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Secretary Thomas Nelson (1716-1782), the younger of the two sons of Thomas ("Scotch Tom") Nelson who founded the family in Yorktown, became a noted colonial Virginian. Like his brother, William, he came to serve on the colonial Virginia Council for more than a quarter century prior to the Revolution. William became the Council's president (hence the appellation "President Nelson") and Thomas became the colony's secretary of state (thus the designation "Secretary Nelson"), a post he held for thirty-three years. [1] He was not destined to serve in any prominent capacity in the new state government; though his name was in nomination to be its first chief executive, he lost to Patrick Henry. Then he largely withdrew from public service being considered too much of an aging conservative. Some have doubted his patriotism, yet there are no grounds to consider him a Tory. Perhaps the Marquis de Chastellux was not far from the mark when he described the Secretary as "Too far advanced in age to desire a revolution, too prudent to check this great event, if necessary, and too faithful to his countrymen to separate his interest from theirs, he chose the crisis of this alteration, to retire from public affairs." [2] Besides, having inherited and amassed considerable property and wealth in Yorktown and in outlying counties, he could now more fully enjoy this as long as wartime conditions would allow. In Yorktown, or rather contiguous to its southeast boundary, he had built a substantial mansion and was in residence here when the British came to Yorktown in the late summer of 1781. It has been duly noted:

True it is that Lord Cornwallis and the British officers used his home on the eastern edge of Yorktown, the largest and finest mansion thereabouts, as their headquarters during the opening days of the siege. . . . Whether the redcoats were his guests by invitation or against his will, however, is not ascertainable.

We do know that both the host and his guests tried to stick it out in that house despite accurate, intense artillery fire from several batteries, that a servant was killed in their midst, and that at last their stubborness was overcome, and that they vacated the house. . . . [3]

This was on October 10, the day that Secretary Nelson was permitted to come out from Yorktown under a flag of truce and "not restricted by a parole." The next day St. George Tucker dined with Nelson who gave him a report on the effectiveness of the allied bombardment. [4]

He says our Bombardment produced great Effects in annoying the Enemy & destroying their Works — Two Officers were killed & one wounded by a Bomb, the Evening we opened [October 9] — Lord Shuten's [likely Lt. Col. Lord Chewton, aide-de-camp to Lord Cornwallis] Cane was struck out of his Hand by a Cannon Ball — Lord Cornwallis has built a kind of Grotto at the foot of the secretary's Garden where he lives under Ground — A negroe of the Secretary's was kill'd in his House. [5]

On October 18, with the cannon silent, many mounted the parapets to look around. Among them was St. George Tucker. From "the top of our Works" he, among other things, saw the Secretary Nelson mansion, reporting — "the Secretary's house with one of the Corners broke off, & many large holes thro the Roof & Walls part of which seem'd tottering with their Weight afforded a striking Instance of the Destruction occasioned by War — Many other houses in the vicinity contributed to accomplish the Scene." [6]

It was indeed an imposing mansion that Secretary Nelson built and enjoyed at Yorktown sometime after 1744 on land that had been recently given him by his father. [7] It was a substantial and roomy two-story dormered structure, with a double-hipped roof and four massive chimneys pointing skyward. [8] The house is said to have measured some 56 by 48 feet. [9] It was supported by a cluster of at least four dependencies and there were gardens extending riverward seemingly in the general form indicated below. [10]

The Secretary Nelson mansion and the quality of living that it supported was suggested by Marquis de Chastellux [11] who was with Rochambeau and the French army during the siege in l781: "He [Secretary Nelson] lived at York, where he had built a very handsome house, from which neither European taste nor luxury was excluded; a chimney-piece and some bass reliefs of very fine marble, exquisitely sculptured, were particularly admired. . . . [The house] was built on an eminence, near the most important fortifications, and in the most agreeable situation in town . . . it soon drew the attention of our bombardiers and cannoniers and was almost entirely destroyed." Chastellux continued: "Mr. Nelson lived in it at the time our batteries tried their first shot and killed one of his negroes at a little distance from him; so that Lord Cornwallis was soon obliged to seek another asylum."

Though in ruins, the Secretary Nelson House continued to be an impressive structure. Isaac Weld, who saw it in 1796, had this to report in commenting on the "evident marks of the siege": [12]

There is one house in particular, which stands in the skirt of the town, that is in a most shattered condition. It was the habitation of a Mr. Neilson, a secretary under the regal government, and was made the head quarters of Lord Cornwallis when he first came to the town; but it stood so much exposed, and afforded so good a mark to the enemy, that he was soon forced to quit it. Neilson, however, it seems, was determined to stay there till the last, and absolutely remained till his negro servant, the only person that would live with him in such a house, had his brains dashed out by a cannon shot while he stood by his side; he then thought it time to retire, but the house was still continually fired at, as if it had been headquarters. The walls and roof are pierced in innumerable places, and at one corner a large piece of the wall is torn away; in this state, however, it is still inhabited in one room by some person or other equally fanciful as the old secretary. There are trenches thrown up around it, and on every side are deep hollows made by the bombs that fell near it.

The Benjamin Latrobe color sketch of the Secretary Nelson House, made about 1796, confirms graphically the damage to the house done by the allied artillery during the siege. It was an impressive structure even when in ruins some fifteen years after the damage was inflicted. [13] A French traveler, the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancount, also in 1796, found the mansion "pierced in every direction with cannon-shot and bomb-shells." He saw it as the chief monument of the memorable siege, adding that Yorktown "does not present any other object of curiosity." [14]

The old ruins of the house stood for a long time. Henry Howe noted prior to 1845 [15] that: "Cornwallis's head-quarters were originally in a splendid brick house, belonging to Secretary Nelson, the ruins of which are not visible in the large and continuous redoubt constructed by the British at the E. end of the town. He remained there until a servant was killed, and the building much injured by the American artillery, when he removed into the town."

In 1849 there was further reference to the ruins when another visitor to Yorktown, David Hunter Strother, [16] saw it: "In the village were the ruins of Gov. Nelson's house [17] and other houses still bearing the marks of cannon shot, the perforated walls unrepaired and the brick and mortar rubbish lying where it fell." Evidently Charles Campbell fell victim to the same mistaken identity for the Secretary Nelson House in 1837: "The house of Governor Nelson stood just within the British lines; it was riddled by the American shot. Nothing remains of it but some scattered brick bats." [18]

In due course the visible ruins would melt from view; however, the below ground foundations would remain to attract attention from time to time. They are still partly visible under concrete cap. Identifying and marking them became a special project of the Yorktown Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a project brought to fruition in 1933. [19]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010