In 1861 when President Abraham Lincoln asked for volunteers to crush the rebellious Confederate states, Nicholas Biddle was among the “First Defenders” to arrive in Washington. The title “First Defenders” is “the name that was awarded five volunteer groups of Pennsylvania soldiers who were first to respond to President Lincoln’s call for militia to put down the rebellion of the South’s military forces which had fired on Fort Sumter,” according to berkshistory.org.
In 1861, many of those volunteer fighters arrived in Washington by train from Pennsylvania to defend their nation. After their arrival, one of the first units Lincoln met was Pottsville’s Washington Artillery. Among the troops in that 100-man unit was Biddle, a 65-year-old former slave, who was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery even though he had been barred from enlisting as a soldier.
Biddle was also bleeding from a wound on his head, the first blood shed in the Civil War up until that point, according to Military.com, which adds that the only deaths at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, came from a cannon accident during the fort’s evacuation.
Biddle’s real name is not known, but what is known is that he was born a slave in Delaware around 1796 and escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad to settle in Pottsville, Pennsylvania He started working in a hotel in Pottsville in the 1830s. During this period, a Philadelphia banker known as Nicholas Biddle came to town to open an iron furnace. It is believed that former slave Biddle adopted the banker’s name as his own.
Along the way, Biddle became interested in the town’s two companies of militia and volunteered to join. Black men were however not allowed to join as soldiers, so Biddle signed on as an aide to its commanding officer, Capt. James Wren. As his fellow militia members grew fond of him, they allowed him to wear the uniform of the Washington Artillery. And when the call came from Lincoln in 1861, Biddle went along with the militia despite his old age.
But to get to Washington, Pennsylvania’s First Defenders must first march through Baltimore, which was then full of Confederate sympathizers. Wren told Biddle that he being a Black man in uniform will infuriate the Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore and he will be their target. He could also be captured and re-enslaved. But Biddle reportedly told Wren that “he was marching to D.C. with the trust of the lord and couldn’t be scared by the devil himself.”
Biddle and his unit had to march across the city of Baltimore from one train station to another throughout their journey to Washington. They were joined by a regular Army company and local police for protection but that didn’t stop residents from throwing rocks and bottles at them. Things got worse when the regular Army unit left them to make its way to its station at nearby Fort McHenry.
Now almost without any protection, Biddle and his men were surrounded by a mob of over 2000. As soon as the mob saw Biddle, a Black man in uniform, he became “a symbol of race hate”, as stated in a report by WFMZ. He suffered the most in that attack. According to Military.com, Biddle was hit in the head by a brick as he boarded the second train. This “caused a wound that not only knocked him down but caused him to bleed profusely.”
Biddle and his men later arrived in Washington where they went to the capitol building. When Lincoln met Biddle, he asked him to seek medical attention as he realized how badly wounded he was. But Biddle stayed with the Washington Artillery. His fellow Pennsylvanians would go on to take part in subsequent battles.
But that was the end for Biddle, who even if had not been wounded could not enlist because he was Black. He spent the rest of his life in Pottsville, where friends hailed him as the first blood of the Civil War. Biddle died penniless in 1876 at around age 80. His fellow veterans gave him a “big funeral” and a “Union-style headstone”, however, it is not known exactly where Biddle lies today.