General Sir Edward Nicolls, KCB

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Edward Nicolls

Also Known As: "Fighting Nicolls"
Birthdate: (86)
Death: 1865 (86)
Immediate Family:

Son of Jonathan Nicolls and Anna Cuppage
Husband of Eleanor Hester Bristow
Father of Jane Mary Nicolls

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About General Sir Edward Nicolls, KCB

General Sir Edward Nicolls, KCB (1779 – 5 February 1865) was an Irish officer of the Royal Marines. Known as "Fighting Nicolls", he had a distinguished career, was involved in numerous actions, and often received serious wounds. For his service, he received medals and honours, reaching the rank of General.[3] Described as an "impatient and blustering Irishman" by an anonymous detractor, Nicolls was admired for his courage. A similar assessment was made by Lord Bathurst. Contemporary records and historians down to the 21st century often render the spelling of his name as "Edward Nicholls."

Early life

Edward Nicolls was born in 1779 in Coleraine, Ireland, the son of Jonathan Nicolls and Anna Cuppage of Coleraine. Jonathan Nicolls was for a time Controller of Excise for Coleraine, and died in Coleraine in 1818. Anna Cuppage (1757?–1845) was a daughter of the Reverend Burke Cuppage, Rector of Coleraine, a close kinsman and friend of Edmund Burke. It was the latter who noticed the merit of Anna Cuppage's older brother and secured an appointment for him to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Thus Lieutenant General William Cuppage (1756–1832) of the Royal Artillery was an uncle, and later a Woolwich neighbour, of Edward Nicolls.[8] The children of Jonathan Nicolls and Anna Cuppage included six sons who distinguished themselves as future British officers—notably the oldest, Edward; Lieutenant Colonel William Burke Nicolls (1780–1844) of the British Army's 2nd West India Regiment; and Commander Jonathan Frederick Nicolls of the Royal Navy (1782–1845). All five of Edward Nicolls' brothers and two of his own sons died in, or as the result of, public service. Edward Nicolls was educated at a grammar school in Coleraine and at a private boarding academy in Royal Park near Greenwich prior to entering the Marines on 24 March 1795. Edward Nicolls was not yet 16 years old when he received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in His Majesty's Marine Forces, in 1795.

Napoleonic Wars

On 5 November 1803, Nicolls took a 12-man cutting-out party in the cutter from HMS Blanche and captured the French cutter Albion from under the battery at Monte Christe in Santo Domingo. Albion had a crew of 43 men and was armed with two 4-pounder guns and six swivels. In the fighting the French captain wounded Nicolls with a pistol shot before being himself killed. The British lost two dead and two wounded, including Nicolls. In 1804 Lieutenant Nicolls led another boat assault in the capture of a French brig. In the same year of 1804 Nicolls led a landing party of Royal Marines in the siege of Dutch forces at Curaçao. Nicolls and his Marines withstood 28 consecutive days of continuous enemy assaults on their positions.

During 1807 and 1808 Captain Nicolls participated in the siege of Corfu and in a foray to Egypt. It was during this period, too, that he was honourably mentioned in dispatches for his part in the Dardanelles Operation. In 1808 he led the boat attack which captured the Italian gunboat Volpe off Corfu.

In 1809 Captain Nicolls commanded HMS Standard's marines while the ship participated in the Gunboat War. On 18 May Nicolls assisted marines and seamen under the command of Captain William Selby of Owen Glendower in the capture of the island of Anholt. In the skirmish, a Danish garrison of 170 men put up a sharp but ineffectual resistance that killed one British marine and wounded two before surrendering. Following the capture of Anholt, Captain Nicolls was briefly assigned to duty as the British military governor of the island.

War of 1812

During the War of 1812, Nicolls was posted to Spanish Florida as part of an attempt to recruit the Seminoles as allies against the United States, and to operate from a position established in April 1814 at Prospect Bluff (some times called the British Post, later the Negro Fort, replaced still later by Fort Gadsden). Sailing from Bermuda in the summer of 1814, the expedition Nicolls commanded stopped in Spanish Havana, where it was told not to land in Florida by the Captain General, Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, without prior request. When Nicolls arrived at Prospect Bluff, Florida in August, the Spanish Governor of Pensacola, Don Mateo Gonzalez Manrique, aware of the threat the Americans posed to Florida, requested the redeployment of British forces to Pensacola.

At Pensacola on 26 August 1814, Nicolls issued an order of the day for the ‘First Colonial battalion of the Royal Corps of Marines'. At the same time, Nicolls issued a widely disseminated proclamation to the people of Louisiana, urging them to join forces with the British and Indian Allies against the American government. Both proclamations were reproduced in Niles' Register. These were a ruse as to the real strength of the British. The 'numerous British and Spanish squadron of ships and vessels of war' comprised 2 sloops and 2 sixth rates. The 'good train of artillery' comprised 3 cannon and 12 Royal Marine gunners, whilst the 'Battalion' was a company-strength group of 100 Royal Marine infantry, all of whom were detached from Major George Lewis's battalion. The numbers of Corps of Colonial Marines and Redstick Creeks are difficult to ascertain, although Nicolls did arrive in Florida with 300 British uniforms and 1000 muskets. Manrique cooperated with Nicolls, allowing him to train and drill Creek refugees.

Nicolls is mentioned in attempts to recruit Jean Lafitte to the British cause. Nicolls participated in an unsuccessful land and naval attack on Fort Bowyer on 15 September. The taking of Pensacola in November by an American force under Andrew Jackson forced Nicolls to retreat to the Apalachicola River with freed slaves from Pensacola. There, Nicolls regrouped at Prospect Bluff, and rallied Indians and refugee ex-slaves living free in Florida, recruiting the latter into his detached unit of the Corps of Colonial Marines.

Nicolls joined General Pakenham's force, accompanied by less than 100 Seminole, Creek & Choctaw warriors. At the Battle of New Orleans on 8 January 1815, Nicolls was attached with some of his men to the brigade commanded by Colonel William Thornton of the 85th Regiment of Foot (Bucks Volunteers). Nicolls was the senior-ranking officer of the Royal Marines present at the battle. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane forbade Nicolls to personally take part in the fighting, fearing that mishap to Nicolls might deprive the British of their most competent officer serving with the Redstick Creeks and Seminoles. The actual battlefield command of the 100 Royal Marines brigaded with Thornton's 85th Foot went to a less senior officer, Major Thomas Benjamin Adair, commanding officer of the Marine detachment on HMS Vengeur. Nicolls embarked HMS Erebus on 12 January at Cat Island Roads, and disembarked at Appalachicola on 25 January, accompanied by several Creek warriors and a number of Royal Marine reinforcements.

The start of 1815 was to see an offensive in the south, with Royal Marine battalions to advance westward into Georgia, and to be joined by Nicolls and his forces from the Gulf Coast. These plans were overtaken by events, as peace was declared. Consequentially, with the offensive cancelled, Nicolls and his men returned to Prospect Bluff. On 15 March 1815, an U.S. Army aide-de-camp named Walter Bourke communicated to Major General Thomas Pinckney that conditions were difficult on the Georgia frontier despite efforts of Brigadier General John Floyd of the Georgia militia to reinforce American defences, and the efforts of U.S. Truce Commissioners T. M. Newell and Thomas Spalding on the Georgia coast to negotiate the return of slaves who had enlisted in, or sought asylum with, the Corps of Colonial Marines still at Cumberland Island under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn was not inclined to voluntarily hand over British military personnel who risked being returned to slavery by the Americans. Cockburn also professed difficulty in communicating news of the Treaty of Ghent to Nicolls and his forces. There was a whiff of panic in St. Marys and Savannah at this time.

Nicolls contributed to diplomatic tensions between the United Kingdom and the United States over slavery-related issues arising from Jackson's Treaty with the Creeks, the Treaty of Ghent, and Nicolls's attempts to represent the interests of the Native Americans and blacks who had taken up arms on the British side.[29] Writing from HMS Royal Oak, off Mobile Bay, on 15 March 1815, Rear Admiral Pulteney Malcolm, Cochrane's subordinate commander of the Mobile Squadron, assured Don Mateo Gonzalez Manrique, the Governor at Pensacola, that Post-Captain Robert Cavendish Spencer of HMS Carron, (a son of George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer), had been detailed to conduct a strict enquiry into the conduct of Nicolls and Captain Woodbine, respecting the losses in property to Spanish inhabitants of Florida. Malcolm believed that in cases where former slaves could not be persuaded to return to their owners, the British government would undertake to remunerate the owners. Laughton, John Knox (1898). "Spencer, Robert Cavendish". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography 53. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 377–378. </ref>

Prior to leaving British Post for Great Britain, Nicolls engaged in a heated exchange of letters with U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins. Hawkins accused Nicolls of being overzealous and of overstepping his authority in his personal defence of Redstick Creeks, Seminoles, and their Marron Creole or Black Allies, who some Americans in authority viewed as nothing more than runaway slaves and lost or unclaimed property.

Nicolls received orders to withdraw his troops from the fort. The Royal Marine detachment embarked HMS Cydnus on 22 April, and were duly returned to Ireland Island in Bermuda, arriving on 13 June 1815, to rejoin the 3rd Battalion as a supernumerary company. Nicolls left in the summer of 1815 with the Redstick Creek Prophet, Josiah Francis (or Hillis Hadjo, the Native American Indian spiritual and political leader known for his role in the Battle of Holy Ground), and an Anglo-Creek-Seminole treaty of Nicolls' own initiative. Nicolls, Woodbine, and a Redstick Creek leader, probably Francis, arrived at Amelia Island, in East Florida on 7 June 1815, where rumours circulated that the officers were seeking to either obtain British possession of Florida from Spain, or at least to arm and supply the Florida factions resisting American territorial expansion. In leaving West Florida, according to the U. S. Indian Agent Hawkins, Nicolls had left local forces with the arms and means to resist advancing American encroachments which were leading up to Andrew Jackson's First Seminole War. Nicolls embarked the brig HMS Forward at Amelia Island on 29 June 'for passage to England', and disembarked at Portsmouth on 13 September. In England, Nicolls failed to obtain official support for the Creeks, and Josiah Francis failed to receive official recognition for his credentials as the Redstick Creek emissary from the Foreign Office, although he did receive honorary recognition as a former Colonel of the British Army in Florida as well as publicized encounters with British notables, before returning to West Florida in 1816. Nicolls himself, however, was retained on full pay status in the duties of a Captain of Royal Marines with the brevet rank of Major.

In the summer of 1817 Captain George Woodbine, one of Nicoll's former subordinate officers, was present in Spanish East Florida together with the former British soldier and Scottish mercenary lieutenant of Simon Bolivar, Gregor MacGregor. Woodbine and Macgregor both left Spanish East Florida to rejoin the Latin American revolutionary movement prior to U.S. military intervention in East Florida. The names of Nicolls, Woodbine, and Macgregor, had become associated with the arming of blacks as soldiers, militiamen, and even as mercenaries. The threat, real or imaginary, was an anathema to North American popular conceptions of the time.

The Niles' Weekly Register of Baltimore also published, between July and October 1818, portions of correspondence between Nicolls and the former auxiliary 2nd Lt Robert Chrystie Armbrister (1797–1818) of the first "battalion" of the Corps of Colonial Marines. Armbrister was one of two British subjects executed in the Arbuthnot and Ambrister incident by order of Major General Andrew Jackson following a drumhead trial at Saint Marks in West Florida in April 1818. Josiah Francis and another Seminole leader, Nehemathla Micco, were also summarily executed by the Americans in Spanish territorial waters in April 1818. In the correspondence of Armbrister, assistance is asked of Nicolls to intervene with the British government on behalf of former allies seeking asylum in Spanish West Florida from perceived American wrongdoing and injustice.

Ascension Island

In 1823, Nicolls became the first Royal Marines commandant of Ascension Island. Ascension is a small volcanic island in the South Atlantic, halfway between South America and Africa. In 1815, HMS Zenobia and HMS Peruvian took the island to prevent it from being used as a staging post from which to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from Saint Helena. From 1815 until Nicolls took over, the Royal Navy registered the island as a "small Sloop of 50 or 60 Men", HMS Ascension, since the Navy was forbidden to govern colonies. The island had a garrison of about thirty, with a few families, servants, and liberated Africans. The Royal Navy came to use the island as a victualling station for ships, particularly those of the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron), which were working to suppress the slave trade.

Water was scarce, and an important task for Nicolls was to ensure that the island had a stable source of water. He achieved this by installing systems of pipes and carts to bring water to the settlement from the few springs in the mountains. Food was mostly shipped from England, but some could be procured locally: fish, a few vegetables grown on the island, feral goats and sheep, fishy-tasting eggs from a tern colony on the island, and turtle meat obtained during the laying season from December to May. Due to Nicolls's efforts in directing the harvest of turtles, turtle meat, an expensive delicacy in England, became so common it was fed to prisoners and pigs, and Marines complained of it. This surfeit of turtle irritated Nicolls's superiors and the Lords of the Admiralty, and when an Admiral ordered Nicolls to stop feeding turtle to prisoners, he started selling or bartering it to visiting ships. With this monotonous diet, men on the island relied on rum for spice. Nicolls understood this, and gave large rations of grog when his men showed "spirited and Soldierlike feelings".

On the confines of the island feuds were vicious, and one surgeon went insane. Pirates were frequently seen off Ascension, keeping the garrison on edge. Nicolls was also busied by many infrastructure projects on the island, building roads, water tanks, a storehouse, and developing the gardens on Green Mountain. For these efforts, Nicolls had about sixty freed Africans sent to Ascension, and additionally asked for convicts.

Nicolls had many such grand schemes for trade between Britain and its colonies, but these all failed to materialise. These schemes included a plan to grow oaks in Sierra Leone for Royal Navy ships, a plan to ship Ascension rocks to England, and a plan to ship New Zealand flax to England which he discussed in a letter to Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst. On 3 November 1828 Captain William Bate replaced Nicolls as commandant on Ascension.

Fernando Po

In 1829, Nicolls was appointed Superintendent of Fernando Po (now Bioko), a tropical island immediately off the coast of Africa, which the Navy used as a base for operations against the slave trade. Nicolls received the appointment after colonial administrator William Fitzwilliam Owen had refused the post, and after merchant John Beecroft was deemed unfit for the post. Owen, however, voiced his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as Nicolls's harsh rule on the island, and Beecroft increased his influence in the area. Nicolls, in turn, attacked Beecroft for his dealings with former slavers. Nicolls's health suffered in Fernando Po and by April 1830 he had left for Ascension.When Nicolls returned to England ill, Beecroft was placed in charge of the island. Tropical illness took a toll on the Europeans at Fernando Po, where hundreds died during the period. Nineteen of the 34 men in Nicoll's first contingent died soon after their arrival, and only five of the original 47 Royal Marines who accompanied him to Fernando Po in 1829 survived two years duty on the station. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, somewhat restored to health, served a second term as Superintendent of Fernando Po during 1832–1833. Despite his differences with Owen, Nicolls was just as determined to disrupt the slave trade, and equally energetic in his attempts to convince the British government to adopt a more aggressive stance. Frustrated in territorial annexation schemes, he invited the West African rulers of Bimbia, Old Calabar, Camaroon, Malimba, and the Bonny to Fernando Po to form an anti-slavery alliance. To Nicolls' great disappointment, the British government ordered him to evacuate Fernando Po on 29 August 1832, and put an end to operations there. Unfinished work and efforts to provide for the welfare of liberated and displaced slave populations delayed the end of Nicoll's mandate for several months, and the Colonel did not return to England until April 1835.

Attitude to slavery

During his time in control of Fernando Po, Nicolls clashed with the Portuguese authorities on the neighbouring islands of São Tomé and Príncipe regarding his refusal to return slaves escaping from there. In an 1842 letter to The Times he says he was accused by the Portuguese governor, Senhor Ferreira, of deliberately enticing slaves to run away and of encouraging 'thieves' and 'murderers'. This charge he denied, asserting that he had never actively encouraged slaves from nearby islands to make the dangerous crossing to Fernando Po: but that if they chose to do so, it was his duty under British law not to return them to slavery. He considered those slaves who killed in the course of their escapes as legally and morally justified in their action; nor did he regard them as thieves for having seized canoes to escape in. He offered to return the canoes however, and informed Ferreira that if the latter could persuade any of the escapees to return voluntarily to a state of slavery, Nicolls would not impede them. He wrote to The Times on the subject because of the debate which followed the Creole case in which slaves transported aboard an American vessel had taken control of her and forced the crew to take them to a British-run port.

Later life and family

As a retired Lieutenant Colonel of Marines, Nicolls was promoted to the honorary (British Army Brevet) rank of General in 1855, just months after his Army Brevet promotion to Lieutenant General. In July 1855 he was made Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB).

In 1809, while still a young Captain of Marines, Nicolls married Miss Eleanor Bristow (1792–1880) who was also from northern Ireland. Sir Edward and Lady Eleanor Nicolls appear on the United Kingdom Census 1861 in Greenwich, where Nicolls is listed as KCB and a retired General of Marines.

The General and Lady Nicolls had the following children: Alicia Nicolls (born in 1810); Eleanor Hestor Nicolls (1811–1898, born at Woolwich, later married Macgregor Laird); Edwina Anna Nicolls (1814–1902); Jane Mary Nicolls (1819–1901), who married Captain Archibald Douglas William Fletcher RN (1821–1882); Elizabeth Nicolls (1821–1856); Lieutenant Edward Nicolls RN (1821–1844) who died while serving as first lieutenant of HMS Dwarf; and Major Richard Orpin Townsend Nicolls (1823–1862) of the Madras Staff Corps (Indian Army). Edwina Anna married John Hill Williams on 22 June 1853. General Nicoll's daughter Elizabeth married the educator John Richard Blakiston (1829–1917) on 6 June 1854, dying in February 1856 without issue.

Nicolls died at his residence in Blackheath, London on 5 February 1865. His widow, Lady Eleanor Nicolls, survived her husband 15 years. Having suffered an injury in an accident at home on 14 November 1880, she died ten days later at the age of 88.

Promotions, awards, and titles

Nicolls's promotions are noted in the Hart's Annual Army List editions of 1840 through 1865. The commissions of 18th and 19th century officers of British Marines were issued by appointment and promotions in the corps respected seniority. Appointments and promotions were not open to purchase.

Second Lieutenant (H.M. Marine Forces) 24 March 1795.

First Lieutenant (H.M. Marine Forces) 27 January 1796.

Note: His Majesty's Royal Marine Forces were redesignated as the Royal Marines (RM) by George III in 1802. In 1855 the Royal Marines became the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI). In 1862 their title was again modified to become the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Sir Edward Nicolls retired from the Royal Marines in 1835 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

For his dashing courage in the action of 5 November 1803, 1st Lt Nicolls was awarded by the committee of Lloyds with a sword valued at £30. On the same occasion a naval officer who had taken no part in the action was promoted in rank by application to the Admiralty.

Captain (Royal Marines) 25 July 1805.

Specially mentioned in the "Gazette" in 1807, 1808, and 1809. Major by Brevet (British Army List) 8 August 1810. Lieutenant Colonel (Local Rank by authority of Vice Admiral Cochrane as Commander of a "battalion" of the Corps of Colonial Marines, from July 1814 in the Bahamas until after his departure from Spanish West Florida in May 1815.

Awarded a pension of £250 annually on 28 December 1815 for a total of 24 serious battle wounds suffered; and awarded a 2nd sword by Britain's Patriotic Fund. Lieutenant Colonel by Brevet (British Army List) 12 August 1819.

Although a titular (Brevet) Lieutenant Colonel on the British Army List, for purposes of seniority, and receiving an additional pension for serious wounds from 1815 on, General Edward Nicolls was paid as a Royal Marines Captain from 1805 until 1823. While Commandant of the garrison on Ascension, and later at Fernando Po, he received the pay of a British Army Lieutenant Colonel. Major (Royal Marines) confirmed 8 May 1828;

Major (Royal Marines) on reserve half pay status from 8 April 1829 until 15 May 1835 when placed in the retired full-pay status of a Royal Marines Lieutenant Colonel.

15 May 1835 Promotion to Lieutenant Colonel (Royal Marines) on full retired pay.[71] 3 November 1840 War Office (Brevet) of Colonel (British Army List), to date from 10 January 1837.

Awarded a good-service pension of £150-a-year on 30 June 1842. Major General (British Army List) 9 November 1846.

Lieutenant General (British Army List) 20 June 1854.

20 June 1855 Brevetted General (British Army List) to date from 28 November 1854 in conformity with Her Majesty's Order in Council of the 13th of September 1854.

KCB 5 July 1855.

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General Sir Edward Nicolls, KCB's Timeline

Age 40
Age 86