In the past four posts, I’ve been profiling members of the Biddle family, the clan of Philadelphia bluebloods who had their meaty paws all over the Army of the Potomac. You’re probably getting tired of them. Well, guess what? I’m not. We have two more to go! Today, we are going to discuss one of the sillier Biddles, probably the least impressive, nay, the biggest bumbler of the whole brood. Where did he serve? You guessed it! He was on the staff of Major General George Meade!
James Cornell Biddle was born on October 3, 1835. He was among the first Philadelphians to go to war. On April 25, 1861, Biddle mustered in as a private in the 17th Pennsylvania Infantry, the first Philadelphia regiment to reach the front. Biddle’s first campaign wasn’t terribly interesting. The 17th Pennsylvania arrived in in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 1861, and for a time, it encamped in the Senate building. In fact, Biddle actually used the Vice President’s desk as a place to store his personal items! (Yeah, weird.) Later on, the 17th Pennsylvania—and Biddle with it—moved to a position along the upper Potomac where the soldiers served as sentries at important crossing points. On June 17, two companies had a small skirmish with Confederates at Edward’s Ferry. That was the regiment’s only engagement. After three months of service, the 17th Pennsylvania mustered out on August 2.
As the scion of a prominent family, Biddle decided he couldn’t go back to the army without officer’s bars. Using his family’s influence, he acquired a first lieutenancy from Governor Andrew Curtin, who appointed him to Company A, 27th Pennsylvania, a troubled unit that had been cursed with several resignations from disenchanted officers. The 27th Pennsylvania participated in the spring offensive in the Shenandoah Valley, but on July 8, 1862, Biddle left his regiment to assume a position as aide-de-camp for Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Williams. (If any of you have ever read The Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan, then you know that Biddle—while acting on General Williams’s orders—made a few appearances at Sarah Morgan’s house.) On November 5, 1863, Biddle was raised to the rank of major and served as an aide for Major General George Meade. Biddle stayed with Meade throughout his army career, rising to the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. Meade’s wartime letters frequently referred to him as “Major Jim Biddle,” and the two men seem to have been close—or as close as the cantankerous General Meade would allow.
However, you shouldn’t judge Biddle by Meade’s letters. They ignored the fact that Biddle was a hard man to like. He possessed something of a clownish arrogance that put off many associates. Biddle was easily flustered, self-absorbed, and even a little dimwitted. Meade’s precocious aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman, vividly described the peculiarities of Biddle’s personality in his private letters. Rarely did Lyman have anything nice to say. He called Biddle a “bettyish sort of man, with no fragment of tact.” If Lyman’s stories are to be believed, Biddle was often the author of his own troubles. “Poor Biddle!” Lyman exclaimed, “I always begin his name with ‘poor.’ . . . If there is a wrong road he’s sure to take it.”
Sure enough, Biddle took plenty of wrong roads. His intuition tended to fail him. For instance, in early October 1864, when the Army of the Potomac was laying siege to Petersburg, Biddle received instructions to inspect the earthworks of the 2nd Corps and check the placement of the pickets. Because of the intensity of enemy fire in that sector, most officers went on foot and ducked their way to the picket line, but Biddle, lacking the clairvoyance of the other staff officers, decided to inspect the works on horseback. His decision nearly cost him his life. Lyman wrote, “in consequence, the whole [Confederate] skirmish line opened on him, and he returned, after his inspection, quite gasping with excitement. As he was not hit, it was very funny.”
Other encounters involving Biddle involved less life-threatening situations. Biddle seemed to have no sense of how to judge the intentions of his commander, General Meade. One day, Biddle tried to stop the headquarters staff from encamping in a sandy area, not realizing that Meade had selected the area for a tactical purpose. Not wanting to have sand blown in his face all day, Biddle tried to convince Meade to camp elsewhere. A timid man, Biddle interjected, “Ah, aw, hem, aw General, they are going to pitch camp in a very sandy, bad place, sir; you will not be at all comfortable, and there is a nice grassy—” General Meade couldn’t stand hearing an aide countermand his order. He interrupted, shrieking, “Major Biddle!!!” and followed with a volley of oaths and imprecations, chastising Biddle for his unbidden advice.
Instead of adapting to Meade’s non-specific (and exceedingly dyspeptic) personality, Biddle merely increased his complaining. For instance, when Meade mounted up and left headquarters one morning, few of the staff were ready for it. They had to cease their camp activities and follow their chief down the road, like it or not. Biddle whined the entire way. He came trotting along, “like a spinster who had lost her lap dog,” as Lyman eloquently described it, complaining that he had not had any breakfast. Biddle lamented, “Well, I do think it is too bad! The General never tells anyone when he is going out, and here I am with no breakfast—no breakfast at all!” To emphasize the point, Biddle held up a boiled egg, the only food he had managed to grab from the table before mounting his horse. Lyman laughed. It seemed ludicrous to imagine a general’s aide galloping across the Virginia countryside with egg in one hand and reins in the other.
Easily, Biddle’s most awkward moment came when he lost a pack of expensive cigars. On October 17, 1864, an entourage of politicians—including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—came to visit General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point. As you might expect, Grant had purchased a box of exceptional Cuban cigars for the occasion, and entrusted them to Meade for safe-keeping. (As it happened, Stanton decided to leave early and never smoked the cigars, prompted by Grant’s offer to take him to Fort Wadsworth, which was close to the enemy line.) Meade, in turn, gave the cigars to Biddle, telling him to “take charge of the cigars, for the present.”
For whatever reason, Biddle thought Meade had given the cigars as a gift. (I’m not sure how anyone would assume that Grant—who adored cigars—would just want them given to a staff officer, but I guess that was the mystery of Biddle.) Theodore Lyman explained it this way: “Now B[iddle] has few equals in the power of turning things end for end; and so he at once clearly understood that he [was] made a sort of almoner of tobacco, and proceeded to distribute the cigars in the most liberal manner, to everybody who would either smoke them or pocket them! The staff and bystanders asked no questions but puffed away at Grant’s prime Havanas.”
Naturally, this set the stage for a comical misunderstanding. Later that evening, General Grant returned to City Point, most of the politicians having left the area by then. He turned to the senior Union naval commander, Admiral David Dixon Porter, saying, “I think now is the moment to enjoy those good cigars!” Grant dispatched his servant, Shaw, to head back to Meade and claim the box. Shaw knew that Meade had entrusted the cigars to Major Biddle, so he politely asked the befuddled major where he might find them. Biddle turned white. They were all gone! Biddle had given them away and none were left. Lyman, the officer who narrated the event, never explained the outcome, but ended the story as if it were a play. “And the curtain dropped, . . .” he wrote. Naturally, we are left to imagine Biddle hemming and hawing his explanation to General Grant: “Aw, hem, ah, yes, yes, General, the cigars! Where are those cigars? Aw, yes, that’s a good question. . . .”