contributions to the cause of independence are all but forgotten today. At the time of his death, just eight years after the war ended, a great tribute was happily and affectionately paid to the memory of Thomas Nelson, Jr. by his good friend, Colonel James Innes:
“The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! He paid the last great debt to nature, on Sunday, the fourth of the present month, at his estate in Hanover. He who undertakes barely to recite the exalted virtues which adorned the life of this great and good man, will unavoidably pronounce a panegyric on human nature. As a man, a citizen, a legislator, and a patriot, he exhibited a conduct untarnished and undebased by sordid or selfish interest, and strongly marked with the genuine characteristics of true religion, sound benevolence, and liberal policy. Entertaining the most ardent love for civil and religious liberty, he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machination of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire.
At a most important crisis, during the late struggle for American liberty, when this state appeared to be designated as the theatre of action for the contending armies, he was selected by the unanimous suffrage of the legislature to command the virtuous yeomanry intrepid of his country. In this honorable employment he remained until the end of the war, as a soldier, he was indefatigably active and cooly intrepid; resolute and undejected in misfortunes, he towered above distress, and struggled with the manifold difficulties to which his situation exposed him, with constancy and courage.
In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed ‘tried men’s souls.’ He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger, but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity , if it can believe, will almost adore.
If, after contemplating the splendid and heroic parts of his character, we shall inquire for the milder virtues of humanity, and seek for the man, we shall find the refined, beneficent, and social qualities of private life, through all its forms and combination, so happily modified and united in him, that in the words of the darling poet of nature, it may be said:
‘His life was gentle: and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand and say to all the world—this was a man.’”