"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Nicholas "Nick" Biddle


“Nick Biddle” of Pottsville, Pa., the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion, “Baltimore, April 18, 1861.” (LOC)
A 1951 plaque placed in 1951 on the 1891 Pottsville Civil War Monument similarly describes Biddle as “First Man to Shed Blood in the Civil War April 18, 1864.”

Modified from picture by Frederick Bothwell, HMDB

In Memory of
First Defenders
Nicholas Biddle
of Pottsville
First Man to Shed Blood
In the Civil War
April 18, 1861

While the claim that Biddle was the first man wounded in the Civil War feels like an exaggeration, Biddle was wounded in an early instance of  Civil War 
violence, that preceded the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore. Pennsylvania troops were attacked as they moved between the Bolton Street station and the Camden Yards station on their way to Washington. John David Hoptak draws a dramatic picture:
 “Nigger in Uniform! Nigger in Uniform!” screamed the agitated Baltimore crowd of Southern sympathizers. They had been angry enough when Pennsylvania militiamen had detrained at Bolton Street station and began marching down Eutaw Street toward Camden Station on April 18, 1861, but when they saw Nicholas Biddle, an African American in uniform who was treated as an equal by his white comrades, their blood lust only increased and their calls grew louder. “Poor Nick had to take it” as the mob closed in like “wild wolves,” Captain James Wren, Biddle’s commander, later recorded.
 Heber Samuel Thompson in his 1910 book First Defenders describes the outcome: 
There was no loss of life, though in some instances quite serious injuries were sustained by volunteers who were struck by stones, bricks and other missiles thrown by the mob. Among the injured were Ignatz Gresser, David Jacobs, W. Henry Derr and Edwin Hittle, private soldiers of the Allen Infantry, the former wounded in the ankle and the latter three struck in the face and head, all rendered incapable of duty for several weeks. Beside these a number of volunteers in the other companies were wounded more or less severely. Nicholas Biddle, a colored servant of Captain James Wren of the Washington Artillerists, was struck on the head by a stone, and bled profusely.
So 61 year-old Nick Biddle was one of several Pennsylvanians injured that day but he was the only one described as literally shedding blood. Benson Lossing shies away from the claim that Biddle was the first casualty of the Civil war writing in his Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War that “His was almost the first blood shed in the rebellion, that of the wounded at Fort Sumter being the first by a few days.” 

Nicholas Biddle lived obscurely in Pottsville for the rest of his life. When he died in 1876, the Old Defenders arranged a funeral and a tombstone for him. This image of Nicholas Biddle's grave appeared in Historical Romance of the American Negro by Charles Henry Fowler, M.D., 1902.

The epitaph read:

In Memory 
Nicholas Biddle. 

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 At Pottsville, Pa.

James M. Guthrie author of Camp-Fires of the Afro-American, 1899, was inspired to write a poem entitled The Grave of Nick Biddle

The final verse of which is:

The grave of Nick Biddle, though humble it be,
Is nobler by far in the sight of the free
Than tombs of those chieftains, whose sinful crusade
Brought long years of mourning and countless graves made
In striving to fetter their black fellowmen,
And make of the Southland a vast prison pen;
Their cause was unholy but Biddle’s was just,
And hosts of pure spirits watch over his dust.

Unfortunately the headstone has been vandalized. (See the 48th PA)

It has been replaced by a government issue headstone: (see Find-a-Grave)

Nicholas Biddle
Capt Wren's

Aug. 2, 1876
First to shed Blood
in Civil War

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