May 6, 2012

The air was electric with alarm and outrage. A warship of the British Navy had savaged an American vessel just off the Virginia Capes and forcefully removed enlisted sailors. Suddenly, without warning, a state of war seemed to exist. And because no one really knew if this was true or not, confusion reigned.

Into this crisis stepped a one-time Revolutionary War soldier who was regarded as a strong leader and statesman.

Thomas Mathews was born in 1742 in St. Kitts, an island in the British West Indies, and in his mid-20s made his way to Norfolk where he married a local woman, Molly Miller, and settled down to study and practice law.

But war soon intervened, and Mathews signed up for the patriot cause. He rose to the rank of major and served in an artillery regiment commanded by John Marshall, the future chief justice. Marshall’s regiment spent the Winter of 1778-79 at Valley Forge, and it’s likely there that Mathews became friends with George Washington.

In 1779, he was put in charge of a garrison of 150 men at Fort Nelson where the present-day Portsmouth Naval Medical Center now stands.  In a surprise attack, the British landed down-river and approached the fort from the rear, forcing its evacuation. He’d remember it ruefully.

After the war he went to Richmond as a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1788 and was immediately chosen speaker of the House. There he played a major role in convincing legislators to approve the amendments that are known as the Bill of Rights.

In 1791, as a favor to colleagues, he introduced a resolution to form a new county consisting of the Kingston Parish of Gloucester County. In thanks for his support, the new entity was named Mathews County.

Mathews might have thought he was done with public service, although he kept up soldiering, accepting a position as brigadier general in the local militia. Lawyer, soldier, and by now, at age 65, elder statesman – he might have been ideal for the job he was suddenly handed.

On June 22, 1807, the frigate Chesapeake was mauled by the British warship Leopard, killing four and wounding many others. When the badly damaged ship made it back to port, citizens of Norfolk and Portsmouth were outraged.

Two days later local leaders unanimously called Mathews to chair an emergency meeting. It isn’t certain whether the words of the resulting resolution were his, but they ring with revolutionary fervor. The sailors, they declared, were “basely and insidiously murdered.”

In order to deal with “this awful crisis,” they resolved “to be in readiness to take up arms in defense of those sacred rights which our forefathers purchased with their blood.”

In the meantime, they would cut off all communication and interaction with the large British fleet, most of it anchored in Lynnhaven Bay. That applied to provisioning, repairs and even diplomatic contacts – and they urged other local governments to do the same. Anyone violating the ban “shall be deemed infamous.”

In one of the toughest resolutions, the committee declared “this unprovoked, piratical, savage and assassin-like attack upon the Chesapeake, with the horror and detestation which should always attend a violation of the faith of nations, and the laws of war, and we pledge ourselves and our properties to cooperate with the government in any measures which they may adopt, whether of vengeance or retaliation.”

They resolved also “to hold in readiness an armed force for the purpose of defense.” That meant bolstering the defenses at Fort Nelson. “If they attack us,” Mathews wrote to Gov. William Cabell, “I expect they will land as many marines and seamen from the ships as they can spare, and make an attempt to take Fort Nelson. . . .”

That surely would have been the case six years later had not the British been stopped cold at Craney Island.

By then Mathews was gone. After leaving the legislature, he evidently spent a pleasant retirement for there were reports that was frequently seen on the streets of Norfolk, tipping his hat to passersby.

He died in early 1812 – just before the war. An obituary in The Norfolk Gazette and Public Ledger described him as “kind, affectionate, polite and benevolent.”

Portrait of Thomas Mathews/Courtesy of Mathews Memorial Library