Samuel Nicholas, "The Fightin' Quaker"
By Lew D Feldman - Originally Published November 1927
Had we the information, there would be reason for talking about Nicholas' first tooth and its subsequent influence upon our history. We would then follow this with several paragraphs, appropriately titled by such legends, as "Our Hero at School," "His First Fight," "Vacation Days." But since the pages of history have never divulged the minutiae of Friend Samuel Nicholas' early life, we are forced to begin by observing events that happen to be recorded.
On the 10th of November, 1775, Congress adopted, the following resolution:
Resolved: That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of Privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and second Battalion of Marines.
It is apparent that the Continental Congress intended the senior officer of Marines be a Colonel, but this rank was never conferred upon any Marine officer during the Revolution. On the 28th of November, 1775, the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress appointed Samuel Nicholas, of Philadelphia, Captain of Marines. Why the Committee appointed Nicholas in preferment to other candidates for the office has never been fully explained; it made no mistake however. This gentle-appearing Quaker received the first commission issued in the Continental Naval Service. (This very commission is in the possession of Nicholas' great-grandson, who now resides in Glen Ridge, N. J.) Captain Nicholas no sooner received official confirmation of his appointment to office: than he established recruiting headquarters at Tun's Tavern, Philadelphia.
By January of 1776, having recruited a sufficient number of Marines to man the seven (or was it eight) vessels that comprised the Continental Navy in the waters about Philadelphia, Captain Nicholas assumed command of the Marine detachment of the "ALFRED." With Commodore Hopkins in command, the "ALFRED" set sail from Philadelphia on the morning of the 4th of January. The following month witnessed the baptismal fire of the Leathernecks.
Lord Dunmore, with the British force under his command, had collected a considerable store of arms and provisions at New Providence, in the Bahamas, and had done a great deal of injury along the Colonial coast, principally confining his attentions to the shore of Virginia. Commodore Hopkins had been ordered to proceed to Avaco in the Bahamas, where his squadron was to gather, and from there to operate against the force of Lord Dunmore. After an uneventful run, the squadron arrived at the rendezvous. Here, the Commodore decided to make an attack on New Providence, capture the enemy's stores and cripple his supplies. Captain Nicholas was placed in command of the landing party, which consisted of about two hundred and fifty Marines and sailors. This, the first landing party ever, engaged in by Continental Marines, was a complete success. "Skipper" Nicholas obtained possession of the fort without a single casualty. "The Marines under Captain Nicholas behaved with a spirit and steadiness that have distinguished the Corps from that hour down to this."
On the 6th of April, 1776, the Marines participated in the first naval battle between an American squadron and the British. Evidently, His Majesty's Ship "GLASGOW," commanded by Lord Howe, had blundered across the path of the squadron. Captain Nicholas reported that he went to bed at midnight, and at 1:30 a. m. he was awakened by the cry of "All hands to Quarters!" He goes on ... "We were soon ready for action, the main body of my company with my First Lieutenant, was placed in a barge on the main deck, the remaining part, with my Second Lieutenant and myself on the Quarterdeck." Second Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick fell dead by the side of Captain Nicholas, at the first broadside "shot by a musket-ball through the head!" Nicholas writes of him, "In him I have lost a worthy officer, sincere friend and companion, that was beloved by all the ship's company."
On the 25th of June, 1776, Congress placed "Samuel Nicholas at the head of the Marines with the rank of Major." At this time the fleet was concentrated off Rhode Island. Accordingly, Commodore Hopkins was advised to send the "Quaker Skipper" to Philadelphia., with dispatches for the Continental Congress. It must have been with a justified sense of pride, mingled with characteristic humility, that Nicholas reported to John Hancock, President of the Congress. With the notification of his promotion to a majority, he was ordered to report to the Marine Committee. This august body had ill-tidings in store for the Major. Instead of complying with Nicholas' request that he be returned to the fleet, the Committee detached him from the "ALFRED" and ordered him to remain in the city, "to discipline four companies of Marines and prepare them for service as Marine guards for the frigates on the stocks." We cannot help but agree with the Major that the assignment was an unwelcome expression of gratitude for services rendered. However, duty is duty, then as now; he set energetically to work recruiting the desired number of men. Having recruited and thoroughly organized four companies, he requested arms and equipment for them. Congress complied by directing the Secret Committee on August 22, 1776, to "deliver to Major Nicholas a number of muskets, sufficient to arm the Marines under his command in thé city of Philadelphia." Consequently, November found a "well-organized, well-equipped, and well-disciplined battalion of Marines housed in comfortable barracks."
In December, 1775, he wrote to Congress, "The enemy, having overrun the Jerseys, and our army being greatly reduced, I was ordered to march with three of the companies to be under the command of His Excellency, the Commander-in-Chief." We have here the first example of a battalion of Marines, about to serve as an actual fighting unit under the direct command of army authority. Washington's crossing of the frozen Delaware, with his almost equally frozen army, has ever been a stirring spectacle to all students of Americana. Everyone knows about his sudden and overwhelmingly successful attack upon the reveling Hessians at Christmas Dawn, but how many ever contemplate the difficulty experienced in getting that army across. The Marines, unfortunately, did not engage as a body in the attack upon Trenton. They accomplished the thankless but most arduous task of ferrying the half-frozen Continentals across. As in all things, the Marines did their job well; not a man was lost in the perilous trip.
Realizing that his men were itching for the glory and action of a fight, Major Nicholas planned a raid which would revive their battalion spirit. It seems that an ex-sheriff of Monmouth, Elisha Laurence by name, having been appointed a lieutenant-colonel by the British, had imprisoned twenty patriots for refusing to join his band of Tories. Nicholas requested the permission of General Cadawalader to "go after him and bring him in." General Cadawalader wrote to General Washington on the 31st of December, 1776, for authority to permit the Marine Commander to start on this expedition. The Battle of Princeton occurred before authority could be granted.
After the first Battle of Trenton, Cornwallis had rushed to the scene with a large force. Reaching Trenton at night, he waited until the next day for battle, sure that Washington was at his mercy. "At last," he said, "we have run down the old fox and will bag him in the morning." But as we all know, the "old fox" was not there in the morning. He slipped quietly away to Princeton, where he surprised and routed a detachment of Cornwallis' main army. The battalion of Marines under Major Nicholas flung itself whole-heartedly into the fray; given a chance to fight it made up for its ill-luck at Trenton. Washington now moved northward to Morristown, where he found a safe retreat and passed the winter. During the ensuing months Major Nicholas' battalion served both as infantry and artillery, participating in several skirmishes.
We now lose track of Major Nicholas until the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British in June, 1778. Marine barracks were reestablished and recruiting vigorously renewed. From then until the close of the War, the Major was a very busy man. His duties at Philadelphia were somewhat similar to those of our Commandant of today. Moreover, he was in active charge of recruiting, and at times acted as Muster Master of the Navy. Although he was energetic and conscientious in the performance of his duty, there is evidence of the fact that this duty was both irksome and disagreeable. Apparently, he sincerely believed that since he had volunteered to fight for his country, Congress had but little justification for making him a "Quill-Fighter." We find that on the 20th of November, 1779, he wrote to Congress, requesting that he be put in charge of the Marine detachment on board the "AMERICA," then in process of construction. Congress was adamant in its intention that Major Nicholas remain in Philadelphia. The Major, in describing his predicament, writes, "I consequently had the mortification to become on Acct. of the promotion I was honor'd with, a useless officer, at least in sense of danger." Evidently he didn't think very highly of the gentlemen of the Marine Committee. But, Marine, that he was, he buckled down to the grind and efficiently guided the destinies of the Marine battalions to a successful close.
With the arrival of peace, Major Nicholas withdrew to the obscurity from whence he sprung. Again, history fails us. All we can glean from the peaceful years is that Nicholas was a charter member of the "Penna. Society of Cincinnatorium," and served on the standing committee from 1785 to 1788. It's strange indeed that such a heroij and capable figure faded quickly from view. It is the general belief among American historians that he died while comparatively a young man. Unfortunately, Marine Corps officials have never succeeded in finding any record of the death or burial place of the FIRST MARINE OFFICER.
The Marine Corps of today is greatly indebted to this gallant Quaker, who, armed in righteousness, established the prestige and the glory, that we are pledged to CARRY ON.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the help afforded him by Captain R. S. Collum's "History of the U. S. M. C.," Aldrich's "History of the U. S. M. C.," and especially by Major Edwin North McClellan's "History of the U. S. M. C."