The Virginia Businessman Turned Revolutionary War General Who Bankrolled the Local Cavalry, Donated Supplies, and More

Thomas Nelson Jr., one of Virginia’s richest men before the Revolutionary War, chose freedom over his business.
The Virginia Businessman Turned Revolutionary War General Who Bankrolled the Local Cavalry, Donated Supplies, and More
French fleet (left), commanded by Vice Admiral the Comte de Grasse, engaging the British fleet under Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. “Battle of the Virginia Capes, 5 September 1781” by V. Zveg, 1972. Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Norfolk, Va. (Public Domain)
12/2/2023
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12/2/2023
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Thomas Nelson Jr. was not only born in Yorktown, Virginia, he owned much of it. He never lacked for money, prestige, or an idyllic life, but in 1774 his attention shifted to liberty and freedom. When the British closed the Port of Boston, Nelson sent supplies from his own pocket to the patriots there.

When the British Navy threatened to bombard Yorktown, his reaction was bold and decisive. “I am a merchant of Yorktown, but I am a Virginian first. Let my trade perish,” he thundered. The only thing that kept him from enlisting in the Continental Army was periodic bouts of asthma. He served without pay in the Virginia legislature and as lieutenant of York County. He became a brigadier general in charge of Virginia’s militia when the British invasion threatened.

A print of Nelson’s house in Yorktown, Va., circa 1850–1890. The New York Public Library. (Public Domain)
A print of Nelson’s house in Yorktown, Va., circa 1850–1890. The New York Public Library. (Public Domain)

In 1778, Nelson raised a company of Virginia cavalry to fight in Pennsylvania. He was its banker as well as its commander. Most of the funds for food, uniforms, and ammunition came out of his own pocket. In addition, he paid the debts for two other regiments, lent money to needy soldiers and officers, gave his best horses to the army and fed hungry soldiers from his own granary. He even neglected his tobacco crops to send his indentured workers and tenants to harvest the crops of small farmers who were serving in the militia and were unable to hire help. His generosity was without end.

Print of Thomas Nelson Jr. by Max Rosenthal after a painting by Rembrandt Peale, 1850–1890. The New York Public Library. (Public Domain)
Print of Thomas Nelson Jr. by Max Rosenthal after a painting by Rembrandt Peale, 1850–1890. The New York Public Library. (Public Domain)

Giving All He Had

When the French fleet needed money to operate in American waters in 1780, Nelson raised $2 million almost overnight by offering his own properties as guarantees for the loans. He did it because he felt he had to. The state of Virginia had destroyed its credit by issuing too much paper money and had no money to give. Unfortunately, when Nelson’s loans came due, he had to forfeit them and take the loss. The government never reimbursed him. And he never pressed the point.

In the final battle at Yorktown, the English fleet that was supposed to bring more troops was sent limping back to New York, outmaneuvered and outgunned by the French fleet that Nelson had helped finance. Nelson was in command of the Virginia militia, as well as serving as governor of the state. He was in the front lines where 70 cannons were making things hot for the besieged British in Yorktown.

A plan of the entrance of Chesapeake Bay with James and York rivers showing the positions of the British Army at Gloucester and York, as well as the American and French forces, published in 1781. (Public Domain)
A plan of the entrance of Chesapeake Bay with James and York rivers showing the positions of the British Army at Gloucester and York, as well as the American and French forces, published in 1781. (Public Domain)

Nelson saw that his own brick mansion was untouched by the heavy bombardment even though it was known that the British were headquartered there.

“Why do you spare my house?”  he demanded of a gunner.

“Out of respect to you, Sir,” the soldier replied.

“Give me the cannon!” Nelson ordered. At his insistence, the gun was directly fired upon his own stately dwelling, killing several British officers inside.

A print titled “The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 1781” by the Illman Brothers after Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq, circa 1870. (Public Domain)
A print titled “The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 1781” by the Illman Brothers after Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq, circa 1870. (Public Domain)

For eight days the fighting raged. To make matters worse, the British ran out of fodder for their horses and were forced to kill them. Then an epidemic of smallpox broke out in the cramped quarters of the small town and took many lives. By October, the British were out of options and surrendered their arms as their fifes played “The World Turned Upside Down.” It would take two more years before a treaty of peace was finally signed, but England would risk no more armies. A new nation was born.

Before the war, Nelson had been one of the richest men in Virginia, but when it ended, he was living on the edge of poverty and in poor health. He retired to his son’s home in Hanover County with his wife. When asked if he had any regrets or bitterness, Nelson said, “I would do it all over again.” He died at age 50 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Yorktown’s Grace Chapel to prevent his creditors from holding his body as collateral.

Nelson personified the closing words of the Declaration of Independence: “and for support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.