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Nicholas Biddle. From the collection of Lon Ellis.


Here is an interesting piece of Civil War history. This is the story of an escaped slave named Nicholas Biddle (pictured on this 1 3/4 diameter pinback button from my collection).

The “original” Nicholas Biddle was a prominent (white) Philadelphia banker and financier during the early 1800’s who held the position of president of the Second Bank of the United States, the nation's federally authorized central bank. This bank was chartered in February 1817 and lasted until January 1836. After 1836, the bank continued to exist as a state-chartered bank but failed during the panic of 1837. This Nicholas Biddle was quite influential and was friends of Henry Clay. 

It seems that the escaped slave Nicholas Biddle managed to get a servant’s job for the prominent Philadelphia financier, possibly during a trip when the financier traveled to Pottsville for a dinner meeting of entrepreneurs and industrialists to celebrate the first anthracite-fueled blast furnace in America. It is at this time that historians believe he took the name of his employer. While in Pottsville, the escaped slave Biddle became friends with members of the Washington Artillery and participated in their drills for the following 20 years. They even gave him a uniform although blacks were not able to serve in the militia.

After the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, Lincoln called on 75,000 volunteers to help with the "rebellion". Among the very first to respond to Lincoln’s call were five companies of the Pennsylvania Battalion. The town of Pottsville provided 241 of the 530 militiamen. These five companies rendezvoused in Harrisburg where, after being sworn into the US Army left immediately by train to protect the valuable archives of the nation in Washington DC. At age 65, Biddle took the trip with them, serving as an aide to the company’s commanding officer. 

These Pennsylvania men were forever known as the “First Defenders”.

When the men got off the train in Baltimore, they were instructed to carry no firearms. While there, they met up with a hostile pro-Southern mob who threw rocks, stones, rotten vegetables and eggs at the men. During the heckling, Biddle was hit in the head by a hurled brick causing a serious wound exposing his bone. When the men eventually arrived in Washington, Lincoln personally thanked each member and singled out the wounded for special recognition.

In the North, Biddle became known as “the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion”. He appeared at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia in 1864 where photographs of him in a Washington Artillery uniform were sold to raise funds for Union soldiers. Upon his death, members of the artillery raised funds for his headstone that said “In Memory of Nicholas Biddle, Died Aug. 2, 1876, Age 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 Schuykill County, 18 April 1861. Erected by his friends in Pottsville”.

Biddle died in relative obscurity broke.




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