Courage or Cowardice

Fort Nelson is under attack, and its defenders are outnumbered 10:1. Should they stay and fight, or retreat? This is the central question in Courage or Cowardice, a Colonial Williamsburg evening program.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. When we think of the Revolutionary War, we remember the great battles, the landmark victories and losses that changed the course of the war. But carried along in the tide of those major movements were many lesser skirmishes where ordinary men had to make life and death decisions for themselves and their troops.

Colonial Williamsburg’s evening program, “Courage or Cowardice,” focuses on one such decision. It’s a trial that visitors can be a part of as they witness the harrowing decisions that were a part of every leader’s job during the Revolutionary War. Joining us now is Garland Wood who’s a cast member of Courage or Cowardice. Garland, thank you for being here today.

Garland Wood: Glad to be here.

Harmony: Well this is just such a neat evening program. It lets visitors sort of be a fly on the wall. Well more than that because they’re involved in it.

Garland: Yes.

Harmony: Witness the trial of a Revolutionary War…was he a Captain?

Garland: He was a Major.

Harmony: A Major.

Garland: Major Thomas Matthews.

Harmony: And we’re talking about an actual event from history. Can you set this up for us; the time period we’re looking at?

Garland: Sure. For the first few years of the Revolutionary War, the war was in the North, you know. The battles were taking place in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. Virginia had largely been out of it. The British changed their campaign, changed their strategy and began a kind of a probe into the South.

One of the first things they did was launch an attack on Fort Nelson in the town of Portsmouth. The fort was there to protect the naval shipyard and the Portsmouth area was a huge supply center for Virginia’s troops, especially as troops were starting to head to the south. So it was an important kind of supply depot shipyard and obviously Portsmouth was an up and coming Virginia town. So Fort Nelson was the biggest, finest fort in Virginia, and it was commanded by a man named Major Thomas Matthews.

When the British came into the bay they were able to observe from the fort that the British were unloading over a thousand men to do an attack on the fort which did not have a rear wall and was greatly undermanned.

Harmony: Yeah, given it was the largest and finest fort in Virginia there was a widespread problem of understaffing.

Garland: Exactly right. Most of Virginia’s troops were in other places and at this point in history Virginia is mostly relying upon its militia to defend itself. So out of the 120 artillery men in Fort Nelson were about a quarter of all the artillerymen in the whole state.

Harmony: And this might be too broad of a generalization, but how can we compare militiamen to trained army personnel?

Garland: Citizen soldier is the word people or a phrase people like to use a lot. The militiaman is expected to provide service in his neighborhood when there’s an emergency. It’s an old tradition. There’s pretty much always been, well, since the 1630s, there’s always been a militia in the various counties and cities in Virginia. But these were not seasoned soldiers and the story of the militia and the Revolution is most of the times when they came upon really disciplined troops, like the British troops, the militia broke and ran. So they were great at defending their homes but you take them away from their neighborhood and you put them up against seasoned veterans, it’s a pretty overwhelming thing. But, Major Matthew’s men were very well trained, there just weren’t enough of them to hold this fort.

Harmony: So you mentioned there are about a thousand British unloading. How many men did Major Matthews have in that fort?

Garland: Somewhere around 120 men.

Harmony: So 10:1 he was outnumbered.

Garland: He was outnumbered 10 to 1. Now, you know, the best military minds of the day said, “If you’re attacking a fort and you’ve got three times the number of the defenders of the fort you can do it.” You know, the mathematics worked, they called it the Art and Science of War. And the British, in this case, had 10 to 1 so Major Matthews had to make a decision; was he going to stay in the fort and fight or was he going to leave?

He spiked his guns, dismounted his guns and took his men out of the fort, warned all the citizenry in the neighborhood that the British were on their way and then he retreated into, actually, into North Carolina and ultimately came back to Williamsburg. And it outraged a lot of people because it looked like, you know, Virginia had given up this fort without a fight and Major Matthews was thinking that it was a hopeless fight and that perhaps it was better to regroup and live to fight another day which of course he ends up doing.

But there’s such outrage, there’s a lot of controversy, there’s things written in the American papers, there’s a lot of finger pointing written in the English papers and it kind of got to be a political situation so the program that we do is the Board of Inquiry that Major Matthews called for. He wanted to be tried and he wanted to be exonerated.

Harmony: And so what kind of questions did they have? It seems like such a cut and dried case if it was 10 to 1? This would have just been a suicide mission for him and his men.

Garland: Well, it was enough of a controversy…I guess, I guess the issue is should he have stayed in the fort longer, should he have tried to inflict casualties, should have sent part of his men out and left others behind? What the program is about is, was his decision correct? Or was it shameful? He left the colors flying on the fort to deceive the enemy and he kind of snuck his men out the back, and from their perspective the British were still unloading the ships when they evacuated the fort so it never really came to blows and I think that was the issue.

I think a lot of people were saying, “You know, why wasn’t there more of a fight?” And, you know, “Was he a coward?” Courage or cowardice, was this the right decision? And what we do, it’s not really a court martial, it’s a Board of Inquiry to determine whether this is something worthy of a court martial so all the guests that take part in the program they are officers on this Board of Inquiry and it’s their job to put questions to Major Matthews and to kind of get to the bottom of the story.

We heard what happened, but you know, I’m curious about how many cannons did you have, were you running out of powder, was there sickness among your troops, what was the range, you know, how far, how close were the enemy when you made your decision, what did the other officers think? There’s a lot of questions that the visitors can ask and we bring forward Major Matthews to talk with us and then other witnesses and then we debate it and ultimately vote to decide whether he was correct or not.

Harmony: I think this program gives us a really interesting insight into the culture of the Revolutionary War armed forces. The idea that there would be any controversy about him leaving a lost cause, it’s kind of surprising to my mind today that anyone would have expected him to stay and throw himself on his sword that way. What was the controversy? Was it embarrassing for Americans that this Major had left his fort? Did it look bad for the cause?

Garland: Well, again, Virginia had not been kind of in the headlines and so during the course of the war so far so, you know, here’s the first headline for Virginia, “Largest Fort in Virginia Abandoned Without a Shot” while the British burn Suffolk, loot Portsmouth, you know, commit all these atrocities against the local citizenry. They’re basically running amuck through the countryside, they burn the shipyard, they captured 137 ships. The total cost of the destruction against Virginia was £ 2,000,000 so it was a big, big deal.

I think what’s curious is the whole case is resolved or is based around a Gazette article that posts the results of the Board of Inquiry so it’s newspaper-worthy. People want to know what’s going on with Major Matthews and, you know, what the decision is. Patrick Henry’s governor of Virginia at this time, so how does this reflect upon his administration? Thomas Jefferson’s getting ready to step in as governor of Virginia. Are we in a state of preparedness or is this just one more, is this a sign of things to come? Because we have other forts manned by other men, you know, are the British going to take them just as easily? And one of the results of this attack in the Chesapeake Bay in May of 1779 is the Burgesses here in Williamsburg saying, “Williamsburg is indefensible.” So they abandon Williamsburg as capitol. This is the event that makes them move to Richmond and seek a new capital building; something far away from the British Navy.

Harmony: But in Major Thomas Matthews mind he’s just done the best he can. He’s done damage control. He spikes his guns which mean he hammers some kind of iron into the front of them so they’re not fireable anymore…

Garland: Yes.

Harmony:…he burns and sinks a couple ships and he gets his guys out of there so that they can fight somewhere else. But the cost of this desertion is still very high as you pointed out so I guess at the end of the program guests get to vote every night on whether or not…on every performance. They get to vote on whether or not they think he should be subject to further punishment or exonerated.

Garland: Absolutely. Well we even go beyond that. Once we have gathered our information, once we have recorded the evidence then we debate amongst the visitors and people will stand up and argue, “I would have done the same thing he did,” you know, “He didn’t have the support.” And other people would say, “The man is a coward, he makes us all look ridiculous.” And I think people genuinely enjoy kind of putting themselves into the role because there’s not an easy answer. It’s not a cut and dry kind of thing. There is room for interpretation on both sides and sometimes we come down to a dead tie and I have to cast a deciding vote so it’s split pretty evenly.

Harmony: Do you feel like when folks get to witness this kind of trial and see the literal conflict of values that’s happening do think they understand the Revolution better? Understand the tough choices that revolutionary people, ordinary people, were suddenly thrust into?

Garland: I think they do. I think they do because, you know, for an hour, they’re part of the whole process. There involved in the Revolution. They are in character. They are officers in the Virginia forces for an hour. I think that makes the stakes a little bit more real, you know. If you’re sitting in on this Board of Inquiry and you make your decision and then you go back home the people at home are going to be asking you, “Well tell me about Major Matthews, what did he say and, you know, did…I heard he was tall, what did he look like?” They were fascinated by this character who some of them had only heard about in the newspapers and I think it puts them right in that position.

It’s also interesting when we have many servicemen who have come to this program and they have a very different perspective on duty and what you’re supposed to be doing and what abandoning a post means or what responsibility you have to your men. I mean I’ve never been a soldier myself, but we have servicemen in that program all the time and their perspective is fascinating, as they’ve really lived it. And you can be brought if you’re in the army or the navy or the marines you can be brought up before a Board of Inquiry today. So, you know, our American armed forces is starting at the time period we’re talking about this so it’s a real direct link to their experience.

Harmony: So if folks can’t stand not knowing what happened to Major Thomas Matthews, they can come and see this program and they can find the dates when it’s going to be offered in the Colonial Williamsburg Events Calendar at Colonial

Garland, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Garland: You’re very welcome; my pleasure.