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The Forgotten Story of the Black Man Who Was the First to Shed Blood In the Civil War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 4, 2024 3:00 am

The Forgotten Story of the Black Man Who Was the First to Shed Blood In the Civil War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 4, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Nicholas Biddle died broke, never received a pension, and was never officially a soldier for the Union Army because of his age and the color of his skin—but he was treated by his company as a soldier and was the first to shed blood in the Civil War days after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.

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The new Roku Pro Series, a smart TV built by the streaming pros. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a story courtesy of the Gettysburg National Military Park, telling the story of the forgotten first defenders of our nation's capital during the Civil War. And the first man to shed blood in the Civil War is Ranger John Hoptek.

Take it away, John. I grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, about two hours from here and a few miles south of the county seat of Pottsville. And from as young as I can remember, there's proof, I have just been captivated by this era in American history, the Civil War. There was something about it that drew me in early and my parents who are here, they would always take my sister and I to battlefields and we would explore these places and I would go home with bags of toy soldiers and coloring books and when we weren't at battlefields, well, we were exploring local graveyards.

And this continued, of course, after I got my license, started to drive and wonder why I had difficulties, you know, getting dates in high school. But even still to this day, whenever I visit home, I will stop at a local cemetery or try to just to pay my respects. This was a way for me to try to get to know the Civil War history of my home area.

And I encourage everybody to do this. I mean, there's a lot of history to be learned from these old cemeteries. And there are some noteworthy graves up in Schuylkill County. There's a couple generals buried and one grave in particular has always, always captivated me more than others. This is the grave of Nicholas Nick Biddle. It's in the Bethel AME Cemetery in Pottsville. And as you can see, right there carved upon his headstone, first to shed blood in Civil War. Nicholas Biddle, Captain Wren's orderly. So as a young kid, when I saw this, I thought, wow, the very first person to shed blood in the Civil War came from the same place I did, right?

Schuylkill County. Now, I went home and I looked in my books, that golden book of the Civil War and the Time Live series, and I couldn't find anything, nothing about Nick Biddle, no mention at all. But wait, he was the first one, the first person to shed blood.

Surely, we have to know about this guy. So a trip up to the Pottsville Library, the Historical Society, and I discovered his story and I found out that he was wounded while with the first offenders. So I went back to those books, first offenders.

Nothing, nothing. See, the story of Biddle, the story of the first offenders, not often told, not well known, I was a bit disappointed. So just by way of brief introduction, who were the first offenders and who was Nicholas Nick Biddle? Well, those opening shots on Fort Sumter, they felt like a thunderclap across the North. There was outrage, there was shock, indignation, followed by a profound patriotic impulse to defend the flag, to defend the country that was just fired upon by the South Carolinians April 12th of 1861. A patriotic fervor swept the North. So Lincoln puts out a call to arms, he needs 75,000 men to serve a three month period, 90 days, and he needs them quickly.

The response to Abraham Lincoln's call was pronounced and it was fast and it was electric. From Maine to Minnesota and all points in between, communities mobilized and volunteers began making their way toward the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and that, that is where they were most needed. Following the attack on Sumter, there was a strong belief that the next place to be attacked would be where?

Washington itself, the government buildings, the capital city. There was a very real and grave danger to Washington. Many believe that a Confederate force was on its way. As soon as Fort Sumter surrendered, they thought Pierre Beauregard would be leading his Confederate force North in order to attack the capital. And those fears were especially pronounced when word of Virginia secession began to trickle into the capital. What if Confederate forces put artillery on Arlington Heights?

What if Confederate gunboats began sailing up the Potomac River? Washington, D.C., the capital, woefully unprepared for its defense. Washington, surrounded by slave territory, right? The fearful trembled for its safety. And truly, it seemed that Washington was doomed to fall.

Verena Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy, she sent out invitations to a few of her friends to join her and her husband, Jefferson Davis, in the White House on May 1st of 1861. There was this very real palpable fear for the protection of Washington. And in Washington was a force of only 900 U.S. regular Army soldiers. And there was also a militia, a militia of about 1,500 persons. Okay, so Washington, D.C. had a militia, but many, well, they were questioning the loyalties of many in that group, okay? So that is kind of the military force that was in the capital when Fort Sumter fell. There were some politicians, though, in Washington, Congress not in session, but there were still politicians about, and they began to raise a force, okay? So Cassius Clay of Kentucky, he raised 100 volunteers to defend the area between the capital and the White House, okay? And Senator James Lane of Kansas, he gathered together a crew of about 50 people, they called them the Frontier Guard, and they went into the White House, okay?

They patrolled the White House, but that was about it. That was about the size of the defenders in Washington, so all eyes are focused north, okay? The call goes out for volunteers, when will they start to arrive?

What will happen first? Will the northern volunteers arrive in Washington, or will the city be attacked by Confederates? And you've been listening to National Park Service Ranger John Hoptak tell one heck of a story about the beginnings, the early stages of the Civil War, and how thoroughly unprepared Washington, D.C. was, how vulnerable Washington, D.C. was to being outright sacked.

And when we come back, we'll learn more about the first person to shed blood, and the cause of the Union, here on Our American Stories. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, and all of our history stories are brought to us by our generous sponsors, including Hillsdale College, where students go to learn all the things that are beautiful in life. If you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to That's An October morning in a quiet suburb in a town in Scotland, a man is walking his dog when suddenly, shots are fired from a car.

The man falls to the ground and the car speeds off. An ordinary residential area, but extraordinary things happen in ordinary places. The instinct right away was it was a political thing. We're talking about Russian-trained, high-ranking officer in the secret service. An Assassin Comes to Town, a six-part podcast. Available now, wherever you get your podcasts.

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VGW Group, VoIP prohibited by law. 18 plus, terms and conditions apply. And we return to our American stories and the story of the forgotten first defenders of the Civil War and Nicholas Biddle. When we left off, Gettysburg National Park Service Ranger John Hoptack told us about Lincoln's call to arms at the start of the Civil War and the first few Pennsylvanian volunteers that left to board trains to Washington to help defend the nation's capital from what seemed to be an imminent invasion from the South. Let's return to the story. Despite the seriousness of this occasion, the company historian of the Allen Infantry, he wrote, Most of the volunteers regarded the journey as a pleasant change from daily occupation.

It was a picnic, an agreeable visit to the capital. Only a very few, more serious, realized that it was the beginning of war with its horrors, cruelties and privations. So by April 17, just two days after Lincoln's call to arm was announced, these five companies are gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital. And with the Washington artillery was Nicholas Nick Biddle. So who was Nick Biddle? The simple truth of the matter is, prior to April of 1861, we know very little about this man. Of his early life, we have no record.

That's how his obituary began. We do not know where he was born. We don't know when he was born. At first, obituaries claimed that he was 90 years old. By the 1890s, when people talked about Nick Biddle, they said, no, he was born about 1796.

So that would have made him about 65 years old in 1861. Where was he born? Well, the Pottsville Miner's Journal said, we think he was born in Delaware. We think he was born in Delaware. It said that he had seen enough of slavery in his early days to hate it. So he may have been born enslaved. May have been born enslaved in Delaware around 1796.

The record is again unclear. How does he end up in coal country? Many believe he escaped along the Underground Railroad, rebelled against slavery, made his way north to freedom. Others say he went to Philadelphia first. And in Philadelphia, he started to work for Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Second Bank of the United States. Very wealthy banker. And many believe that Nicholas Biddle took Nicholas Biddle's name because he worked for him. Those are the stories that have been told over the years about Nick Biddle, this Nick Biddle. We don't know much.

We don't know much. But what we do know is that he was, when he arrived in Harrisburg, April 17th of 1861, he was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery Company, even though he was not officially a member. He couldn't, of course, because of the color of his skin.

But we do know he was considered a part of this company, which is why he went. Now consider that brave moment when this man, who may have, who likely was born enslaved, decided to go back south. So Nick Biddle is with the Washington Artillery when they arrive in Harrisburg, April 17th, 1861. And the next morning, all 500 of those first defenders, they're awake early.

This is the fateful day. Thursday, April 18th, that morning, they're awake early, and they were mustered into federal service when they raised their right hand and took the oath of allegiance that was administered by Captain Seneca Simmons of the 7th United States Infantry. So now they are soldiers, but they hardly looked the part. Some of them were in uniform. Nick Biddle was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery, and they were largely unarmed. The officers had their sidearms, their swords and pistols. The Allen Infantry had their flintlock muskets, which had neither flints nor locks.

But, said one person, they could be used as clubs, right? But that was about it. Out of uniform, a motley assortment, civilian garb, but they are now U.S. soldiers. They weren't really concerned about the fact that they were unarmed. They were not quite expecting any trouble. All we got to do, get on the train, make our way to Baltimore, get off the train, go to another train, and go to Washington, right?

It's an agreeable picnic to the Capitol. So they make their way, heading south, and not anticipating any trouble. As they made their way through Pennsylvania, there were people with U.S. flags waving them along the route. But as soon as they crossed that Mason-Dixon line, well, the sympathies changed. One of the first defenders said that he saw one of the students at the Lutherville Seminary, female academy, waving a Confederate flag at the train as it passed, their first hint that some trouble may lay ahead. There was much trouble ahead, because Baltimore. Baltimore, well, there's a lot of Confederate sympathy in the city of Baltimore.

There's trouble brewing. There were calls for secession in Maryland. There were calls for secession in Baltimore. Civil War historian Allen Nevins called Baltimore, quote, a powder tub ready for a match.

That powder tub was on its way. Those 500 Pennsylvanians heading in response to Abraham Lincoln's call. Baltimore had a reputation for unruliness, okay? Some called it the mob city. There apparently were riots in Baltimore on election day in 1856 and 1857 and 1858 and 1859. And of course, there was that whole conspiracy about kidnapping and assassinating Abraham Lincoln as he made his way to Washington for his inauguration in Baltimore.

Okay, so Baltimore has a bit of a reputation, okay? And as it turned out, as it turned out, members of the pro-Confederate, if you will, city militia were drilling that morning. They were parading in Baltimore. And then word arrived that trainloads of Northern volunteers were heading their way. They were determined to resist. So they organized, and they gathered together, okay? And they were determined not to allow these Pennsylvanians to march through their city to respond to Abraham Lincoln's call. So several thousand of them began to gather. And as the Pennsylvanians meanwhile, blissfully unaware, on those trains, making their way south, then a telegram arrives.

And the captains of those five companies received word that a mob was forming to contest their arrival. They decided, well, we're going to go through anyway. But just to be safe, we're going to get off the trains a little bit north of Bolton Station. That'll do it.

That'll do it. The trains carrying these Pennsylvania volunteers stopped just short of Bolton Station. But the mob quickly caught on to that ruse. They rushed their way north to where the Pennsylvanians were just then stepping off the train. And Captain Wren of the Washington Artillery, he wrote that the mob approached, quote, like a lot of angry wolves. They began jeering and taunting and cursing at these Pennsylvanians.

It's no longer a picnic, is it? No longer an agreeable visit to the Capitol. There were shouts supporting Jeff Davis.

There were insults against Lincoln and the Union. And it was impossible, impossible in the midst of that for these company commanders to organize and get their guys in column, in formation, to march to the next train station. They had to march to Camden Station to pick up the B&O Railroad to Washington.

So they had about a two-mile journey to get from north of Bolton Station to Camden Station. So they all got back on the cars. They all got back on, and this mob is there still yelling, cursing. So let's call the Baltimore City Police. And you've been listening to National Park Service Ranger John Hoptak tell one heck of a story, the idea that the nation's never been more divided, something you hear today often, au contraire. Listen to what these Pennsylvania soldiers were stepping into and didn't even know it. A thousand troops training up a militia in Baltimore to resist them simply passing through to protect the nation's Capitol. And for those of you who know that part of the country, that trip from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., well, that's a one-hour car drive.

So this is really close. When we come back, more of Gettysburg National Park Service Ranger John Hoptak, the story of Nick Biddle and the Forgotten First Defenders here on Our American Stories. A system that we all have hardwired inside of us, our relaxation response. And it's been developed to be listened to at any time you want to really unwind. I hope you'll listen wherever you get your BBC podcast. Please, like my heart and play all your music, radio and podcasts with the new Roku Pro Series. Your senses aren't better.

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18 plus, terms and conditions apply. And we return to Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on the forgotten first defenders and the first man to draw blood in the Civil War, Nicholas Biddle. When we last left off, the first defenders had arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, where they had to call upon the Baltimore City police to prevent violence from breaking out. Let's return to the story.

Here again is National Park Service Ranger John Hoptak. Here they come. They have arrived. The entire Baltimore City police force has arrived. They are now going to escort these Pennsylvanians through the city. But this was cold comfort, as many of these first defenders said, a lot of these police officers were laughing at them. Because many of the police officers fully agreed with the sympathies of that gathering mob. So they finally got off the trains and they began their march through the city. Abolitionists, stone them, kill them. Hurrah for Jeff Davis. You'll never get out of here alive.

Have you your coffins made? These were some of the things the Pennsylvanians heard as they marched through Baltimore heading toward Camden Station. These Pennsylvanians are outnumbered nearly five to one. The historian of the Allen Infantry wrote it this way. Roughs and toughs, longshoremen, gamblers, floaters, idlers, red-hot secessionists, as well as ordinarily sober and steady men, crowded upon, pushed and hustled the little band and made every effort to break the thin line.

It was a severe trial for the volunteers with not a charge of ball or powder in their pouches. For these Pennsylvanians it must have seemed an eternity. But finally they arrived at Camden Station at last. But it was there where violence at last broke out. That's when bottles and bricks and stones and clubs and whatever else the mob could get a hold of began to rain down and crash among these volunteers. But the first hit, the first one to be struck down or so many believed, was Nick Biddle. Apparently it was the sight of Biddle, a black man in uniform, that especially infuriated this mob. An unknown assailant grabbed a brick, launched it at him, and hit him squarely in the face.

Squarely in the face. He fell backward, but he was caught by an officer from another one of those militia companies, and staggering, he helped him onto one of these train cars. His head was wrapped in bandages, which quickly bled through, but it was amidst this shower of bottles and stones and bricks that the Pennsylvanians hurried on board.

Some others of the mob, they attempted to detach the engine of the train, but this effort, said one man, was prevented by the determined character of the engineer after they drew revolvers and threatened to shoot any man who made that attempt. At long last, the train cars began to pull away from Baltimore. They got out alive, and the next day they realized how fortunate they had been when they heard what happened to the 6th Massachusetts, who was following in their footsteps on April 19th. April 18th evening.

At last. Finally, that evening, the trains arrived at the foot of Capitol Hill, and that's where these Pennsylvanians were headed. To defend it, there were men who were bruised and battered and bloodied, none more so, perhaps, than Nick Biddle. But nevertheless, said one man, we arrived in fine spirits because we were the very first company that are here. Politicians began to show up, too. Now, for the day laborers and the clerks and the coal miners and the students who composed the ranks of these companies, what a day. Here they were, now quartered in the committee rooms and the offices of the U.S. Capitol building.

They're being met by these politicians. Quite a memorable day. But perhaps the next day was equally as memorable. Because on April 19th, they are also visited by Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln arrived at the Capitol to meet and to personally thank these Pennsylvanians for their timely arrival. Remember that anxiety that pervaded the Capitol.

Who's going to get there first? Will the Capitol be attacked? Well, now, now, the first volunteers to respond to his call are there. He made his way along with Seward and Cameron, two of his cabinet secretaries, and he shook the hands of these Pennsylvania volunteers. One of the members of the Washington artillery yelled out, speech! Speech! They wanted to hear a speech from Lincoln. Officers and soldiers of the Washington artillery, he said, I did not come here to make a speech. The time for speech making has gone by. The time for action is at hand. I came here to give you a warm welcome to the city of Washington and to shake hands with every officer and soldier in your company, provided you grant me that privilege. Oliver Bosby shouted.

He left this account. Imagine the scene. Here were sturdy young fellows suddenly called upon to don the uniform of soldiers, many of whom had never been out of sight of the mountains of their state, spread out upon the hard marble floors of the Capitol in an effort to secure some rest from the fatiguing journey when every man is brought to his feet by the announcement of the presence of the one man each of us most desire to see, the honored chieftain of the nation, Abraham Lincoln. Profound silence for a moment, broken by the hand clapping and cheers of the tired volunteers. Yes, here towering over all in the room was the great central figure of the war. I remember how impressed I was by the kindliness of his face and the awkward hanging of his arms and legs, his apparent bashfulness in the presence of these first soldiers of the republic. And with it all, a grave, rather mournful bearing in his attitude. The president's words were few, but earnest and impressive. Close contact with the man at the helm was more than the satisfaction of personal curiosity. It was a kind of baptism of responsibilities, heretofore unheeded, a revelation of a state of profound seriousness in the solving of which each one listening to the great leader's words felt personally called upon to his best.

That's what Oliver Bosbyshell said. You know, making his way from company to company, Abraham Lincoln heard of what happened in Baltimore, and he saw the injuries to some of these soldiers. And presumably, he came face-to-face with Nick Biddle. And imagine that moment.

Here was Abraham Lincoln, face-to-face with Nick Biddle, his head covered in blood-soaked bandages, his blood dripping on the floor of the U.S. Capitol building, a man who may have been born enslaved and escaped, and now is back in uniform. What a moment. I would love to see that on canvas, any screenwriters watching make a compelling movie, right? By late July, 90 days have come and gone. They were naturally glad to be back home, but for most of them, it was a short visit. Most of them would reenlist. Many would give their lives.

Nick Biddle returned to Pottsville. He was never paid as a soldier. He never took the oath of allegiance because he couldn't.

He would never receive a pension. Biddle, to his dying day, never tired of talking about those supreme hours of his life, the time of his wounding and the time of Lincoln's call to see him and sympathize with him, and the scar which he carried to his grave, he proudly showed to people interested. It was his badge and his brand of patriotism. He died in obscurity, but he would never be forgotten by the Washington artillery. It was the Washington artillery who paid for his funeral. The first defenders also paid for a headstone to be placed over Nick Biddle's grave. It read, in memory of 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, erected by his friends in Pottsville. And a terrific job on the production and editing by our own Monty Montgomery, and a special thanks to Gettysburg National Park Service Ranger John Hoptak.

What a story, what a picture in all of our heads of that time with Lincoln breeding these soldiers. The story of Nicholas Biddle and the first defenders here on Our American Stories. An October morning in a quiet suburb in a town in Scotland, a man is walking his dog when suddenly shots are fired from a car.

The man falls to the ground and the car speeds off. An ordinary residential area, but extraordinary things happen in ordinary places. The instinct right away was it was a political thing. We're talking about Russian-trained, high-ranking officer in the secret service. An Assassin Comes to Town, a six-part podcast. Available now wherever you get your podcasts. You can play all your music, radio, and podcasts with the new Roku Pro Series. Your senses aren't better, your TV is. And voice of NASCAR, the motor racing network.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-06-04 04:22:32 / 2024-06-04 04:34:24 / 12

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