A Forgotten Hero of the Civil War
Nick Biddle carte de visite
Pottsville, Schuylkill County, resident Nicholas Biddle (circa 1796-1876) was immortalized by a carte de visite for being "the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion, Baltimore, April 18,1861." This type of "visiting card"--mounted with a small photographic portrait--was popular from the 1860s through the 1880s. The rare carte de visite was acquired in 2008 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. Museum curators believe this card was produced upon a suggestion by Pottsville newspaper publisher Benjamin Bannan (1807-1875), who proposed that copies be sold during Biddle's appearance at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia in 1864. The fair raised money to purchase necessities and medical supplies for Union soldiers. [The State Museum of Pennsylvania]

By John David Hoptak

At seven o'clock on Thursday evening, April 18, 1861, approximately 475 Pennsylvania citizens-turned-soldiers, comprising the ranks of five volunteer militia companies, arrived in Washington D.C., to protect the nation's capital. The first shots of the American Civil War were fired less than a week earlier at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and it had been just three days since President Abraham Lincoln--in office for only one month but confronted with the greatest crisis to ever befall the young Republic--issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to quell the Southern rebellion. When the Pennsylvanians detrained that evening, they were the first of the volunteers to reach Washington and have been identified in history as "First Defenders." Major Irvin McDowell (1818-1885), who three months later led the Union army to an ignominious defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, met the five First Defender companies at the station and led them to their assigned quarters at the U.S. Capitol where they settled in for the night.

Early the following morning, President Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) and Secretary of War Simon Cameron (1799-1889), traveled to Capitol Hill to greet the soldiers. A number of volunteers from Pottsville's Washington Artillery called upon the commander-in-chief to deliver a speech, but Lincoln declined. "Officers and soldiers of the Washington Artillery," the president responded, "I did not come here to make a speech; the time for speechmaking has gone by, the time for action is at hand. I have come here to give you a warm welcome to the city of Washington, and to shake hands with every officer and soldier in your company providing you grant me the privilege." No one, naturally, denied Lincoln his request.

As the president made his way through each of the companies, thanking them for their prompt arrival in the nation's capital, he noticed that a number of the soldiers were bloodied and bruised. Most of the injured Pennsylvanians were members of the Allen Infantry, a militia unit comprised entirely of residents of Allentown, Lehigh County. Private Ignatz Gresser, a native of Germany, suffered a painful ankle wound (and later received the Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862); Private David Jacobs endured a fractured left wrist and several broken teeth; and Private Henry Wilson Derr was struck in the head with a brick which left him deaf for life. And then there was Nicholas Biddle (circa 1796-1876), a frail, sixty-five-year-old African American wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery.

Colored illustration of riots on Baltimore street
Civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, did not subside with the departure of Pennsylvania's First Defenders for Washington, D.C. On April 19, 1861, Southern sympathizers attacked the Massachusetts 6th Regiment Infantry, killing four soldiers in what has since been called the Baltimore Riot of 1861 or the Pratt Street Massacre. [New York Public Library]

Lincoln must have been particularly struck by the appearance of Biddle, whose head was wrapped with blood-soaked bandages. The president urged him to seek medical attention, but Biddle refused, preferring instead to remain with his company.

The injuries, as Lincoln no doubt learned, were sustained the previous day while the men marched through Baltimore and began boarding train cars at Camden Station for the final leg of the journey to Washington. Baltimore was a hotbed of Confederate sympathy and upon learning that northern volunteers would be arriving in the city, a crowd of 2,000 Southern sympathizers gathered to contest their passage. The city's entire police force was summoned to escort the volunteers through the streets, but even the officers were having an increasingly difficult time controlling the unruly crowd which initially jeered and insulted the anxious Pennsylvanians while hurrahing for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy.

Portrait of Heber S. Thompson
Heber S. Thompson (1840-1911), a member of the Washington Artillery, served as president of the First Defenders' Association in 1909-1910. [From The First Defenders (1910)]

When the soldiers at last arrived at Camden Station, violence erupted. They were pelted with stones, bricks, bottles, and whatever else the vehement mob could find; some were even clubbed and knocked down by a few well-landed punches. A few more determined Confederate sympathizers lunged at the unarmed Pennsylvanians with knives and drawn pistols. "Powder had been sprinkled by the mob on the floor of the [railroad] cars," wrote First Defender Heber S. Thompson (1840-1911), of Pottsville, "in the hope that a soldier carelessly striking a match in the darkened interior of the car might blow himself and his comrades to perdition." (Thompson, who graduated from Yale in 1861, later served as president of the First Defenders' Association and wrote The First Defenders, a history of the unit, published in 1910.) For the idealistic volunteers from Pottsville, Allentown, Reading, and Lewistown, it was a trying ordeal and one that diminished the romanticized notion of the glories of soldiering. Soon, all the men were boarded and the train sped south toward Washington.

Portrait of Major Wren
Nick Biddle accompanied James Wren (1825-1901) to Washington, D.C., in April 1861 as his orderly. Captain Wren later served with Company B, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. [U.S. Army Military History Institute]

Of all the injuries sustained during the harrowing ordeal, the most serious was Biddle's. Because he was Black, Biddle was prevented from being mustered in as a soldier. Not to be deterred, however, he marched off to war as the orderly (an attendant to an officer) of Captain James Wren (1825-1901), the commanding officer of the Washington Artillery. Biddle had been associated with the company since its formation in 1840 and was so highly regarded by Wren and the members of the Washington Artillery that he was considered one of their own and even permitted to wear the company's uniform. Originally known as the Pottsville Blues, the name was changed to the Washington Artillery in 1842.

It was the sight of Biddle in uniform that especially infuriated the mob in Baltimore. Cries of "Nigger in Uniform!" were heard amidst the crowd, and as Wren later recounted, "poor Nick had to take it." Biddle was struck in the head by a brick and knocked to the ground, reportedly suffering a wound deep enough to expose bone. Many of the Pennsylvanians present--as well as many of today's students of the Civil War--believed that Biddle was the first individual to shed blood. If this was, indeed, the case--one that is impossible to determine with certainty--then Nicholas Biddle did shed the first blood in what was the bloodiest of all America's wars. And yet, strangely enough, despite the seemingly limitless fascination with the Civil War, Biddle has remained an overlooked and almost entirely forgotten figure.

Portrait of financier Nicholas Biddle
Although historians debate Nick Biddle's association with the prominent Philadelphia financier Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), most believe the African American adopted the banker's name out of admiration and respect. [University of Pennsylvania Library] 

Biddle's relegation to the vast halls of historical obscurity is perhaps due to the fact that very little remains known about his life. Born a slave in Delaware around 1796, he escaped to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad, but when exactly he slipped the chains of human bondage is not known. Historians do not know where Biddle first settled upon arriving in Pennsylvania. One account contends he settled in Philadelphia where he was quite possibly taken in by abolitionists, after which he found employment as a servant in the home of Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), the wealthy Philadelphia financier and longtime president of the Second Bank of the United States, whose name the escaped slave adopted as his own. According to this account, Biddle, along with his servant, traveled to Mount Carbon, just south of the Schuylkill County seat of Pottsville, where he attended a dinner on January 18, 1840, at the Mansion House with several dozen capitalists and industrialists to celebrate the successful smelting of iron by anthracite. For whatever reason, Biddle, the servant, remained behind in Pottsville while his employer returned to Philadelphia.

drawing of Manson House in Mount Carbon
Nick Biddle either accompanied Nicholas Biddle, bank president, to the Mansion House in Mount Carbon, near Pottsville, in 1840 for a dinner celebration, or was employed by the hotel during the event. [From Philadelphia nd its Environs, and the Railroad Scenery of Pennsylvania (1875)]

Another story, perhaps more plausible, is that the escaped slave settled in Pottsville where he found employment at the Mansion House and witnessed the January 1840 dinner celebration. If this was true, as Schuylkill County historian Herrwood E. Hobbs (1910-1967) believed, "something of financier Biddle rubbed off on him," and it was then that he adopted the capitalist's name.

Whatever the case, by 1840, Nicholas Biddle had made Pottsville his home, taking up residence in a modest dwelling on Minersville Street. He took an active interest in the city's two militia companies, the National Light Infantry and the Washington Artillery, whose members he quickly befriended. When news of President Lincoln's call-to-arms spread throughout the North in April 1861, both the infantry and the artillery were quick to tender their services to the Union. Departing Pottsville amidst a perfect ovation on April 17, 1861, the two companies reached Harrisburg late that evening. The following morning, the companies, along with the Ringgold Light Artillery from Reading, Berks County, the Logan Guards from Lewistown, Mifflin County, and the Allen Infantry of Allentown, boarded cars of the Northern Central Railroad and began their journey to Washington through Baltimore. Before setting out from Pennsylvania's capital city, the soldiers of the five companies took the oath of allegiance and were sworn in as soldiers of the United States. All of them except, of course, Nicholas Biddle.

Photograph and drawing of First Defender medals
(top) Proud of their response to President Lincoln's 1861 call for volunteers, the five companies known as the First Defenders issued badges and medals, which veterans wore for reunions, ceremonies, and parades. (bottom) On May 26, 1891, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania appropriated $1,500 "for the purpose of procuring a suitable medal with commemorative devices, for each of the surviving members, or their heirs," of the First Defenders. The medals were struck in bronze at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. [Top- The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Bottom- From The First Defenders (1910)]

The term of service for the first 75,000 northern volunteers, including those in the ranks of the First Defender companies, was for three months, and upon its expiration in late July 1861, the soldiers were mustered out. After returning home, the vast majority of the First Defenders were quick to reenlist, this time to serve "for three years, or the course of the war." The National Light Infantry almost to a man, became Company A, 96th Pennsylvania Infantry, while most of the members of the Washington Artillery reenlisted in the ranks of Company B, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, with Wren as captain. Nick Biddle, however, did not accompany Wren when the 48th Pennsylvania left Schuylkill County in September 1861. He remained, instead, in Pottsville, still nursing his head wound.

Biddle spent the rest of his life in Pottsville, performing odd jobs for the residents of the growing city. He proudly donned his uniform once more, this time to pose for a photograph at W. R. Mortimer's Pottsville studio. Underneath the photograph appears: "Nick Biddle" Of Pottsville, Pa., the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion, "Baltimore, April 18, 1861."

Biddle began to suffer from rheumatism, and as he grew older and more infirm, he was unable to perform any labor. Sadly, he became impoverished. During his final years, he walked the streets of Pottsville seeking charity. Pottsville's leading newspaper, the Miners' Journal, appealed to citizens for help: "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."

Grave stone of Nicholas Biddle with US flag and star soldier marker
Vandals destroyed Biddle's original gravestone in Pottsville's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's "colored burial ground," which was eventually replaced with a new marker. [Courtesy John David Hoptak]

Biddle died at the age of eighty in his home on August 2, 1876. Before his death, he proudly claimed that he had saved enough money for a proper funeral and burial, but upon his demise it was discovered that he was penniless. The surviving veterans of the Washington Artillery and the National Light Infantry once again answered the call. Agreeing to pay for the costs, they arranged Biddle's funeral, which took place two days after his death. A large crowd gathered in front of Biddle's residence and began the solemn procession up Minersville Street to the "colored burying ground" adjacent to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. A drum corps beat out a somber cadence while the First Defenders marched with their heads hung low. At the cemetery, the Reverend Samuel Barnes (1827-1912), pastor of Pottsville's Methodist Episcopal Church from 1874 to 1877, delivered the funeral sermon and read lengthily from the book of Job. Uniformed First Defenders carried the simple coffin to the burial site and laid Biddle to rest. To mark his grave, the surviving First Defenders each contributed one dollar to pay for a tombstone, upon which was inscribed: "In Memory of Nicholas Biddle, Died August 2, 1876, Aged 80 Years. 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."

On April 18, 1951, the ninetieth anniversary of the First Defenders' march through Baltimore, the residents of Pottsville dedicated a bronze plaque which was placed on a Civil War soldiers' monument in Garfield Square, unveiled and dedicated in 1891: "In Memory of the First Defenders And Nicholas Biddle, of Pottsville, First Man To Shed Blood In The Civil War. April 18, 1861." Since this time, the memory of Nicholas Biddle has faded almost to the point of oblivion, and, shamefully, his original tombstone was destroyed by vandals. It is, indeed, regrettable that Nicholas Biddle has been forgotten, for he was, truly, a hero of the American Civil War.

published poem "The Grave of Nick Biddle"
[Transcript] James M. Guthrie wrote "The Grave of Nick Biddle" upon his subject's death at the age of eighty in 1876. Guthrie, a Baptist minister, later served as chaplain of the George A. McCall Post, No. 31, Grand Army of the Republic, headquartered in West Chester, Chester County, and wrote Camp-Fires of the Afro-American, or, The Colored Man as a Patriot, published in 1899. [Courtesy John David Hoptak]


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.
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