John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, authorized a captain’s commission for Samuel Nicholas, making him first Commandant of the Marine Corps. Samuel Nicholas was born in 1744 to a Quaker family. He owned and operated the Conestoga Wagon Tavern in Philadelphia and is credited with starting the Marine Corps. Nicholas had many advantages early in life. At age 7, his uncle, Attwood Shute, the Mayor of Philadelphia; paid for him to attend the Philadelphia Academy. What is now known as the University of Pennsylvania, it quickly became affiliated with the prestigious Philadelphia Academy. He finished his studies at the Academy in 1759 at the age of 15 and became heavily involved with high society upon graduation.
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. Nicholas and his wife had three children, a daughter and two sons, Samuel, Jr., and Charles Jenkins Nicholas.
Because of his established role in Philadelphia society, when the Second Continental Congress began looking for men to fight in the Navy, they contacted Samuel Nicholas to assist them.
Nicholas was officially commissioned as Captain of the Marines on November 5, 1775. At that time, the Marines were officially started as a branch of the Navy ready to fight for independence on shore and at sea. The Marines were considered more quickly trained as combat fighters rather than strategic fighters. Five days later, on November 10, the Second Continental Congress allowed two battalions of Marines to be enlisted. Later that month, on November 28, Nicholas’ commission was confirmed by Congress and signed by John Hancock. His pay was initially set at $32 per month. When asked to design the uniforms for the Marines, Nicholas used a template from the hunting outfits of the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club, which used a leather collar. He incorporated these collars into the uniforms, which is how Marines came to be known as “leathernecks.”
His initial assignment was to gather the men who would be the first Marines. Because of his business, the Connestogoe Wagon Tavern, it was assumed that he would know the type of tough men willing to fight. He was successful in that endeavor and ended up gathering five companies of Marines.
In March, 1776, Nicholas commanded the Marine detachment aboard the Alfred with Commodore Hopkins in charge. His first mission to Nassau in the Bahamas was a success. The Americans captured two forts, 88 cannons, 15 mortars, and other military weaponry from the British. That raid was regarded as the most successful American Naval operation of the Revolutionary War. He was promoted to major on June 25, 1776.
Soon after, Nicholas reported back to Philadelphia to resume recruiting. He took the men he had enlisted with him to assist in the Trenton-Princeton Campaign, the historic battle in the Revolutionary War beginning on Christmas Day. In it, Nicholas assisted General Washington in defeating the Hessians in Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. After those victories, Nicholas again returned to Philadelphia in June 1778 after the evacuation of the British from the city to continue recruiting and training efforts.
Five years later, the 39-year-old Nicholas gave up his military life and resumed civilian life. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Society of Cincinnatorium from 1785 until 1788, serving on the standing committee. More commonly known as The State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, it was established honor those people who “gave up everything to serve the Republic” during the Revolutionary War. The Society is named for Roman General Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who quit his farm to fight for his country, and when finished with military duties, declined any awards he was to receive and returned to his farm. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton are among the prominent Presidents of the Society. Two years after giving up the Society, Nicholas died on August 27, 1790, during a yellow fever epidemic. Because of his Quaker background, he was buried in the Society of Friends Cemetery, though earlier cast out of the Quaker Church because of his involvement in the military. In his memory, the naval destroyer Nicholas was named for him on May 12, 1919.
Nicholas’ life and contributions to the Marine Corps have not been forgotten. Every November 10, the celebrated birthday of the Marine Corps (the day the first battalions were enlisted in 1775), Marines gather at the Quaker meetinghouse cemetery at Fourth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. Because the exact location of his grave is unknown, Marines from the University of Pennsylvania ROTC program gather at an unmarked marble tomb in the cemetery. The Quakers are against war, the reason Nicholas was excommunicated. When the Marines asked if they could hold a ceremony in his honor at the meeting house, the Religious Society of Friends was initially against it, but eventually allowed it on the terms that they keep it low-key. The Marines, therefore, come, lay a wreath, and salute silently before dismissing themselves every year.
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