Friday, February 2, 2007

Nicholas Biddle: A Forgotten Hero of the Civil War

Nicholas Biddle in the Uniform of the Washington Artillerists
{Author's CDV Collection}

Sometime around 7:00 p.m. on the evening of April 18, 1861, some 475 Pennsylvanians, organized into five companies of volunteer militia, arrived in Washington. They were the first organized volunteer soldiers to reach the capital after the commencement of the Civil War. Fort Sumter had been fired upon less than one week earlier, and it had been but three days since President Lincoln issued his first of what proved to be many calls-to-arms. The arrivial of the Pennsylvanians help set many in Washington at ease, including President Lincoln himself. In fact, so thankful was the recently inaugurated president that he paid these five companies a personal visit and insisted on shaking the hands of all of the nearly 500 men from the Keystone State. The companies were quartered, literally, in the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol building, and Lincoln slowly made his way around to each of the five units, thanking each member for their service and prompt arrival.
But their journey to Washington was not an easy one. Earlier in the day, while marching through Baltimore, the eager volunteers came under the attack of a vehement mob of Southern sympathizers. Initially, the Pennsylvanians were simply insulted and cursed, but the crowd soon swelled to more than 2,000 citizens, and one can imagine the anxiety felt by the unarmed volunteers as they made their way through the city. The men of the five companies were at first escorted by a small detachment of U.S. army soldiers, under the command of fellow-Pennsylvanian John Pemberton, who would soon resign his commission and cast his lot with the Confederacy. When Pemberton's command, ordered to Fort McHenry, filed away from the Keystone Staters, all that was left to ensure the safe passage of these men through the city was the police force, many members of which soon joining in the chorus of anti-Union and anti-Lincoln sentiment. When the companies finally reached Camden Station and began boarding train cars, violence erupted.
Some in the crowd rushed toward the Pennsylvanians with knifes and pistols, only to be stopped by the increasingly overwhelmed police force. Gunpowder was sprinkled on the floors of one of the cars, hoping a match would be struck by one of the Pennsylvanians on their way to the capital. An attempt to hijack the train was made, but was quickly averted when the engineer drew his sidearm and threatened to kill those making the attempt. Then a shower of bricks, stones, bottles, and other projectiles fell among the Pennsylvanians, injuring a number of them.
President Lincoln witnessed some of the injuries as he made his way around to each of the five companies. Ignatz Gresser, a member of the Allen Infantry who would earn the Medal of Honor at Antietam as a corporal in the 128th PA, was debilitated by an ankle injury, while Private David Jacobs, of the same company, lost a number of teeth and sustained a broken wrist when he was struck by bricks. President Lincoln then came across Nicholas Biddle, suffering from what was perhaps the worst injury sustained during the day's attack.
With his head wrapped in blood soaked bandages, Nicholas Biddle was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillerists although he was not officially a soldier. He was not allowed to be, for he was a black man. As Biddle made his way through Baltimore as the orderly to Captain James Wren, the sight of a black man in uniform enraged many in the crowd. Shouts of "Nigger in Uniform!" were raised, and as Wren later wrote, "poor Nick had to take it." He was soon felled; struck on the head with a brickbat, which reportedly left a wound deep enough to expose bone.
As some of Biddle's blood stained the floor of the Capitol, Lincoln took him by the hand and recommended he seek medical treatment for his injury. But Biddle refused, preferring instead to stay with his company.
Many contemporaries, and many of today's students of the war, recognize Nick Biddle as the Union's first war-time casualty. At least the first to be wounded by hostile foes. While it is impossible to verify this, it is interesting that Biddle has been largely overlooked, even forgotten, in American history. Yet his story is important and needs to be told.
So, who was Nicholas Biddle?
The man has remained a mystery. More than likely born a slave in Delaware in 1796, Biddle made his way to freedom through the Underground Railroad and settled in Philadelphia. His real name is unknown. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, the escaped slave was employed as a servant to the wealthy financier Nicholas Biddle. When Biddle, the financier, took a business trip to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1840, his servant, for whatever reason, remained in the Schuylkill County seat, and was known from that point forward as Nick Biddle, after his employer.
1840 was also the same year that eighteen-year-old James Nagle organized the Pottsville Blues, a militia company that would soon become the Washington Artillerists, upon changing its branch of service. Biddle immediately became friends with the members of this unit, and was attached to it for the next twenty years.
When civil war erupted in April 1861, Biddle, described as "a gently aging man of sixty-five," departed Pottsville with the Washington Artillerists, as an aide, or orderly, of the company's commander, Captain James Wren. Making their way first to Harrisburg and then to Washington via Baltimore, the Washington Artillerists, along with the National Light Infantry, also of Pottsville, the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, and the Allen Infantry of Allentown, were the first organized troops of Northern volunteers to reach the nation's capital after the start of the Civil War and thus went down in history as the "First Defenders."
The "First Defenders" were 90 Day enlistees, and would spend their term of service in the defenses of Washington. When their enlistment expired in late July, the vast majority of these troops reenlisted to serve in three-year organizations. The Washington Artillerists formed the nucleus of Company B, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Nick Biddle, suffering from his painful wound, remained in Pottsville as his comrades in the Artillerists reenlisted throughout the summer of 1861. He found work performing odd jobs for the citizens, but later in life, he was destitute. Throughout the late 1860s and into the 1870s, Biddle, with his head still deeply scarred, was seen walking around Pottsville carrying a piece of paper, seeking donations. The Miner's Journal reported: "If poor old Nick Biddle calls on you with a document, as he calls it, don't say you are in a hurry and turn him off, but ornament the paper with your signature and plant a good round sum opposite your name. Nick has been a good soldier and now that he is getting old and feeble, he deserves the support of our citizens."
Biddle would always insist that he had large amounts of money saved up in the bank, but when the died on August 2, 1876, at the age of 82, it was discovered that he died penniless. Having no money to cover funeral expenses, the survivors of the Washington Artillerists and the National Light Infantry assumed the burden. They also arranged for his funeral. With the Pottsville Drum Corps in the lead, the members of the two First Defender units led a lenghty funeral procession through Pottsville, from the home of Biddle to his final resting in the "colored burial ground" behind the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Rev. Samuel Barnes, the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, delivered the sermon, and read extensively from the Book of Job. Each of the surving members of the two militia organizations also donated one dollar a piece to pay for a humble tombstone, upon which they had inscribed: "In Memory of Nicholas Biddle, Died August 2, 1876. His was the Proud Distinction of Shedding the First Blood in the Late War for the Union, Being Wounded while Marching through Baltimore with the First Volunteers from Schuylkill County. 18 April 1861. Erected by his Friends in Pottsville."
With the passage of time, the memory of Nicholas Biddle has faded almost to the point of oblivion, and certainly to obscurity. This is sad, and somewhat revealing. It would seem that with America's fascination, nay, obsession, with its Civil War, the name of the war's first casualty would be easily recognizable. But it is not. True, it can be argued that Biddle was not the first; it is, in fact, impossible to determine. But I have a feeling that Crispus Attucks was not technically the first casualty of the American Revolution. Yet students throughout the country learn about him. And if this was not enough, an internet search of Attucks results in over 270,000 hits. A similar search for Biddle brings up far, far less, and most of the hits relate to the wealthy Philadelphia financier, and not the Civil War Hero.
Sadder still, and quite shamefully, Biddle's tombstone has, over the years, been destroyed by vandals to the point where it no longer remains, and Biddle's final resting place is unknown.


Ben Hawley said...

Thank you for your information on Nicholas Biddle. I have been at several events at Camden Station in Baltimore, Maryland and was so impressed with Mr. Biddle's history and record. A man in his 60's, willing to participate in the war of the rebellion and leave his mark. A truly forgotten hero.

Ben Hawley
B Company
54th Mass Inf Regt
Washington, DC

Anonymous said...

Wow. Amazing that this story is not common amongst our venerable history. It could well be one of our most reverant moments in Lincoln's august and documented life. A shame that all of America has not been priveleged enough to know the story of this man, Nick. It brought tears upon me.

Ron Coddington said...

Excellent profile! Really helped me to understand his role and contribution during the war. Wondering if you might share your sources, as I am researching his life.

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks for your kind words. I will most certainly share what I have for your research. Please contact me at

Anonymous said...

Mr. Biddle: A man who knew for what he was fighting unlike many on both sides. Great to see his fellow "soldiers" all pitched in and can we restore a headstone for the gentleman? Roger Duncan, grandson of Capt. J. H. L. Duncan, Company B, Tennessee Volunteers