By Melissa Berry Newburyport NewsOur 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.
A man 'not born to be shot'
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 Museum 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!”