Maj. Samuel Nicholas, commandant of the Marine Corps, from November 1775 to August 1783, will get a headstone at his gravesite in Philadelphia on June 1. (Marine Corps)
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On June 1, Philadelphia-area members of the Marine Corps League will install a modest headstone to honor the first commandant of the Continental Marines, Maj. Samuel Nicholas.
Felled in a yellow fever epidemic in 1790, Nicholas was buried in the Friends Graveyard in Philadelphia, the spot unmarked according to the Quaker tradition of the time. But after years of negotiation with the Quaker proprietors of the site, Fred LeClair, the league’s Chester County detachment commandant, secured permission to put in a simple colonial-style gravestone with Nicholas’ name and the dates of his birth and death. LeClair said he hoped for a more prominent marker featuring the Marine Corps emblem and an inscription, but agreed to respect the Society of Friends’ wish for simplicity.
“To have the first commandant of the Marine Corps buried in an unmarked grave with nobody honoring it properly is unconscionable,” LeClair said.
While not as well-known as some of the Marine Corps leaders who would come after, Nicholas gave the Marine Corps some of its earliest traditions and fearlessly led Marines into some of their first skirmishes.
Here’s what you should know:
The 'Fightin' Quaker'
Nicholas was raised in the Quaker tradition, which teaches strict pacificism. When he donned the Marine Corps uniform, he was “read out of meeting” — excommunicated from the Society of Friends. But his place in the Quaker cemetery indicates that he was accepted back into the order following completion of his military service in 1783.
A number of other prominent military leaders have earned the “Fighting Quaker” moniker, notably, two-time Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, who also came from the peace-loving order.
Thank Nicholas for Tun Tavern
In addition to being the first commandant, Nicholas was the first Marine commissioned officer — sworn in as a captain Nov. 5, 1775 — and the first recruiter. He stood up his recruiting post at Tun Tavern on Nov. 10, appointing pub proprietor Robert Mullan as chief recruiter. By January, the service had populated its first five companies and the Corps’ relationship with a good brew was cemented for all time.
This was not another violation of Nicholas’ faith; while Quakers observed a strict prohibition on fighting and military service, they were allowed to drink.
Father of the amphibious landing
As captain of the 24-gun frigate Alfred in March 1776, Nicholas led almost 300 Marines in the Corps’ first amphibious landing: a raid on Nassau in the Bahamas that resulted in the capture of two British forts, 88 cannons and a large quantity of ammunition and supplies.
A month later, the Alfred helped to capture two British ships and waged an attack on the British ship Glasgow. Nicholas had a near encounter with death when his lieutenant was shot in the head while standing beside him on the ship’s deck.
His commission paid $32 a month
Nicholas’ commission had the distinction of being signed by John Hancock, but he might identify with contemporary Marine’s complaints of working hard for too little pay. His contract paid him $32 a month, only $825 in current dollars. The founders of the Corps had intended the first senior Marine officer to be a colonel; why Nicholas came in as a captain is lost to history.
Unmarked, but not forgotten
The Marine Reserve Officer Training Corps returns to the gravesite each year at sunrise Nov. 10 for a ceremony that includes a historical reading and the laying of a wreath. LeClair said he has sent invitations to Marine Corps generals, including Commandant Gen. James Amos, to join him for the headstone ceremony June 1, which will include an honor guard presentation and musicians. He’s expecting the event to draw a crowd of “anywhere between 50 and 10,000,” he said.