Samuel Nicholas: Father of the U.S. Marine Corp
Samuel Nicholas (1744-1790) of Pennsylvania was the first commissioned officer of the U.S. Continental Marines — and considered the first commandant of the Marine Corp — and participated in the Battles of Nassau, Trenton and Princeton.
Nicholas graduated from Philadelphia Academy (the predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania) at age 15 and landed a job at a fishing company. He also became proprietor of a popular tavern. The colonies had no navy whatsoever at the onset of the Revolution but with the need to defend key rivers, such as the Hudson and Delaware, and the colonies’ largest cities — Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Charleston — against the world’s largest naval power with the British Navy, they had to establish one fast.
On Nov. 5, 1775, Continental Congress commissioned Nicholas as chief of the Marines, and five days later Congress called for the establishment of two battalions of Marines. Continental Congress President John Hancock signed Nicholas’ commission on Nov. 28 with a salary of $32 a month. The commission stated, "We reposing special Trust and Confidence in your Patriotism, Valor, Conduct and Fidelity, do by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be Captain of Marines in the service of the Thirteen United Colonies of North-America, fitted out for the defense of American Liberty, and for repelling every hostile Invasion thereof." Nicholas set up a recruitment office at Tun’s Tavern in Philadelphia and recruited five companies, a sufficient number of men for the 24-gun frigate Alfred, by January 1776. On Jan. 4, the Alfred — the first Continental vessel to fly the Grand Union Flag, a precursor to the Stars and Stripes — set sail with Commodore Esek Hopkins at the helm and 1st Lt. John Paul Jones also on board.
The Alfred sailed with three other ships to the Caribbean to attack Virginia Gov. Lord Dunmore’s munitions supply depot at New Providence, an island in Nassau. On March 2 and 3, Capt. Nicholas commanded a landing party of 284 Marines and sailors in a near-bloodless surprise raid where two forts, 88 cannon and 15 mortars were seized. The Battle of Nassau was the first Marine amphibious landing in American history and the most successful Patriot naval engagement of the Revolution. Nicholas was promoted to major on June 15.
Commander-in-Chief George Washington ordered Nicholas and a battalion of Marines to march up to New Jersey in December to help ferry the Continental Army across the Delaware for the assault on Trenton. Nicholas’ Marines didn’t participate in the battle but did clash with Lord Cornwallis’ troops at Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777. In the subsequent months, Nicholas’ men served as both infantry and artillery in skirmishes.
He served as chief recruiter at the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia after the British withdraw in June 1778. At times, Nicholas even served as Naval Muster Master (an officer in charge of taking account of troops and their equipment). The Continental Marines were disbanded in 1783, and Nicholas would die in a yellow fever epidemic.
Three U.S. Naval ships have been named in his honor.
"Forgotten Founding Fathers" is a weekly series updated Saturdays on the lesser-known contributors to the Revolution and the seeds of American liberty. Check out the whole series! Also be sure to check out Aphra Behn's "Founding Mothers" series!