By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
"Right here, by this stone," said John File, running a toe along what looked to be a narrow slab of finished marble partially hidden by tufts of spindly grass.
Every Nov. 10 since about 1991, he explained, young men and women in the Marine Corps' reserve officers training program at the nearby University of Pennsylvania show up here before sunrise in their dress uniforms. They bring a wreath, but no ceremonial swords or rifles, and gather before the chunk of marble outside Philadelphia's Arch Street Quaker meetinghouse.
"It's supposed to be a secret," smiled File, 77, a retired Marine sergeant who for years was a volunteer caretaker at the meetinghouse, in the city's historic center.
"The founder of the United States Marine Corps is buried here," he said. "He was a Quaker . . . a friend of George Washington. . . . When he died, they buried him here."
But because Quakers have what they call the Peace Testimony against war, when the students asked for permission to hold a military memorial service, with a band, a bugler sounding taps and a rifle-volley salute, the Quakers "refused to give permission," File said.
"I told [the student group] to come anyway," he said. "Just be quiet, I told them, keep it low-key. So, they lay the wreath, salute in silence and then quietly leave.
"Underground honor," he added. "The best kind."
That's what brought me to this leafy side street in Philadelphia while chaperoning a class trip by my daughter's school. While the kids visited the house across the street of seamstress Betsy Ross (another Quaker, this one credited with creating the first American flag of stars and stripes), I crossed over to the quiet grounds of the Arch Street Meeting.
I did so because my dad was a Marine, a skinny kid who at 17 lied about his age to join. He was wounded at Tarawa in the Pacific during World War II but survived to raise a family. Before he died in 1997, he kindled an interest in our family about all things Marine.
Over time, that led to cyberspace and, amid a wealth of Marine Corps information, the revelation that the corps was started by Quaker Samuel Nicholas. The Web site I enjoyed most came from a group of retired sailors on the USS Nicholas, a Navy ship named in his honor. Through them I met Nicholas's great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Diana Pope. It was she who in 2002 laboriously uploaded archival information onto the site from the Marine Corps Gazette, starting from 1933 ( http://www.ussnicholas.org/first_officer.html).
"My mother's older sister, Elizabeth Mitchell, asked me to join her at the christening of the USS Nicholas in 1983," said Pope, also a Quaker. The experience renewed her interest in the family's history and stirred a small amazement that there is no public celebration of Nicholas in Philadelphia, no tours of his nearby homesite or the site of the family's Connostogoe Waggon tavern at Fourth and Market streets, just around the corner from Independence Hall.
It was there Nicholas first laid plans for the fledging service after Congress commissioned him on Nov. 5, 1775, as both the first Marine and first Marine officer, according to historian and author Nathan Miller. On Nov. 10, Congress authorized the enlistment of two battalions of Marines, and by Nov. 28 Congress had commissioned Nicholas in writing to lead the outfit at a salary of $32 a month. Nicholas moved the recruitment effort to the nearby Tun Tavern, whose site is now paved over by Interstate 95.
"He seems to have been right at the center of America's struggle for independence," said Pope, a medical researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Portland, Ore. "An amazing guy, on the one hand steeped in [Quaker] pacifism and, on the other, drawn to defend his country."
If the historical records are correct, Nicholas came from a wealthy family on both sides, graduated from what became the University of Pennsylvania and married into another well-off Quaker family. Among the cream of Philadelphia society, he was a founding member of the city's elite fox-hunting club.
When it came time to establish the first Marine Corps uniform, he used the club's required hunting attire -- dark tunic, dragoon pockets, white buttons, tight waistcoat and leather-trimmed collar -- as the pattern. That's how the Marines got the nickname "leathernecks," according to the Marine Corps Gazette.
Nicholas oversaw the Marines ferrying Washington's troops across the Delaware, fought at Trenton and Princeton, and returned after the war to civilian life, according to the Gazette. Washington signed his membership card in the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal group of officers who fought for American independence.
Nicholas died of yellow fever at age 46 in 1790, and even though the Quakers had thrown him out for "taking up arms," they allowed him burial at Arch Street.
"This place needs a national historic marker or something to let people know about Nicholas," said File, himself a convert to Quakerism.
Even the marble chunk where the young trainees lay a wreath every Nov. 10 is a bit misleading, he said. "Quakers don't have headstones, so I led them to the stone so they'd just have a focal point, a place to stop and remember the history here.
"But the Nicholas story is much more interesting and complex than that," said File.