|Commodore-in-Chief James Nicholson
(1736/37 Kent Co., MD -2 Sep 1804 New York City)
From "Historic Families of America" and "The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans: Volume IIV" and "A Naval History of the American Revolution" by Gardner W. Allen.
James Nicholson, son of Joseph Nicholson and Hannah (Smith) Scott, was born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1737 or 1738. He entered upon a sea-faring life at an early age and was with the British fleet when Havana was captured in 1762. From 1763 until 1771, he was a resident of New York City. At the outbreak of the Revolution, he tendered his services to the navy and was placed in command of the DEFENSE, a Maryland vessel with which, in March, 1776, he recaptured several prize ships from the British. In June, 1776, he was placed in command of the VIRGINIA, a 28 gun ship of war. A resolution of Congress, October 10, 1776, declared that the number of captains in the Continental Navy should be 24 and should rank in the order designated. By this resolution, James Nicholson appeared first on the list and was thus senior captain and Commodore-in-Chief of the Continental Navy.
The VIRGINIA-one of 13 frigates authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775-was laid down in 1776 at Fells Point, Md., by George Wells; launched that August; and commissioned in the spring of 1777, Capt. James Nicholson in command. When his ship the VIRGINIA was unable to get out of the Chesapeake Bay on account of the British blockade, he and his crew joined the army and fought with George Washington at the battle of Trenton. He returned to his ship the frigate Virginia, which finally got away from Annapolis, Maryland, March 30, in company with a brig which had on board a pilot in whom Nicholson had confidence. At three o'clock the next morning, however, the frigate ran on a shoal. She was forced over, but lost her rudder and was thereupon anchored, leaking badly. At daylight two British men-of-war were discovered, one of them only two gun-shots distant. Nicholson and nine men, with the ship's papers, went ashore in a boat and the Virginia was then surrendered to the enemy. Nicholson afterwards went aboard one of the British vessels in order to parole his officers. He was not court-martialed for the loss of his ship, but Congress instituted an inquiry and acquitted him of blame (Penn. Packet, April 15, 1778; Mar. Com. Letter Book, 124, 129, 138, 150 (January 28, March 4, April 8, May 16, 1778) Barney, 65, 66.)
Subsequently, Nicholson was appointed captain of the 38 gun frigate TRUMBULL. The Trumbull sailed from New London late in May and had not been long at sea when she fell in with the British letter of marque WATT and was soon engaged in one of the hardest-fought naval actions of the war. In Nicholson's account of the battle he says: "At half past ten in the morning of June [1st], lat. 35. N. long. 64 W. we discovered a sail from the mast-head and immediately handed all our sails, in order to keep ourselves undiscovered until she came nearer to us, she being to windward. At eleven we made her to be a large ship from the deck, coming down about three points upon our quarter; at half past eleven we thought she hauled a point more astern of us. We therefore made sail and hauled upon a wind towards her, upon which she came right down upon our beams; we then took in our small sails, hauled the courses up, hove the main top-sail to the mast, got all clear for action, and waited for her.
"At half past eleven we filled the main-top (the ship being then about gun-shot to windward of us) in order to try her sailing, also that by her hauling up after us we might have an opportunity of discovering her broadside. She immediately got her main tack out and stood after us; we then observed she had thirteen ports of a side, exclusive of her briddle ports, and eight or ten on her quarter deck and forecastle. After a very short exhortation to my people they most chearfully agreed to fight her; at twelve we found we greatly outsailed her and got to windward of her; we therefore determined to take that advantage. Upon her observing our intention she edged away, fired three shot at us and hoisted British colours as a challenge; we immediately wore after her and hoisted British colours also. This we did in order to get peaceably alongside of her, upon which she made us a private signal and upon our not answering it she gave us the first broadside, we then being under British colours and about one hundred yards distant. We immediately hoisted the Continental colours and returned her a broadside, then about eighty yards distance, when a furious and close action commenced and continued for five glasses, no time of which we were more than eighty yards asunder and the greater part of the time not above fifty; at one time our yard-arms were almost enlocked. She set us twice on fire with her wads, as we did her once; she had difficulty in extinguishing her's, being obliged to cut all her larboard quarter nettings away.
"At the expiration of the above time my first Lieutenant, after consulting and agreeing with the second, came aft to me and desired I would observe the situation of our masts and rigging, which were going over the side; therefore begged I would quit her before that happened, otherwise we should certainly be taken. I therefore most unwillingly left her, by standing on the same course we engaged on; I say unwillingly, as I am confident if our masts would have admitted of our laying half an hour longer alongside of her, she would have struck to us, her fire having almost ceased and her pumps both going. Upon our going ahead of her she steered about four points away from us. When about musquet shot asunder, we lost our main and mizen topmast and in spite of all our efforts we continued losing our masts until we had not one left but the foremast and that very badly wounded and sprung. Before night shut in we saw her lose her maintopmast. I was in hopes when I left her of being able to renew the action after securing my mast, but upon inquiry found so many of my people killed and wounded and my ship so much of a wreck in her masts and rigging, that it was impossible. We lost eight killed and thirty one wounded; amongst the former was one lieutenant, one midshipman, one serjeant of marines, and one quarter gunner; amongst the latter was one lieutenant, since dead, the captain of marines, the purser, the boatswain, two midshipmen, the cockswain, and my clerk, the rest were common men, nine of which in the whole are since dead. No people shewed more true spirit and gallantry than mine did; I had but one hundred and ninety-nine men when the action commenced, almost the whole of which, exclusive of the officers, were green country lads, many of them not clear of their sea-sickness, and I am well persuaded they suffered more in seeing the masts carried away than they did in the engagement.
"We plainly perceived the enemy throw many of his men overboard in the action, two in particular which were not quite dead; from the frequent cries of his wounded and the appearance of his hull, I am convinced he must have lost many more men than we did and suffered more in his hull. Our damage was most remarkable and unfortunate in our masts and rigging, which I must again say alone saved him; for the last half hour of the action Imomently expected to see his colours down, but am of opinion he persevered from the appearance of our masts. You will perhaps conclude from the above that she was a British man of war, but I beg leave to assure you that it was not then, nor is it now my opinion; she appeared to me like a French East-Indiaman cut down. She fought a greater number of marines and more men in her tops than we did, the whole of which we either killed or drove below. She dismounted two of our guns and silenced two more; she fought four or six and thirty twelve pounders, we fought twenty-four twelve and six sixes. I beg leave to assure you that let her be what she would, either letter of marque or privateer, I give you my honour that was I to have my choice tomorrow, I would sooner fight any two-and-thirty gun frigate they have on the coast of America, than to fight that ship over again; not that I mean to degrade the British men of war, far be it from me, but I think she was more formidable and was better manned than they are in general." (Almon, x, 225-227.)
Some further details are given in a letter of Gilbert Saltonstall, captain of marines on the Trumbull. "As soon as she discovered us she bore down for us. We got ready for action, at one o'clock began to engage, and continued without the least intermission for five glasses, within pistol shot. It is beyond my power to give an adequate idea of the carnage, slaughter, havock and destruction that ensued. Let your imagination do its best, it will fall short. We were literally cut all to pieces; not a shroud, stay, brace, bowling or any other of our rigging standing. Our main top-mast shot away, our fore, main, mizen, and jigger masts gone by the board, two of our quarter-deck guns disabled, thro' our ensign 62 shot, our mizen 157, main-sail 560, foresail 180, our other sails in proportion. Not a yard in the ship but received one or more shot, six shot through her quarter above the quarter deck, four in the waste, our quarter, stern, and nettings full of langrage, grape and musket ball. We suffered more than we otherwise should on account of the ship that engaged us being a very dull sailer. Our ship being out of command, she kept on our starboard quarter the latter part of the engagement. After two and a half hours action she hauld her wind, her pumps going; we edged away, so that it fairly may be called a drawn battle." (Independent Chronicle, July 6, 1780.)
In another letter, of June 19, Saltonstall says: "Our troubles ceased not with the engagement. The next day, the 2nd, it blew a heavy gale of wind, which soon carried away our main and mizen masts by the board, the fore topmast followed them and had it not been for the greatest exertions, our foremast must have gone also, it being wounded in many places, but by fishing and propping it was saved. . . . We remained in this situation till the next day, the 3rd, our men having got a little over the fatigue of the engagement and the duty of the ship; the gale abating we got up jury masts and made the best shift. In the night the gale increased again and continued from that time till we got soundings on George's Banks in 45 fathoms of water the 11th instant. We got into Nantasket the 14th, the day following into the harbor." (Papers New London Hist. Soc., IV, i, 55.)
The Watt, greatly shattered, got into New York June 11. The accounts of her force vary somewhat. She seems to have mounted twenty-six twelve-pounders and from six to ten sixes. Her crew was reported to number two hundred and fifty, but one New York paper made it one hundred and sixty-four. Her commander, Captain Coulthard, describing the action, says: " Saw a large ship under the lee bow, bearing N. W. by W., distant about three or four miles; supposed her to be a rebel vessel bound to France and immediately bore down upon her. When she perceived we were standing for her she hauled up her courses and hove too. We then found her to be a frigate of 34 or 36 guns and full of men and immediately hoisted our colours and fired a gun; she at the same time hoisted Saint George's colours and fired a gun to leeward. We then took her for one of his Majesty's cruizing frigates and intended speaking to her, but as soon as she saw we were getting on her weather quarter, they filled their topsails and stood to the eastward. We then fired five guns to bring her to, but she having a clean bottom and we foul and a cargo in, could not come up with her. Therefore, finding it a folly to chace, fired two guns into her and wore ship to the westward; at the same time she fired one gun at us, loaded with grape shot and round, and wore after us. Perceiving this, we immediately hauled up our courses and hove too for her.
"She still kept English colours flying till she came within pistol shot on our weather quarter; she then hauled down English colours and hoisted rebel colours, upon which we instantly gave her three cheers and a broadside. She returned it and we came alongside one another and for above seven glasses engaged yard arm and yard arm; my officers and men behaved like true sons of Old England. While our braces were not shot away, we box-hauled our ship four different times and raked her through the stern, shot away her main topmast and main yard and shattered her hull, rigging and sails very much. At last all our braces and rigging were shot away and the two ships lay along-side of one another, right before the wind; she then shot a little ahead of us, got her foresail set and run. We gave her t'other broadside and stood after her; she could only return us two guns. Not having a standing shroud, stay or back- stay, our masts wounded through and through, our hull, rigging and sails cut to pieces, and being very leaky from a number of shot under water, only one pump fit to work, the other having been torn to pieces by a twelve pound shot, after chasing her for eight hours, lost sight and made the best of our way to this port. We had eleven men killed, two more died the next day, and seventy-nine wounded." (Almon, x, 142, 143; Massachussetts Spy, August 17, 1780; Boston Gazette, June 5, 19, July 24, August 28, 1780; Independent Chronicle, July 6, September 7, 1780; Papers New London Hist. Soc., IV, i, 51-56; Williams, 273.)
Nicholson received a Letter from the Board of Admiralty, dated June 30, congratulating him upon "the gallantry displayed in the Defence" of his ship in his recent action with the Watt and urging "exertions in Speedily refitting" her. TheTRUMBULL spent the first half of the year 1781 fitting out at Philadelphia for a cruise, under the accustomed difficulties imposed by lack of money and scarcity of seamen.
The TRUMBULL got to sea at last and took her departure from the Delaware capes August 8; among her lieutenants were Richard Dale and Alexander Murray, a volunteer. She sailed in company with a twenty-four-gun privateer, a fourteen-gun letter of marque and a convoy of twenty-eight merchantmen. The same day three sail were discovered to the eastward, two of which gave chase to the convoy. Night came on rainy and squally and the TRUMBULL carried away her fore-topmast and main-top gallant mast. She was obliged to run before the wind and the rest of the fleet left her. Captain Nicholson reported: "The wreck of the topmast with the yard and rigging laying aback of the foresail and over the bows, the topsail yard arm came through the foresail and on the forecastle, so that with our utmost exertion we could not clear ourselves of the wreck until one of the ships came alongside and the other in sight. Immediately all hands were called to quarters; instead of coming, three quarters of them ran below, put out the lights, matches, &c. With the remainder and a few brave officers we commenced an action with the IRIS for one hour and thirty-five minutes, at the end of which the other ship came up and fired into us. Seeing no prospect of escaping in this unequal contest, I struck, having my first and third lieuts. and Capt. Murray, a volunteer, with eight others wounded and 5 killed. My crew consisted of 180 men, 45 of whom were taken out of the new gaol - prisoners of war; they through treachery and others from cowardice betrayed me, or at least prevented my making the resistance I would have done. At no time of the engagement had I more than 40 men upon deck." (Continental Journal, September 13, 1781.) The British thirty-two-gun frigate IRIS had formerly been the American frigate HANCOCK, captured by the RAINBOW in 1777. Her consort was the eighteen-gun ship GENERAL MONK, also a prize, having been originally an American privateer called the GENERAL WASHINGTON. The TRUMBULL was almost a wreck and was towed into New York by the IRIS. She was not taken into the British service. A few weeks after this the IRIS and another British frigate were captured by the French (Port Folio, May, 1814; Clark, i, 124; Almon, xii, 259, 260; Independent Ledger, October 8,1781; Papers New London Hist. Soc., IV, i, 57, 58.)
After peace was declared, James Nicholson settled again in New York City and from 1801 to 1804 was a United States Commissioner of Loans. He was interested in public affairs and became one of the leaders of the Republican Party in New York and also exercised a decided influence in New York politics. He was particularly opposed to Alexander Hamilton and was often engaged in controversies with that statesman and his supporters.
He married, April 30, 1763, Frances Witter of New York, daughter of Thomas and Mary (Lewis) Witter. He died in New York City, September 2, 1804.