A Loyalist under House Arrest
Having failed to reach the British Army in New York, Cresswell spent a miserable autumn and winter of 1776/1777 in northern Virginia, often arguing with his host, James Kirk, a Patriot and the only man who had ensured the Englishman could keep clothes on his back and a roof over his head. Cresswell’s loyalist proclivities and extensive travels were widely known and on November 28, three men of the Committee of Safety in Alexandria “waited on me and informed me that the committee did not think it prudent to let me go out of the Country at this time and hoped that I would give my word of honour not to depart this Colony for three months. Otherwise they would confine me. I was obliged to do the first as the lesser evil of the two. They were polite enough not to search my chest.”[i] Depressed as ever and suspecting Kirk of arranging the entire affair in order to keep him in Virginia, Cresswell did what he usually did when he was unhappy. He got drunk.
Cresswell was often unhappy. In November, he and some friends got so drunk that they set their host’s house on fire three times and one of them broke his leg.[ii] In December, he went on a three-day binge, the effects of which lasted some time. Cresswell and his fellow imbibers established the “Black-eyed club” with himself as President. On the morning of the 12th, he admitted, “Last night was the worst we have had since we first commenced the trade of drunkards…All of us got most intolerably drunk. This is the first day that I have had any time for reflection this week. Uneasiness of mind first engaged me in this last debauch. Good company induced me to continue it and now a bitter reflection, an aching head, a sick stomach, a trembling hand and a number of disagreeable concomittants that are annexed to this detestable vice causes me to quit the pursuit.”[iii] It was a condition familiar to the miserable man.
Shortages of certain staples had appeared from time to time, but a salt shortage that winter seemed particularly pernicious. As it was necessary to preserve meat, the lack of salt threatened real hunger in the future. A mob of 40 horsemen passed through Leesburg on their way to Alexandria to demand it and returned on December 6 with a small amount and the promise of more. It was an old, statewide problem with backcountry groups raiding fisheries in the east almost a year earlier. For his part, Cresswell hoped that the Royal Navy’s blockade of the Chesapeake Bay would prevent it.[iv] Shortages, of course, meant price increases. In Loudon County, Cresswell complained:
This is a most unhappy country. Every necessary of life is at an extravagant price, some of them indeed is not to be had for money. Poor people are almost naked. Congress or Committee of Safety or some of those infernal bodies have issued an Order that every one that is fortunate enough to be possessed of two coats is to give one to their naked soldiers. Corn now begins to bear a good price, owing to such great quantities being distilled and the small proportion that is in the ground. I am persuaded there will be a famine very soon as well as a War.[v]
He seems not to have connected the dire economic straits to his own vulnerability, in which he largely remained dependent on the kindness of friends and acquaintances, some of whom detested his politics and all of whom were aware of his virulent loyalty to the crown.
As the war progressed, Cresswell rejoiced at every American defeat, and disbelieved every American victory. Despite his poor prospects, he continued spouting off, admitting that “I cannot help myself.”[vi] When Cresswell feared he had crossed a line, or was about to, he moved before ending up in jail, circulating among the town and country homes of various friends or acquaintances, some of whom shared his political views. During his first three years away from home, Cresswell’s political opinions had gotten him into arguments. Still, he had generally been left alone to express his opinions. The threat of jail always hovered in the background. His activities in New York and Baltimore certainly came close in fact, and possibly intent, to spying, which would have warranted prison. The amount of time he spent in Virginia likely qualified him as a resident and made him liable for military service. But, a local militia captain had excused him from serving as a guard to several English prisoners held in Leesburg, despite his status as a resident.[vii] (Obviously, he could not be trusted to do the job, despite the obligation.)
In order to at least earn his keep, the Englishman had helped instruct the locals in certain farming techniques and overseen some tasks for Kirk. While in Leesburg, Kirk asked him to design a pile driver that could be used to set the piles needed for a full-blown wharf. Kirk was pleased with the model and showed it to the local authorities. On March 10, Thomson Mason and two colonels arrived and attempted to recruit Cresswell into the Army Corps of Engineers. He refused, politely and respectfully for once, and “They were pleased to make me some genteel compliment about my steadiness and resolution, at the same time blended with some bitter reflections on my countrymen which rather nettled me.”[viii] Nevertheless, Cresswell continued demonstrating his mechanical skills to the locals, directing a crew that built a new water pump for Kirk. Cresswell resented the relationship, in which he was dependent on a man who had been both kind and generous to him, but whom the Englishman also blamed for keeping him in northern Virginia in an unsatisfactory state for his usefulness. It was a relationship not unlike that between the colonies and their mother country. Many Americans would have recognized Cresswell’s determination to end it.
The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 1
The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 2
The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 3
The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 5
[i] Cresswell, Journal, November 28, 1776.
[ii] Cresswell, Journal, November 19, 1776.
[iii] Cresswell, Journal, December 12, 1776.
[iv] Cresswell, Journal, December 6, 1776; See also Virginia Gazette, Pinkney, December 6, 1775.
[v] Cresswell, Journal, January 8, 1776.
[vi] Cresswell, Journal, November 30, 1776.
[vii] Cresswell, Journal, January 29, 1777.
[viii] Cresswell, Journal, March 10, 1777.
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