Lt. Col. Francis Nichols

Lt. Col. Francis Nichols
by: Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827
The Society of the Cincinnati, The Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection

Francis Nichols was born about 1737 at Grieve Hill, near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He emigrated to America about 1768. probably accompanied by a younger brother William who also had Continental Army service, but resigned his Captain’s commission in Hartley’s Regiment in 1778.

Francis Nickle was taxed in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County in 1774 on one hundred and thirty acres, sixty of them cleared, and one horse; land warrants indicate that by that time Francis Nichols had also acquired considerable land in Northumberland County. On 25 June 1775, at the earliest call for troops, Francis Nichols was commissioned Second Lieutenant in Captain William Hendricks’ Company, the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, Colonel William Thompson. This company was enlisted in Cumberland County, but other portions of the battalion came from Northumberland as well. Hendricks’ company reached Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 9 August, and the story of the battalion at the Siege of Boston has already been told. The company was one of two chosen from Thompson’s Battalion for the arduous Canadian Campaign, and it was at the attack on Quebec on 31 December 1775 that Captain Hendricks was killed and Nichols taken prisoner.

Nichols began keeping a diary of his captivity on 9 February 1776, and it is one of the precious contemporary sources relating to the Pennsylvania Line. John Joseph Henry of Lancaster, a volunteer on the Canadian Expedition and like Nichols a prisoner, was also a journalist, but the Henry diary as we now have it was composed long after the event, was first published in 1812, and his contemporary notes have never surfaced. Nichols prefaced his diary with an account of the assault on Quebec, and he then continued it until his parole. It is notable in showing the humane treatment with which the officers often met when prisoners, and Guy Carleton and his younger brother Major Thomas Carleton are very favorably mentioned. Some random abstracts from Nichols:

We were confined in the Seminary, thirty two officers in one room, 31 by 27 feet….March 10, 1776.-I was removed to the Hôtel Dieu, sick of the Scarlet Fever, and placed under the care of the Mother Abbess,…When I think of my captivity, I shall never forget the time spent among the nuns, who treated me with so much humanity….June 22.-Mr. Murray [British commissary] informed us of the battle of Three Rivers – that the British troops had just time to land before Gen. [William] Thompson hove in sight, and that if the General had been one hour sooner, he would have carried the post….August 7.-Capt. Endesley came to the Seminary and presented me with my sword,…I had done him the honor to deliver it to him on the morning of December 31, after we had made the attack on the city. He also informed us that we should prepare to embark on the transports for New York….September 12.-At two o’clock a.m. made Sandy Hook and anchored….September 24.-…My feelings on setting foot on the Jersey shore are much easier conceived than expressed. September 27.-Set out for Philadelphia in company with Adjutant [Christian] Febiger [an Original Member of the Society] and Mr. [John Joseph] Henry a volunteer from Lancaster.

Henry’s own journal notes that “…we procured a light wagon and finally arrived in Philadelphia.”

Nichols had been released on parole, which is to say that he was still regarded as a prisoner of war subject to recall to captivity under certain conditions. He was finally released by exchange for Captain Anstruther of the British Twenty-Sixth Regiment of Foot on 8 December 1776. While Nichols was absent in Canada, and during his imprisonment, his military battalion had undergone some confusing changes: in August 1775 the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion was renamed the Second Continental Regiment, and on 1 January 1776 it became the First Continental Regiment. But yet, on 1 July 1776 it was re-enlisted as the First Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Edward Hand [an Original Member of the Society]. Inasmuch as there was no place for Nichols in the First under the new organization, he was promoted to Captain on 16 December 1776 and reassigned to the newly organized Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel James Irvine, where he commanded the third company.

Nichols was quickly promoted again, becoming Major of the Ninth Regiment on 7 February 1777. During that year the Ninth saw plenty of action: it was at Brandywine on 11 September, Germantown on 4 October, and at Whitemarsh, 5-8 December. It endured the Valley Forge winter, and there on 11 May 1778 Nichols took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The regiment was in the pursuit of the British army that ended at Monmouth on 28 June 1778 where it was the first American unit to go into battle, acquitted itself well, and suffered only light casualties. It spent the winter of 1778-1779 at Middlebrook, New Jersey. In the Spring Nichols became involved in the disagreement over rank that resulted in his resigning his commission on 12 May 1779.

Nicholas appears to have become a resident of Philadelphia and his return to civilian life coincided with the interesting political era in which the disagreement and contention between the natural conservatives and the activist radicals in Pennslvania saw overt strife. In February 1779 James Wilson, the Signer, emerged as a member of the “Republican Society”, founded to oppose the radical Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. The opposition was the “Constitutional Society” of George Bryan, Thomas Paine and others. Acrimony led to increasingly disruptive demonstrations in Philadelphia and finally to the “Siege of Fort Wilson” on 4 October 1779. Major Nichols was among the several officers of the Pennsylvania Line who garrisoned Wilson’s house on the southwest corner of Third and Walnut Streets, defending it against a rather motley force of militiamen and citizens. Also among the defenders was Colonel William Thompson, Nichols’s old commander. For his participation Nichols was bound over to the Court of Oyer and Terminer in the amount of £5000, his securities being Samuel Caldwell and George Campbell.

Correspondence between Nichols and William Irvine [an Original Member of the Society] and Richard Peters suggests that Nichols and his brother William were engaged in furnishing supplies to the Army during 1780 and 1781, apparently in cooperation with Robert Morris. Nichols had a peppery temper, seemingly, for in September 1782 he was tried and convicted of an assault and battery against one Joseph Gardner, and for this was fined £50. In February 1786 Nichols petitioned the Honorable Vice President and Supreme Executive Council of the State saying,

…this fine he now flatters himself will be remitted under the many considerations which rise out of the distance of time & the nature of his provocation the latter of which was such as certainly tended to [provoke?] tho’ it would not intirely justify the offence…

And his petition was granted on 7 February 1786.

When the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania was organized in the Fall of 1783 Francis Nichols signed their “Parchment Roll” as well as the “Pay Order of 1784”. For some reason Nichols’ entry fee was not paid until 1811, and in a Pennsylvania Roll of 1789 he was marked “delinquent”.

Very soon Nichols removed to “Potts Grove,” now Pottstown, Montgomery County, and he was concerned in financial dealings with William Potts at least by December 1783. Nichols seems to have prospered, but like other Continental officers he had to memorialize the Executive of the State in regard to Depreciation pay, from Potts Grove on 20 May 1786:

…that your memorialist engaged in the army of the United States in June 1775 and continued to serve in the different capacitys of Lieut, Capt, Majr and Lieut Colo in the Line of Pennsylvania till May 1779 – When he was under the necessity of retiring from the Field. that some time[,] and your Memorialist believes Early in 1780 – the Honble House of Assembly under a Sense of the many services and sufferings of the said Line – passed a Law for the indemnification of their Losses sustained by a depreciating Currency – that as your memorialist had his share of suferings under every shape and is still a resident of this State – he would most Humbly intreat – the order of your Honble Body that his accts be settled and his depreciation made up as the above mentioned Law directs…

On 13 May 1787 George Washington entered in his diary,

About eight o’clock Mr. Corbin and myself set out and dined at Chester with Mrs. Whitley where I was met by Generals Mifflin – now Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly – Knox and [James Mitchell] Varnum, the Colonels [David] Humphreys and Minges [Francis Mentges] and Majors [William] Jackson and [Francis] Nichols, with whom I proceeded to Philadelphia.

It is evident that Nichols maintained a fashionable style of living, whether at Potts Grove or in Philadelphia. Jacob Hiltzheimer, the diarist, recorded a visit with Thomas Mifflin to Montgomery County in 1787:

December 22.-…We then went on to Pottstown and there dined. There the General [Mifflin] borrowed a horse of colonel F. Nicholas [sic], to put in place of his worse horse;…

December 27.-After breakfast Captain N. Falkner [Nathaniel Falconer] and I set out with my horse and chair from General Mifflin’s. When we reached Pottstown we were called by Colonel Francis Nicholas [sic], who insisted on our staying to dine with him, as he would have only a few friends, with all of whom he knew we are acquainted. We stayed and dined with Mr. Samuel Potts and three sons, Mr. Thomas Rutter, two sons and son-in-law Walker, and my son Robert. After dinner we were joined by Mr. Jesse Potts and a son of John Potts, just from Jersey. Captain Falkner and I lodged with our good friend, Colonel Nicholas.

December 28.-Colonel Nicholas, Captain Falkner, and I walked about a mile to Mr. James Hockley’s, at Glassgow Iron Works, and breakfasted with him. We visited the forge, where I saw them make pig iron into bars. We dined with Mr. T[homas] Rutter, eleven ladies of the Potts’ and Rutter family, and seventeen gentlemen, all in one room. Captain Falkner and I went home with Colonel Nicholas, there supped and lodged.

December 29.-Took our leave of that generous man, Colonel Nicholas,…

Such was life among Montgomery County’s iron manufacturing gentry. In 1790 Nichols’ family consisted of one other male over the age of sixteen, one female, and two other free persons.

Francis Nichols was appointed United States Marshall of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and his post-service experience as a supplier to the troops qualified him during the Whiskey Rebellion as a supplier and overseer of the arms and equipment issued to the militias of his area. That his performance was satisfactory is indicated by his being appointed Brigadier General of the Militia Brigade of Montgomery County on 12 August 1795, and he was afterwards uniformly referred to as “General Nichols.” With the threat of war with France looming, in April 1797 Nichols received the following:

At a meeting of the Montgomery Troop of the Light Dragoons held at Norristown the first of this instant [April], you were unanimously chosen to command the Troop in place of General Mecklenberg [Muhlenberg], Resigned. I was appointed by the Troop to make this election known to you and also to inform you that on the first of June next we are to meet at the grass at the house lately occupied by Mr. Weachter at 10:00 [a.m.] where we hope to see you in a military habit, and have the honour of being commanded by you. Our Uniform is as follows: Cap covered with Bear Skin ornamented with Leopard Skin…Black flock. A Waterman’s Jacket deep blue with a Buff cape and edged with Buff and yellow buttons thereon about the size of an eighth of a dollar. Buff belt and yellow small cloth[e]s. Boots and Spurs as fancy directs. Yellow hilted sword. Buff belt, Yellow Buckle and Yellow plate on the Belt with the owners name and the Montgomery Troop of Light Dragoons engraved thereon. Holsters covered with Bear Skin and a case of pistols. Bridle with Buff forehead band and ropes. Saddle trimmed with Buff[,] and Blue cloth, also trimmed with Buff.

Whether the sixty-year-old General was able to accept this gaudy invitation does not appear, but the war did not occur. On 15 April 1803 General Nichols received the further honor of being elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Nichols seems to have accumulated quite large parcels of land, disposed of in his will which was dated at Pottsgrove on 21 April 1810; altogether, it indicated a man of some substance when probated on 19 February 1812. Poulson’s Daily American Advertiser of Philadelphia on 17 February 1812 noticed, “[Died] Suddenly, on Friday morning, the 19th inst., at Pottstown, Montgomery County, General Francis Nichols, a much and deservedly respected officer of the Army of the United States, during the Revolutionary contest,..”. Major Nichols’ marital history is unclear: one source gives his wife’s name as Elizabeth Stimbing, or Stemberg. No wife is named in his will and she had evidently predeceased the Major who was survived by two natural daughters, the elder, Anna Maria married to her first cousin Francis Boude Nichols, younger son of the Major’s brother William. On 4 July 1814 “William F. Nichols, nephew and oldest male heir of Col. Francis Nichols, deceased, was admitted as a member” of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania. This was certainly the William Francis, son of William and Catherine (Chambers ?) Nichols, born 14 January 1783, who was christened at Christ Church, Philadelphia.