Monday, November 10, 2008

A Quaker Marine

November `10th, the day before Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) is observed as the birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

This might seem an odd topic for “The Quakers’ Colonel, given the prominent place and the practice of the “peace testimony” in the development of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). But it is precisely because war and peace are a touchstone of Quaker belief and practice that it is rare that a member of the Society achieves distinction as a participant in war. Samuel Nicholas was one who did as the first commissioned officer of the Continental Marines – today’s Commandant.

November 1775 was to be a significant month for what was to become the United States Marine Corps. With tensions high since Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress directed its Naval Committee to secure the services of enough officers and seamen to man four warships. Within days, “agreements” had been reached for the services of a commander of naval forces and for a captain and lieutenant of naval infantry. On November 28, the Continental Congress confirmed in writing the commission of Samuel Nicholas of Philadelphia as Captain of Marines. The commission, still in existence, was signed by John Hancock as president of the Congress.

Before the Revolutionary War ended, Nicholas received his commission as a Major, the highest rank in the Corps. His men ferried Washington’s troops across the Delaware River on December 26, 1776 when the Continental army surprised the Hessians at Trenton.

Nicholas died in 1790 at a relatively early age of 46. For decades the Marine Corps lost track of where Nicholas was buried (Quakers do not use headstones); all that could be said was that he was buried in the Quaker cemetery at Arch Street. Finally, in the 1920s, a former Marine Officer, Louis Estell Fagan, set about tracking down information about Samuel Nicholas, and in 1933 published the results of his work in the Marine Corps Gazette.

What Fagan could not relate – either for Nicholas or for other Quakers who took up arms against the Redcoats in the War for American Independence – is what motivated them to choose war over peace. In fact, most members of the Society either remained neutral or supported the crown. Those who took up arms were often expelled from their “meeting” until – after the war ended – they “repented.”

That Samuel Nicholas lies in the Quaker cemetery in Philadelphia indicates that he too, among those who took up arms, was received back into his meeting.

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