In my last post, I profiled one of the Biddles, the massive family of Philadelphia elites that had its mitts all over the Army of the Potomac. The last post examined the brief Civil War career of “Charles the Valiant,” the widely-reviled Charles J. Biddle, ex-commander of the Pennsylvania Bucktails. In this post, we will look at his distant cousin, the exalted and widely-respected Chapman Biddle.
Unlike Charles, Chapman Biddle came from the other branch of the Biddle family, the one connected to John Biddle, grandson of the first Quaker settler. Also, unlike his cousin, Chapman Biddle was well-liked by his men, who continued to praise and honor him even after he resigned his commission with the war still unfinished. A lieutenant said that Chapman Biddle was “as firm a rock to lean on; as firm and true a friend in civil life as in the military.” This praise was typical.
Chapman Biddle was born on January 22, 1822. Like so many other Biddles, he enjoyed the advantages of wealth and prestige. He studied law at St. Mary’s College in Baltimore and was admitted to the bar in 1848. For years, he traveled the globe, going on trips to South America, the West Indies, and to Europe. According to a biographer, he was erudite, cosmopolitan, and possessed fluency in multiple languages.
Like many young men from elite Philadelphia families, Chapman Biddle joined a city militia regiment. In 1844, he helped establish Company I, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, a militia company organized in the wake of the anti-Irish Bible Riots. Within two years, Biddle became a first lieutenant. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of captain. During the war’s first year, Biddle’s company stayed behind, but when Lincoln made his call for “300,000 more” after the disastrous Peninsula Campaign, Biddle called upon his fellow militiamen to raise a regiment of volunteers to augment the weakened Army of the Potomac. With the aid of his first cousin, Alexander Biddle, he recruited about 600 men in Philadelphia. By the end of the month, Governor Curtin consolidated Biddle’s Philadelphians with men from Venango County, and together, they formed the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Biddle received a colonel’s commission and command of the regiment. The 121st left the city on September 5, 1862, and it joined the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Corps. Biddle and his regiment fought at Fredericksburg in December and participated in the depressing Mud March in January.
However, the moment that captured his men’s respect came on July 1, 1863, when Colonel Biddle took command of the brigade to which the 121st Pennsylvania belonged (1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 1st Corps). Deployed west of Gettysburg, atop McPherson’s Ridge, Biddle’s brigade (1,361 officers and men) held the crucial left flank of the 1st Corps. At 2 P.M., two North Carolina regiments stormed out of the low ground near Willoughby Run, commencing the hellish afternoon engagement that constituted Gettysburg’s first day. Biddle well understood the importance of the occasion. His men had to hold the line stubbornly. A captain in his regiment, remembered the scene vividly:
The coolness of Colonel Chapman Biddle, commanding the brigade, was remarkable. Throughout this tornado of fire he rode back and forth along the line of his brigade, and by his daring, by his apparent forgetfulness of his own danger, accomplished wonders with his four small regiments—cheering his men and urging them through that fiery ordeal, his words unheard in the roaring tempest, but, as well by gesture and the magnificent light of his countenance, speaking encouragement to the men on whom he well knew he could place every reliance. A modest, unassuming gentleman in the ordinary walks of life, suddenly transformed into an illustrious hero, the admiration of friend and foe. Even his devoted horse seemed to partake of the heroism of the rider, as he dashed along the line between the two fires, daring the storm of death-dealing messengers that filled the atmosphere.
Biddle nearly paid a dear price for his bravery. The Confederates from the 47th North Carolina saw him riding along the line of battle and tried to take him out. Captain Joseph J. Davis of Company G spotted Biddle riding back and forth and called on a sharpshooter from his company to do the deed. He told him, “Bring down that general!” With a crack of his rifle, Private Frank Escue took aim and fired. Biddle seemed to disappear. (After the war, Davis consulted with John Batchelder, the battle’s foremost historian, telling him he believed he had ordered the death of Major General John F. Reynolds. Batchelder said it was impossible. “Well, what general officer was killed on my front?” asked Davis. “I saw him, colors in hand, dash into his disordered ranks to rally his troops. . . . I directed the shot and saw him fall.” Batchelder, who knew the story of Gettysburg better than anyone, set the matter straight, telling Davis that the daring officer he had ordered to be shot was Colonel Biddle.)
Private Escue did not kill Biddle; he only wounded him. In fact, two balls came in his direction. One struck Biddle in the head and the other struck his horse. As Biddle recalled, “My horse was shot; I was struck by a round ball on the back of the head, but only slightly wounded. When the horse was struck, he reared and threw me and fell over himself, but fortunately, fell on the side of me.”
Biddle’s horse righted himself and panicked, bolting to the brigade’s left flank. Interestingly, Biddle’s cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Biddle, found the frightened horse and caught it. Alexander Biddle wrote, “Soon I saw a black horse which I recognized to be his [my cousin’s] galloping towards me riderless–I caught him by the bridle, succeeded in stopping him, and sent . . . one of the men to find the Colonel.”
Dismounted, Colonel Biddle brushed himself off, and despite his head wound, continued to direct his brigade. As the afternoon progressed, Biddle’s men made a final stand behind a log and furniture barricade on the west side of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. For another hour, Biddle’s men endured an assault delivered by two Confederate brigades. When the corps commander, Major General Abner Doubleday, ordered the 1st Corps to withdraw to the south end of town, Biddle’s men came off in relatively orderly fashion, an amazing feat, since the brigade had lost 898 officers and men, 66% of its strength. A newspaperman who covered the doings of Biddle’s brigade said, “There is probably no instance showing more complete discipline and masterliness of management than bringing back of such a command after such a contest, in such a perfect condition without a semblance of disorder.” Although wounded, Biddle kept fighting. He commanded the brigade for the rest of the battle.
Biddle didn’t last the entire war. His health had suffered because of an illness he contracted during the Mud March. He stayed with the Army of the Potomac for six more months, but when the weather soured, he admitted he could no longer command his men to the best of his ability. He resigned his commission on December 10, 1863. Although he left the army long before the war came to a close, no one blamed him for it—quite a contrast to the situation involving his cousin, Charles, who faced criticism for leaving too early. One admirer said of Chapman Biddle, “His energy in raising the 121st, his ability to discipline it, his gallantry in leading it in battle, his zeal and endurance in its hard service, have made his reputation as a soldier one that can never be forgotten by his comrades. . . . Even after ill-health forced him to resign, he maintained his interest in them, and he watched over their welfare and their widows and orphans, and long after the regiment was mustered out he was always ready to help its members or their families.”
After the war, Biddle served as counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad, joined the Fairmount Park Association, helped organize the 121st Pennsylvania’s veteran association, and served on the Society of the Army of the Potomac (First Corps Association). He died on December 29, 1880, at age 59. Six years after his death, another Pennsylvania veteran delivered the dedicatory remarks that Biddle had written before the completion of the 121st Pennsylvania’s monument at Gettysburg. Even in death, his words echoed across the now-silent battlefield.
A eulogizer said of Biddle: “His courage in battle was characteristic of the name he bore.” How true. The world expected a lot from the Biddles. Because of their surname, they had to ask the best of themselves.