Editor’s note: Today’s column finishes the story of Capt. William Nichols that was begun yesterday and that details his exploits during the War of 1812.
The adventures of Port privateer Captain Nichols continued, and the Decatur’s reputation soared: “Ranging over the ocean, she was known and feared wherever an English flag spread to the breeze.” Nichols was on a spree. After capturing the Duke of Savoy on Aug. 22, he would total nine prizes by Sept. 1, all of great value and well-stocked with guns.
With cargo valued at $400,000, one of Nichols’ biggest scores was the Diana, a ship armed and ordered to Newburyport. Although this stint at sea was a success, the Neptunian exploits had to be suspended — out of 160 original crew members, he had but 27 remaining. He had several prisoners on board as well, including a few British officers.
Nichols set a course for home, but the primordial powers were not yet finished with him. Before long, he was “called upon to meet one of the severest tests of his courage and skill.” This fateful encounter with the Commerce would be a fiery one.
When Nichols asked the few crew remaining if they would fight despite the ominous odds, the “three cheers” response must have given him a potent surge of panache.
Although his “illy armed and feebly manned brig” was up against “an enemy twice her size, double the number of heavy guns and full of men well equipped with small guns,” Nichols rose to the occasion, boldly asserting his “iron will.” While simultaneously manning his vessel and working the guns, Nichols dodged repetitive gunfire from British Captain Watts. Watts directed 14 shots his way, but missed each time, eventually throwing down his musket and swearing: “This man was not born to be shot!”
Ready to take the ship, though Nichols surged forward with just 10 men, the command to “Fire!” shot from his lips “as though he had a hundred men for the work.” In spite of the raging sea and wild wind, the gutsy crew took the lead and seized control of the enemy ship. Remarkably, the Decatur suffered no losses, and Dr. Bricket of Newburyport went on board to tend the wounded. Watts, hit by a cannon ball, met his maker during the night, along with three other British officers. No doubt impressed by his tactical prowess, the remaining crew signed up with Nichols on the spot, and he agreed to share the prize.