Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr.

Nelson, Thomas Jr. 1739-1789.

Thomas Nelson, Jr., was born in Yorktown to one of Virginia's First Families. Groomed since childhood to assume the reigns of power and place, he was a leading merchant, businessman, burgess, and member of the Governor's Council. As Virginia moved towards war, Nelson was appointed Colonel of the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. In mid-1775 Nelson was elected to fill George Washington's seat in the Second Continental Congress when Washington left to assume command of the Continental Army.

The Virginia state government voted to instruct it's delegates in Congress to propose independence. Nelson carried those instructions to his colleagues in Philadelphia. He then added his name to the Declaration of Independence, signing 9 spaces directly below John Hancock. Poor health caused his later resignation from Congress.

On June 12, 1781, Nelson was elected to succeed Thomas Jefferson as governor of Virginia. Nelson was granted almost dictatorial powers due to the British invasion and the resulting military emergency. He used those powers to coordinate Virginia's defense against Cornwallis.

Nelson joined Washington and Rochambeau to besiege the British in his hometown. As commander of the Virginia militia, Nelson was in charge of one third of the American troops during the battle. A legend of the battle has Nelson offering money to the first American artillerist to hit his home. He believed British officers would be occupying the house. Evidence of the damage still exists today.

In November 1781, poor health forced Nelson's resignation as governor. The war had ruined his business, and his personal loan of over $2,000,000 to help finance Virginia's war costs was never repaid by the state. Nelson was left a poor man with a wife and 11 children. Living on the edge of poverty, he died of asthma eight years after the 1781 siege and was buried in an unmarked grave at Yorktown's Grace Church so that his creditors could not hold his body as collateral.

When asked if he felt embittered about his treatment, Nelson stated "I would do it all over again." A true patriot, willing to sacrifice his home, livelihood, and life. Nelson personified the closing words of the Declaration of Independence, upon which he fixed his signature:

"...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."

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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Colonial National Historical Park - Yorktown Battlefield
P.O. Box 210

Yorktown, VA 23690


757 898-2410

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