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.
On her second cruise out, the Decatur captured prize after prize, but was eventually taken by the Surprise and brought to Barbados. Because of his reputation, Nichols was looked upon with high regard and respect. He was a parolee, rather than a prisoner, until the Vestal showed up. The captain, no doubt remembering the humiliation he suffered during the stunt on the Alert, decided to “get even” and took Nichols prisoner.
As an “uncaged lion would have been safer freight,” a special 5-by-7 wooden crate hosted the “Holy Terror.” They kept Nichols for 34 days, and then held him in a Brit prison. His release finally came after negotiations for an exchange.
Nichols returned home and quickly hit the seas once again in the brig Harpy, with which he “successfully preyed on enemy ships and brought in rich cargos.”
Although a lion heart roared in Nichols, according to his contemporaries, he possessed a warm, watery disposition and “was of tender sensibilities, always exhibiting the greatest affection for his mother and his family.” Even at sea, both foes and comrades noted his “great civility, indulgent lenity, and humane usage.” After Nichols captured his ship, Capt. William Drysdale, grateful for the hospitality while imprisoned, extended an invitation to his home, Stepney Green in London, should Nichols ever be in the area.
Benjamin Pierce, in a letter to Col. Thomas Barclay, the commissioner of prisoners, called him “modest and unassuming, yet brave and decided.” Pierce also noted that Nichols “was strictly moral and sincere; as a husband, parent, and neighbor, tender, indulgent, and affable.”
Later appointed as the Port’s Collector of Customs, Nichols purportedly regretted that “his advanced years did not permit him to engage in the service of the country upon the sea.”
Often referred to as “the forgotten war,” the War of 1812 is still alive and thriving at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport. Take a tour, visit Nichols’ portrait and collections, and learn how America won her nationalism and freedom.
Special thanks to USS Constitution historian Matthew Brenckle for his contribution. He notes, “The War of 1812 established America among world nations as major players and not the poor Colonial cousins!”