Saturday, April 16, 2016

Things: The Nicola Affair

One of the little known but critical events of the American War for Independence occurred as the conflict appeared to be drawing to an end. This post discusses the man who would fought a king but would make a king - Louis Nicola.

Early Life - Soldier and Civil Servant of the King

Lewis Nicola was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1717, the son of a British army officer and the grandson of Huguenot refugees. Although little is known of his upbringing, Nicola’s family apparently provided him with a solid secondary education. As with so many Irish, he joined the British army and spent almost thirty years fighting for his king. His family bought him a commission as an ensign in the British army in January 1740. He married his first wife, Christiana Doyle, on 19 September of that same year. During the first half of the 1740s Nicola was stationed in various Irish cities, including Galway, MannorHamilton, Londonderry, Dublin and Cork. After a brief tour of duty in Flanders during the vicious fighting in the spring and summer of 1745, Nicola returned to Ireland, joining the garrison at Charles Fort near Kinsale, and eventually winning promotion, in early September 1755, to the rank of fort major. For the twenty-one years following his return to Ireland in 1745, Kinsale would be his home and he got involved in civic service and began to show interests in scientific inquiry. Nicola married his second wife, Jane Bishop,  on 18 April 1760, eight months after Christiana Nicola’s death.

Nicola served in Flanders in 1745 

An Immigrant to the New World

When he failed to receive an expected inheritance, Nicola moved to America in 1766,  and settled in Philadelphia and opened a dry goods store on Second Street. Not content to be a mere shopkeeper, Nicola became an important figure in the burgeoning world of publishing. In 1767 he established a library and in December 1769, moved it to Spruce Street in the more fashionable Society Hill. He renamed his establishment the “General Circulating Library.” A believer in general enlightenment of people, Nicola went on to publish several magazines that specialized in scientific information and inquiry.  Nicola also helped create the American Philosophical Society in 1769 and became publisher of its annual report, Transactions.

Nicola moved his family for a while to Easton where he rendered public service as well and in 1774 was named Justice of the Peace (essentially the county judge) in Northampton County. When relations with Great Britain darkened and conflict seemed inevitable, he went back to Philadelphia and  turned his attention to military matters once again.  Drawing on his decades in the British army he published A Treatise of Military Exerciser, Calculated for the Use of the Americans, in 1776. A very timely release.  This work, undertaken at the request of the colonels of the five battalions of Pennsylvania militia from Philadelphia, was intended to include “every Thing that is supposed can be of Use to” the colonists, and omit “such Manoevres, as are only for Shew and Parade.”

Nicola's Invalid Corps garrisoned Trenton, among many
logistics bases
Nicola was fluent in French and translated several French military texts. In 1776 Nicola was made Barracks Master of Philadelphia as well as commander of the city guards. During the period of British occupation of Philadelphia, Nicola published a map for use when the Americans would move on his adopted town. His experience leading old men  and boys as commander in Philadelphia caused him to ask Congress to adopt an idea he had for a better way to garrison - use wounded veterans. On 20 June 1777 the Continental Congress, bowing to the logic of Nicola’s arguments, established an Invalid Corps, eight companies strong and totaling close to one thousand men, “to be employed in garrisons, and for guards in cities and other places, where magazines or arsenals, or hospitals are placed; as also to serve as a military school for young gentlemen, previous to their being appointed to marching and other military arts. In essence this would be the beginning of a primitive military academy. Nicola was appointed Colonel in the Continental Army and commander of the Invalid
Corps. Nicola and the Invalid Corps did perform a host of valuable services during the American Revolution. For the bulk of the war the corps was stationed at Philadelphia. With the advance of General William Howe’s British army on the American capital in the fall of 1777, however, Nicola  relocated both his family and the Invalid Corps elsewhere. They moved to Bristol, then Fort Mifflin and finally to Trenton. Nicola planned several actions against the British outposts but once both sides had settled into winter quarters, the corps redeployed to Easton and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to
guard hospitals and military stores in those cities. Like the rest of the Continental army, the Invalid Corps suffered great hardships during the winter of 1777–78. After a brief stint at Valley Forge in the spring of 1778, the Invalid Corps returned to Philadelphia on 19 June, just after the British
evacuation of that city. For the next three years the Invalid Corps was stationed primarily at Philadelphia and for a time at Boston. Besides garrison work, Nicola had the Corps interrogate prisoners and deserters and sent intelligence reports to Washington. The ever intellectually active Nicola also proffered several schemes to Congress for a partisan force, new army regulations and proposed use of the Invalids in recruiting.

The Invalid Corps garrisoned Fort Mifflin

The Nicola Letter

On 13 June 1781, in response to Washington’s request of 27 May, Congress authorized the concentration of the corps at West Point, New York. The Invalids spent much of their time at West Point's outposts such as Fishkill. Nicola faced many challenges with regard to pay and feeding of his men. He successfully faced a court martial based on charges from a discontented captain. The quality of the invalids and a shortage of officers and men only made things worse for him. He had to deal with numerous cases of misconduct. Nicola himself faced financial difficulties throughout the war and like very many other officers, was not happy with Congress's treatment of officers or men regarding supply, rations and pay. Widespread disgruntlement simmered even as the new nation was headed towards independence. With all of his experiences since joining the Continental army, both
good and bad, on his mind,  Nicola, ever the man of letters and ideas,  wrote a letter to Washington on 22 May 1782, from Fishkill, New York that would lay out his case of army disgruntlement due to bad treatment by Congress.

Nicola wrote:

"...From several conversations I have had with officers, & some I have
overheard among soldiers, I believe it is generally intended not to seperate
after the peace ’till all grievances are redressed, engagements &
promises fulfilled . . . God forbid we should ever think of involving
that country we have, under your conduct & auspices, rescued from
oppression, into a new scene of blood & confusion; but it cannot be
expected we should fore go claims on which our future subsistance &
that of our families depend." 

Washington was well aware of all this but Nicola's second theme stunned and angered him. Nicola stated bluntly that, unlike many of his American contemporaries, he was not a “violent admirer of a republican form of government,” Nicola went on to discuss the histories of such earlier republics as Venice, Genoa, and Holland. The reasons why “their lustre” had “been of short duration.” This applied, in Nicola’s estimation, to the United States as well. None of them had been able to govern themselves efficiently. In the case of the Continental Congress, Nicola asked, has “it not evidently appeared that during the course of this war we have never been able to draw forth all the internal resources we are possessed of, and oppose or attack the enemy with our real vigour?”

Mount Guillian - near Fiskill

Nicola went on to build a case for a limited constitutional monarchy like Britain's. That sent Washington into a fit. The tone of  Washington's reply to Nicola that same day
indicates that he not only disapproved of Nicola’s “scheme,” but was deeply offended by it. After expressing his “great surprise & astonishment,” Washington wrote that “no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed.” Furthermore, Washington was “at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with
the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself,” Washington continued, “you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

The Continental Army encampments around West Point - 1782

While he admitted to the problems facing the army and promised to do everything in his power “in a constitutional way” to solve them, Washington implored Nicola that if he had “any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity—or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” Finally, as an obvious, but rarely used, safety precaution, Washington had two of his aides-decamp,
David Humphreys and Jonathan Trumbull, attest that the copy of the letter that he retained for his files was an exact duplicate of that which he had sent to Nicola. Nicola was stung by the rebuff and immediately apologized at great length, writing that he was   “extremely unhappy that the liberty I have taken should be so highly disagreable to your Excellency . . . nothing has ever affected me so much as your reproof.”

Several letters followed as Nicola attempted to justify his actions. No written response from Washington ever came, or if it did, no record exists.

Apres l' Affaire

And curiously, Nicola's relationship with the commander in chief remained as it was before the letters. He continued to command the Invalid Corps and played the normal role of a Continental officer. Washington never shunned him or further censured him. In fact, Washington supported Nicola's objections when Congress moved to disband the Invalid Corps in the spring of 1783. Nicola returned to Philadelphia and provided administrative service through the end of the war and retired as a Brevetted Brigadier General. After the war he held a post as manager of the city's workhouse and became active in the Society of the Cincinnati. Nicola remained active in military affairs as the inspector of the city's militia through the 1790s when he retired and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he died in 1807. Although Nicola's proposal to Washington was controversial, it should not detract from a life of distinguished service in peace and war. Many wanted a monarch and many thought that monarch should be George Washington. Nicola's letters and the response (and non-response) had the ironic effect of building a proven case for Washington as one of the few men in history to eschew a chance at monarchy, a move that caused none other than George the Third to call him the man of the century. We prefer to call him, the essential man. In a sense, Washington and the new nation may owe a debt to Nicola for his "modest proposal." Instead of a king, the Nicola Affair would serve to further George Washington's commitment to a government of men, not monarchs.

Washington's response to Nicola sealed his reputation as
the indispensable man of the republic

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