As I See It
---- — Our ships all in motion once whitened the ocean.
They sailed and returned with cargo
Now doomed to decay, they are fallen a prey
To Jefferson — worms — and Embargo
— Newburyport Herald 1808
On a recent visit to the Custom House, Michael Mroz and Kevin MacDonald shared riveting tales of the War of 1812 and the Port’s valiant fight for maritime rights against the Brits. Newburyport was particularly distinguished for the bravery and success of its privateers who were “helping to thin out the enemy’s merchant ships.”
Much like the Revolution, this conflict depended on the voluntary service of brave locals. Despite the popularity of privateering during the war for independence, Federalists thought the practice was “unprincipled.” Governor Strong ordered a public fast to protest the war, and the atmosphere was one of angst. MacDonald stressed the impact of the economic crisis caused by the Embargo Act; it crippled the local merchants and the whole Merrimack Valley market hit ground zero. The effect was devastating, and for the first time, soup kitchens rose up to feed the once-prosperous citizens.
The sentiment was universal: “In every seaport there was much distress. Labor was impeded; the most industrious were enforced to idleness; poverty took the place of plenty. Many a noble man became a mere wreck of humanity.” The destitution spread with the “Great Fire” of 1811 that left many homeless as “nearly two hundred and fifty buildings were totally and suddenly consumed.”
Although this privation capped the harbor like a thick fog, a gallant hero “with flashing eyes and lion heart courage” eventually emerged to lift people’s spirits. A vibrant, daredevil seaman born and bred in the Port, Capt. William Nichols sent many of his enemies to Davy Jones’ Locker, while spinning tales of aquatic omnipotence that would put Ulysses to shame.
To the locals, he was “fearless” and, to the Brits, the “Holy Terror.” For his “daring and bravery, he had but few equals,” and he “was suited to become among privateersmen what John Paul Jones is upon naval records.” Mroz calls him the “Indiana Jones” of the briny deep, and he commanded the most advantageous privateer on the Eastern seaboard, the Decatur.
Before the war, the temerarious Nichols enjoyed several adventures on the high seas, and this is, no doubt, why Benjamin Pierce placed him in command of the Decatur. Pierce himself witnessed Nichols’ first stunt on the brig Alert. The Brits captured Nichols, but a crafty plan would turn fates. Nichols had “loaded and concealed a brace of pistols” in preparation for this very moment, and at the magic midnight hour, “he and his companions rose on the British seamen and regained possession of the vessel, securing the hatches over four men in the hold, and sending the rest adrift in a jolly-boat.”
The Vestal again captured the crew and brought them to England. Only confined for a brief interlude, Nichols narrowly escaped by “traversing gardens and leaping hedges,” and then he hopped a coach to London and bumped into the very sergeant he had just busted away from. Nichols responded to his opponent: “Here are three guineas you can have, but never me!” Luckily, the sergeant favored coin and Nichols went free.
Leaving port on Aug. 4, 1812, the Decatur sailed out to make history. Nichols’ first encounter was not with the enemy, but rather a two-hour pursuit with the Constitution, during which he threw off 12 of his 14 guns to out-run her. When this famous quick-fire frigate finally approached, Nichols suspected he would become a prize; however, he was pleased to find Captain Hull wearing an American naval uniform. Nichols tipped Hull off that the Brit frigate Guerriere had indeed given him chase the day before — the very vessel Hull was in hot pursuit of. The next day the Constitution fell in with the Guerriere, and the legend of “Old Ironsides” was born.
Even without guns, Nichols was determined to venture on, but the crew did not share his buoyancy. He mustered around the mutinous lot, “appearing to multiply himself on the eyes of his despondent crew,” while asserting, “You shall be masters of this brig, or I will.” He then flattened the insurgent ringleader with a billet of wood to restore order.
Out of this conflict “rallied some of the bravest spirits of war about him.” That very same day, the Decatur captured two prizes, thus replenishing arms and the crew’s spunk. The Duke of Savoy and the Elizabeth were sent sailing up the Merrimack, conjuring the Port with the vigor of heavy guns and a blazing exposé of 50 flags. No doubt, this Brit vanquisher was a sight for sore eyes!
The story of Capt. William Nichols will be continued tomorrow. For more, visit www.customhousemaritimemuseum.org.
Visit Melissa Davenport Berry of Beverly at www.ancestoryarchives.blogspot.com.