A Loyal Englishman in a Hostile Country
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When he arrived in Alexandria, Virginia in October 1775, Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman visiting the colonies in search opportunity, found himself in dire straits. The war had cut off his father’s money, while his loyalist principles strained his acquaintances and put him in an awkward position. He summed it up: “if I enter into any sort of business I must be obliged to enter into the service of these rascals and fight against my Friends and Country if called upon. On the other hand, I am not permitted to depart the Continent and have nothing if I am fortunate enough to escape the jail. I will live as cheap as I can and hope for better times.”[i]
The jail was metaphorical, but it surely felt that way for a loyalist trapped penniless in “enemy” territory and surrounded by people who no longer trusted him. Indeed, the arrest warrant for him issued while he was in the back country had not yet caught up with him. With every bit of news that made the locals feel threatened—such as rumors that Governor Dunmore was ascending the Potomac to destroy Alexandria, his situation only grew worse. Cresswell had an increasingly difficult time keeping his opinions to himself. Even James Kirk grew frustrated with him. Still, Kirk found ad hoc tasks that Cresswell could perform to earn his keep. Nevertheless, by the end of October, Cresswell vented to his diary:
The people here are ripe for a revolt, nothing but curses and imprecations against England, her Fleets, armies, and friends. The King is publicly cursed and rebellion rears her horrid head. The people in this Colony and the province of Maryland are in general greatly in debt to the Merchants of England, and think a revolt would pay all…Understand I am suspected of being what they call a Tory (that is a Friend to my Country) and am threatened with Tar and Feathers, Imprisonment and the D—l knows what. Curse the Scoundrels.[ii]
In November a doctor sought him out for dinner and they had a long political conversation. Cresswell believed the doctor’s purpose was to trap the Englishman into publicly expressing loyalist sympathies. Cresswell moderated his statements enough to feel safe. But, to his diary, he demonstrated the same English mentality that insisted on viewing Americans as children and their opposition to British policy as the mere ranting of ill-behaved minors. He noted to himself, “Never to enter into Political disputes again till I have more impudence or am in a free country,” hinting at the oppression loyalists feared from over-zealous Patriots.[iii] At the end of the month Kirk sent Cresswell to Leesburg in order to help one of Kirk’s bookkeepers sort through some accounts. It was an uneventful trip that involved as much drinking and eating as work, although Cresswell did meet with John Connolly, Lord Dunmore’s former agent. The latter had been arrested for plotting to coordinate an invasion of Virginia with Lord Dunmore by attacking Pittsburgh. The local Committee of Safety in Frederick, Maryland did not trust Cresswell alone with the prisoner. Cresswell passed a downcast New Year’s Eve:
This is the last day of the year 1775, which I have spent but very indifferently. In short I have done nothing, but wore out my clothes and constitution, an according to the present prospect of affairs, the New Year bears a forbidding aspect. I am here a prisoner at large. If I attempt to depart and don’t succeed, a prison must be my lot. If I do anything to get a living, perhaps I must be obliged to fight against my King and Country, which my conscience abhors. I will wait with patience till summer and then risk a passage.[iv]
Kirk likely had three purposes in sending Cresswell to Leesburg: 1) make use of Cresswell while he could; 2) help the young Englishman keep a roof over his head, and 3) keep him out of jail. While Cresswell was in the back country, George Mason’s brother, Thomson, had intervened with the Alexandria Committee of Safety and convinced them to accept a bond from Cresswell in lieu of jail. Kirk and Mason likely concluded that out of sight was out of mind when it came to the young Englishman and the Alexandria Committee of Safety.
Trapped in Virginia in the midst of its revolt against the Crown, the young Englishman began 1776 by trying to drown his misery in the bottle, which he recognized as a “fatal remedy indeed. In January, he got his hands on a copy of “Common Sense,” possibly from Kirk. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy with its contents:
A pamphlet called “Commonsense” makes a great noise. One of the vilest things that ever was published to the world. Full of false representations, lies, calumny, and treason, whose principles are to subvert all Kingly Governments and erect an Independent Republic. I believe the writer to be some Yankey Presbyterian, Member of the Congress. The sentiments are adopted by a great number of people who are indebted to Great Britain.[v]
Ironically, the author, Thomas Paine, arrived in the colonies in November, 1774, six months after Cresswell!
February and March found Cresswell trying to earn some cash by making nitre, a form of potassium nitrate useful in soap, fertilizer, and gunpowder. He managed to squirrel enough money away to plan his “escape” to Britain over the summer via New York. Taking leave of Kirk, he arrived in Philadelphia on August 28 armed with a letter of introduction from Thomson Mason, that he presented to Francis Lighfoot Lee and Thomas Jefferson, “who behaved with the greatest complaisance and politeness,” then offered to seek a Congressional travel pass for him.[vi] Mason had again intervened on the young man’s behalf.
Cresswell’s behavior changed in September, perhaps with an eye toward bringing useful information to the British Army. He spent time with two loyalists, Joseph Brewer and a Mr. Buchhannan, an Irishman. Brewer was a clerk to the Philadelphia merchant Jeremiah Warder, who was strictly neutral in the war, meaning neither Patriot or Loyalist. Although Cresswell was capable of getting on well enough with Patriots, he clearly preferred the company of like-minded Loyalists. Brewer and Buchhannan fit the bill. Cresswell referred to them both in the world’s worst code as “Sgnik Sdneirf.” (King’s Friends” backwards. Similarly, rebels became “sleber.”)
The trio sailed down the Delaware River to visit its defenses. They inspected the works on Mud Island at the mouth of the Schuylkill, which later became Fort Mifflin. For an innocent traveler, Cresswell’s observations are rather detailed:
The Fort is on a low dirty Island at the conflux of the Schuylkill with the Dellawar, only a shell, not finished part of it picketed and three Blockhouses, there is eight 32 pounders well situated to cover the Vis-a-de-Frise. A large boom across the River. Thirteen Gondolas—some carried 4 Guns, some 2 and some one, trifling things rowed with oars—and a floating Battery, which mounts 14 heavy cannons, very formidable.[vii]
After spying out the city’s river defenses, Cresswell returned to Jefferson and received his pass, signed by John Hancock and then confided to his diary “Determine to go to New York and make my escape to the English Army.” Later, he noted sufficient barracks to house 7,000 to 8,000 men and counted the number (4), size, and completion state of Continental frigates being constructed by the city’s shipbuilders.[viii]
Cresswell departed Philadelphia for New York on September 5 and concluded that one of his fellow stage passengers was there to spy on him. He arrived in New York on September 7, just a bit more than a week after the Battle of Long Island. He kept on the move “Viewing the town and fortifications,” including fortified streets and then, again, the defenses on the North River.[ix] Unfortunately for Cresswell, during his visit he encountered a Presbyterian Pastor in New York as a regimental chaplain. The Englishman and minister had argued about politics way back in November 1774. The clergyman well remembered it, suspected Cresswell of felonious intent, and warned him to get out of town or face the Army provost. “I was under the necessity of submitting to this puritanic Priest for fear of worse consequences.”[x]
In Philadelphia, Cresswell reunited with the Loyalists he had come to know. He did not wait there long either, but set out for Virginia by way of Baltimore, where he noted a 36-gun frigate being built and the region’s extensive iron industry. By September 18, he was back in Leesburg and dining with old acquaintance and friends, including Kirk and Thomson Mason. Mason had already intervened with the Leesburg Committee of Safety to arrange much the same conditions for Cresswell as he had with the Alexandria Committee of Safety.
It didn’t take long for the forlorn Englishman to take up heavy drinking again. On October 1, he went out and “got most feloniously drunk,” only to stay “at home, sick with my last night’s debauch” the next day. He could only bemoan his state: “O! Temperance, temperance, thou best of virtues, what pains we take to ruin our constitutions by these nocturnal excesses.”[xi] Finally on October 21, the Loudon County Committee of Safety informed Cresswell that he would not be allowed to leave Virginia on suspicion of spying. He would be permitted to post a cash bond or he would have to go to jail. Cresswell does not admit posting the bond, but he did not go to jail and continued to shuttle between Alexandria and Leesburg. So, Cresswell spent his days deploring his situation, drinking, and complaining to his diary.[xii]
[i] Cresswell, Journal, October 21, 1775.
[ii] Cresswell, Journal, October 30 and 31, 1775.
[iii] Cresswell, Journal, November 9, 1775.
[iv] Cresswell, Journal, December 31, 1775.
[v] Cresswell, Journal, January 19, 1776.
[vi] Cresswell, Journal, August 31, 1776. In seeking the letters of introduction from Thomson Mason, Cresswell also admitted in his diary, “Don’t act fairly by Mr. Mason, not to let him know my designs.” Cresswell, Journal, August 21, 1776 entry. Mason’s letters have not been found, but Cresswell’s visit was noted. See, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-15-02-0548.
[vii] Cresswell, Journal, September 1, 1776.
[viii] Cresswell, Journal, September 3, 1776.
[ix] Cresswell, Journal, September 7 and 8, 1776.
[x] Cresswell, Journal, June 1, 1777.
[xi] Cresswell, Journal, October 1 and 2, 1776.
[xii] Cresswell, Journal, October 26, 1776.