American Revolution: Major Samuel Nicholas, USMC

Samuel Nicholas
Major Samuel Nicholas, USMC. US Marine Corps

Samuel Nicholas - Early Life:

Born in 1744, Samuel Nicholas was the son of Andrew and Mary Shute Nicholas. Part of a well known Philadelphia Quaker family, Nicholas' uncle, Attwood Shute, served as the city's mayor from 1756-1758. At age seven, his uncle sponsored his admission to the noted Philadelphia Academy. Studying with the children of other prominent families, Nicholas established important relationships which would aid him later in life. Graduating in 1759, he earned entry into the Schuylkill Fishing Company, an exclusive social fishing and fowling club.

Samuel Nicholas - Rising in Society:

In 1766, Nicholas organized the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club, one of the first hunt clubs in America, and later became a member of the Patriotic Association. Two years later, he married Mary Jenkins, the daughter of a local businessman. Shortly after Nicholas married, he took over the Connestogoe (later Conestoga) Wagon Tavern which was owned by his father-in-law. In this role, he continued to build connections across Philadelphia society. In 1774, with tensions building with Britain, several members of the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club elected to form the Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia.

Samuel Nicholas - Birth of the US Marine Corps:

With the outbreak of the American Revolution in April 1775, Nicholas continued to operate his business. Though lacking in formal military training, the Second Continental Congress approached him late that year to aid in establishing a marine corps for service with the Continental Navy. This was largely due to his prominent place in Philadelphia society and his connections to the city's taverns which Congress believed could furnish good fighting men. Agreeing, Nicholas was appointed Captain of Marines on November 5, 1775.

Five days later, Congress authorized the formation of two battalions of marines for service against the British. With the official birth of the Continental Marines (later US Marine Corps), Nicholas had his appointment confirmed on November 18 and was commissioned as a captain. Quickly establishing a base at Tun Tavern, he began recruiting Marines for service aboard the frigate Alfred (30 guns). Working diligently, Nicholas raised five companies of Marines by the end of the year. This proved sufficient to provide detachments for the ships of the Continental Navy then at Philadelphia.

Samuel Nicholas - Baptism of Fire:

Having completed recruiting, Nicholas took personal command of the Marine Detachment aboard Alfred. Serving as Commodore Esek Hopkins' flagship, Alfred departed Philadelphia with a small squadron on January 4, 1776. Sailing south, Hopkins elected to strike at Nassau which was known to have a large supply of weapons and munitions. Though warned of a possible American attack by General Thomas Gage, Lieutenant Governor Montfort Browne did little to bolster the island's defenses. Arriving in the area on March 1, Hopkins and his officers planned their assault.

Coming ashore on March 3, Nicholas led a landing party of around 250 Marines and sailors. Occupying Fort Montagu, he paused for the night before advancing to occupy the town the next day. Though Browne had managed to send the bulk of the island's powder supply to St. Augustine, Nicholas' men captured a large number of guns and mortars. Departing two weeks later, Hopkins' squadron sailed north and captured two British ships as well as fought a running battle with HMS Glasgow (20) on April 6. Arriving at New London, CT two days later, Nicholas traveled back to Philadelphia.

Samuel Nicholas - With Washington:

For his efforts at Nassau, Congress promoted Nicholas to major in June and placed him at the head of the Continental Marines. Ordered to remain in the city, Nicholas was directed to raise an additional four companies. In December 1776, with American troops forced from New York City and pushed across New Jersey, he received orders to take three companies of Marines and join General George Washington's army north of Philadelphia. Seeking to regain some momentum, Washington devised an attack on Trenton, NJ for December 26.

Moving forward, Nicholas' Marines were attached to Brigadier John Cadwalader's command with orders to cross the Delaware at Bristol, PA and attack Bordentown, NJ before advancing on Trenton. Due to ice in the river, Cadwalader abandoned the effort and as a result the Marines did not take part in the Battle of Trenton. Crossing the next day, they joined Washington and took part in the Battle of Princeton on January 3. The campaign marked the first time that US Marines served as a fighting force under US Army control. Following the action at Princeton, Nicholas and his men remained with Washington's army.

Samuel Nicholas - The First Commandant:

With the British evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778, Nicholas returned to the city and re-established the Marine Barracks. Continuing recruiting and administrative duties, he effectively served as commandant of the service. As a result, he is generally considered to be the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. In 1779, Nicholas requested command of the Marine Detachment for the ship of the line America (74) then under construction at Kittery, ME. This was denied as Congress desired his presence in Philadelphia. Remaining, he served in the city until the service was disbanded at the end of the war in 1783.

Samuel Nicholas - Later Life:

Returning to private life, Nicholas resumed his business activities and was an active member in the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania. Nicholas died on August 27, 1790, during a yellow fever epidemic. He was buried at the Friends Graveyard at Arch Street Friends Meeting House. The founding officer of the US Marine Corps, his grave is adorned with wreath during a ceremony each year on November 10 to mark the service's birthday.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major Samuel Nicholas, USMC." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Revolution: Major Samuel Nicholas, USMC. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major Samuel Nicholas, USMC." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).