Nelson, Thomas

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Nelson, Thomas

NELSON, THOMAS. (1739–1789). Patriot, Signer, militia general, governor of Virginia. Born in Yorktown, Virginia, on 26 December 1738, Nelson was the son of the wealthy merchant, planter, and council member known as "President (William) Nelson." Thomas Nelson was educated in England, spending three years at Cambridge. Returning to Yorktown in 1761, he immediately found a place in the House of Burgesses and as a colonel of militia with the assistance of his father. In 1764 he took his place on the King's Council. On his father's death in 1772, Nelson inherited 20,000 acres and 400 slaves, although his style of living kept him perpetually in debt. Remaining in the Burgesses through this period, Nelson became steadily more political. By 1774 he was calling for a boycott of all British goods and led a local tea party. When state regiments were organized in July 1775, Nelson became a colonel in the Second Virginia Regiment. He resigned this commission later in the year when he was elected to fill the vacant seat of George Washington in the Continental Congress. The new Virginia delegate played a leading role in getting his state to support independence, and he signed the Declaration of Independence. In May 1777 a sudden and serious illness forced his resignation from Congress. In 1779 he was re-elected, but after a few months he again had to resign because of asthma.

Nelson was appointed brigadier general and commander of Virginia's state forces in August 1777. When Congress called for volunteer units, he raised a cavalry troop largely at his own expense. He led them to Philadelphia, but they were disbanded when Congress decided they could not be supported financially. In 1779 the British started a series of devastating raids in Virginia, and Nelson took the leading part in organizing militia resistance. On 12 June 1781 he was elected governor to succeed the militarily inept Thomas Jefferson, and he was given emergency powers by the frightened refugees of the raid on Charlottesville.

During the six months of his governorship, Nelson was virtually a military dictator. He struggled to raise the men and supplies needed to support the Marquis de Lafayette's 1781 expedition to secure Virginia, and when Washington and the comte de Rochambeau (Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur) marched south, the governor-general was in the field to join them for the kill, even directing artillery fire against his own house to support the military effort. In November 1781 he resigned his commission, again because of illness aggravated by asthma.

Nelson had signed off on huge loans during the Revolution in order to arm and equip Virginia's forces. The legislature refused to reimburse Nelson for any of the extensive debts he had accrued in the state's service. Nelson devoted the rest of his life attempting to pay off his creditors. He died at his plantation in Hanover County, Virginia, on 4 January 1789.

SEE ALSO Yorktown Campaign.


Evans, Emory G. Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

                          revised by Michael Bellesiles