Battle Rattle

Mythbusters: The First Commandant

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Our story about the group installing a gravestone for Maj. Samuel Nicholas, first commandant of the Marine Corps, got tons of great attention online, much of it from people who know their Marine Corps history forward and backward and love it.

I hope some of those history-lovers will be able to make it to Philadelphia June 1 for the headstone’s installation ceremony, which organizers say will draw a crowd of “between 50 and 10,000.”

That said, the history buffs did raise a few issues that could not go unaddressed in order to keep the historical record intact.

The first note is an image issue and comes from Military Times staff writer Patricia Kime:

So I hate to sound like a total Marine Corps geek but I’ve been thinking of this ever since y’all printed that old portrait of Samuel Nicholas and now I see the same on is online on the web site.

In the late 80s, the Marine Corps combat artist Major Donna Neary did a different portrait that is considered a more accurate likeness and has the correct uniform. It’s the one that hangs in the Commandant’s home and I guess it’s considered the official likeness of Nicholas. I think a copy of it even hangs in the wardroom of the U.S.S. Nicholas.

We posted this public domain portrait of Nicholas, which was created in the 1920s by Philadelphia artist John J. Capolino, with our story:

Samuel Nicholas, idealized

Turns out the real first Marine officer did not look quite so much like Lord Byron.

A 1989 issue of Fortitudine, Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program unearthed by Kime published the Neary portrait, showing a Nicholas who is less dashing, but at least in proper regs.

Samuel Nicholas in real life

Thanks Patricia!

Another reader pointed out that Nicholas technically was not the commandant. While it’s true that the office of Commandant was not officially created until 1798 with Lt. Col. William Burrows, Nicholas is still recognized as the first de facto commandant, having been the first officer to lead the Corps.

Finally, one person took issue with calling Nicholas “The Fighting Quaker.” As the story points out, two-time Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler was the most famous Marine to bear that nickname. But a number of Marines set aside their Quaker tradition in order to follow their convictions and fight.

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