War of 1812 ‘Holy Terror’ Privateer: Captain William Nichols (part 1)

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry writes about a bold and successful privateer who raided British shipping and helped the U.S. greatly in the War of 1812. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

Our ships all in motion once whitened the ocean,
They sailed and returned with a cargo,
Now doomed to decay, they are fallen a prey
To Jefferson, worms, and Embargo
Newburyport Herald 1808

The War of 1812, between the United States and the United Kingdom, was fought on land and water. Since the British had the world’s largest navy, the U.S. supplemented its much smaller navy by enlisting the aid of privateers – private ships that raided the enemy’s commercial shipping, committing acts authorized in wartime that would have been considered piracy during peacetime.

Massachusetts was particularly distinguished in the War of 1812 for the bravery and success of its privateers.

The town of Newburyport harbored a champion privateer known to surpass in glory all the maritime legends. The locals called him “fearless,” and the Brits dubbed him the “Holy Terror.”

Illustration: portrait of Captain William Nichols, attributed to Charles Delin. Courtesy of Museum of Old Newbury, Newburyport, Massachusetts, who recently acquired the relic.
Illustration: portrait of Captain William Nichols, attributed to Charles Delin. Courtesy of Museum of Old Newbury, Newburyport, Massachusetts, who recently acquired the relic.

His name was Captain William Nichols (1781-1863), born to Captain William Nichols Sr. and Mary “Polly” Batchelder (daughter of Captain Stephen Batchelder). He married Lydia Balch Pierce and left descendants.

From the start of his maritime career, Nichols “was suited to become among privateersmen what John Paul Jones is upon naval records.” (Rev. George Wildes, Memoir of Captain John Nichols)

This vibrant, daredevil seaman sent many of his enemies to Davy Jones’ Locker. The Custom House Maritime Museum refers to Nichols as the “Indiana Jones” of the briny deep and houses a vast collection of his adventures.

Background

Much like the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 depended on the voluntary service of brave and bold locals.

Despite the popularity of privateering during the War for Independence, the Federalists political party thought the practice was unprincipled.

Many Americans opposed a second war with Britain, but the impact of the economic crisis caused by the Embargo Act of 1807 crippled the local merchants and the market hit ground zero. (The embargo on foreign trade was an attempt by President Jefferson to keep the U.S. out of the war between the United Kingdom and France.)

The effect of shutting down foreign trade was devastating (see lyrics at the beginning of this article), and for the first time, soup kitchens were organized to feed America’s once-prosperous citizens.

A good assessment of the crisis is recalled in Sarah Smith Emery’s Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, who noted the state of Federalist New England’s suffering. While honing in on her small port town, she echoed a sentiment that was common throughout New England:

“In every seaport there was much distress. Labor was impeded; the most industrious were enforced to idleness; poverty took the place of plenty; this was too often followed by despondency, drunkenness, and misery. Many a noble man became a mere wreck of humanity; and many a delicately bred lady descended into an unthrifty, slatternly household drudge, while their offspring, half-clad and half fed…”

In Newburyport the town’s destitution spread with the Great Fire of 1811 that left many homeless as nearly 250 buildings were consumed.

The Embargo Act failed to coerce either France or the United Kingdom to respect U.S. neutrality or maritime rights, and in 1809 the act was repealed. Conditions and relations continued to deteriorate, however – especially with Britain – and on 1 June 1812 President James Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against the United Kingdom.

Illustration: James Madison, War Message to Congress. Credit: U.S. Presidents.
Illustration: James Madison, War Message to Congress. Credit: U.S. Presidents.

See this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0BL2C2DtJ0

Although all this economic privation filled the harbor in Newburyport like a thick fog, a gallant hero emerged to lift people’s spirits: Captain William Nichols.

At the outbreak of the war, the temerarious Nichols commanded the Decatur, which became the most advantageous privateer on the Eastern seaboard. His success in breaking up the enemy’s commerce and bagging prizes became legendary.

A news clip from the American Advocate, dated 8 October 1812, provided an update.

An article about Capt. William Nichols, American Advocate newspaper 8 October 1812
American Advocate (Hallowell, Maine), 8 October 1812, page 2

This article reported:

The privateer Decatur, Capt. Nichols, has arrived at Newburyport, after a very successful cruise, having captured eleven sail of English merchantmen, many very valuable. Several of her prizes have arrived in the U.S. The Decatur has been to within a few leagues of the English Channel, and has not lost a man. She released two of her prizes at sea, as cartels, and has brought in 54 prisoners.

More on Decatur’s adventures upcoming in part 2.

Illustration: Captain William Nichols Sr., silhouette from the Newburyport Marine Society. Credit: Custom House Maritime Museum, Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Illustration: Captain William Nichols Sr., silhouette from the Newburyport Marine Society. Credit: Custom House Maritime Museum, Newburyport, Massachusetts.

In 1863 Capt. Nichols met his maker. The Sunday Dispatch paid tribute to his heroic naval career in a report that furnished his background and revealed that the apple did not fall far from the tree when it came to choosing a life at sea – his father, William Nichols Sr., was also a captain.

An article about Capt. William Nichols, Sunday Dispatch newspaper 19 April 1863
Sunday Dispatch (New York, New York), 19 April 1863, page 4

This article reported:

Capt. Nichols was of good revolutionary blood, his father having served in the war of 1776, for the independence of the country both on land and sea. He [Capt. Nichols Sr.] was in command of the ship Monmouth, in the Penobscot expedition, 1779, which ship was burned with the fleet in that river by orders of the Commodore to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy; and he, with his crew, was forced to travel on foot through what was then an unbroken wilderness, to his home. Afterward, he was a merchant, doing business on Ferry wharf, while his residence was on Middle street, where his son William was born in 1781. He [Capt. Nichols Jr.] was just old enough to go to sea, a boy, when, at the close of the last century, the aggressions upon our rights and property led to resistance on the ocean; and it was at this period that he was schooled for his future life…

Dr. G. William Freeman, a sixth-generation descendant of Captain Nichols, has resurrected the champion privateer in his book The Holy Terror: The True Story of Captain William Nichols.

Photo: Massachusetts State President Ginny Mucciaccio (center) presented the Spirit of 1812 Award to Dr. G. William Freeman (left) during a reception at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport hosted by former Museum Director Mike Mroz (right). Credit: Warof1812trails.org
Photo: Massachusetts State President Ginny Mucciaccio (center) presented the Spirit of 1812 Award to Dr. G. William Freeman (left) during a reception at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport hosted by former Museum Director Mike Mroz (right). Credit: Warof1812trails.org

To be continued…

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Note on the header image: close-up from a portrait of Captain William Nichols, attributed to Charles Delin. Courtesy of Museum of Old Newbury, Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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