Who was Samuel Nicholas?
It could be said that he was the first officer in the American Navy. Read on. Who was Samuel Nicholas? No U.S. Marine would ask that question. Charles R. Smith wrote the book Marines in the Revolution in 1975 for the United States Marine Corps History and Museums Division. This history book aided greatly in my research when writing my novel, First to Fight.
Samuel Nicholas is credited as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was born to a blacksmith in Philadelphia in 1744. His father died when he was only seven years old. During the 1760s, when he was teen and in his early 20s, he was admitted to two local gentlemen’s clubs, the Schuylkill and the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club. He may also have sailed on merchant ships of Robert Morris, who was one of the wealthiest men in America and a member of both clubs.
The First Marine
On November 28, 1775 Samuel was commissioned as the first officer in the Continental Marines. As he was the first officer commissioned, and Marines were part of the naval service, he could also be said to have been the first officer in the Navy. At the war’s outbreak, he was tavern keeper at the Sign of the Conestogoe Waggon, his mother-in-law’s establishment in Philadelphia. This became a major recruiting depot for the Marines.
Captain Nicholas made his first cruise under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, whose squadron captured New Providence, on Nassau in the Bahamas. Nicholas commanded the Marine expedition that captured the city. He was also in charge of the Marines on the flagship when on 6 April 1776, Alfred, the Brig Cabot, and others ships in the squadron engaged the British Frigate Glasgow in Block Island Sound. Marine Lieutenant Fitzpatrick received high praise from Nicholas when was killed in the sea battle.
The Dark Side of Promotion
Congress promoted Captain Nicholas to Major of Marines on June 6, 1776. Service on Alfred was his only sea duty in the Marines. He did lead several companies of Marines attached to the Army under General Washington in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This was ground he knew well having grown up and hunted fox extensively here. This service ended in February 1777.
The promotion to major turned out not to be a blessing. Marine service with the Army came to an end as many troops were merged into Army ranks. The highest-ranking Marine officers on American Navy ships were Captains. So it turned out that the blessing of promotion ended Major Nicholas’s career. After the war he returned to tavern keeping. Samuel Nicholas died on August 27, 1790 in Philadelphia. He is buried in the Society of Friends Cemetery.
Now there is no reason for you to ask, “Who was Samuel Nicholas?” Read more about the major in First to Fight, as he leads his mounted troop across the frozen ground in wintertime New Jersey.