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.