Saturday, March 25, 2017

Surrendering at Gettysburg: The Vindication of Major Thomas B. Rodgers, Part 2.

In my last post, I narrated the tale of Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, a Union officer captured at Gettysburg. After his release from prison, Union authorities arrested him, accusing him of “allowing himself” to be captured by the enemy. For a year, Rodgers (who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel in the meantime) readied his defense. He collected witnesses who could attest to his character. He had to prove he acted bravely and that when we surrendered, he had not gone quietly. The very boundaries of courage and cowardice were at stake.

So what happened? How did Rodgers come to face these charges? (Unfortunately, for the historian’s sake, Rodgers was the only person to explain how the charges came into being. His account seems fairly plausible, but of course, I must acknowledge that he spoke from a position of personal bias. Perhaps, then, his explanation is either incorrect or exaggerated. But this is all I have, so I’ll have to accept it at face value.) As Rodgers explained it, another officer in the 140th Pennsylvania wanted Rodgers to resign so he could take the lieutenant colonelcy in his place. The best way to get Rodgers to leave the service was to threaten him with a court-martial on charges of cowardice.

Rodgers’s theory made sense. The charges were filed on April 15, 1864, just ten days after his promotion to lieutenant colonel, which was probably the first day when the men in the 140th Pennsylvania learned of it. As Rodgers explained, “While I was yet a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy, an effort was made to promote a junior Captain of the Reg’t over me to Lt. Col. To effect this object, a letter was used, insinuating that I had behaved in a cowardly manner at the Battle of Gettysburg.”

So who orchestrated these charges? They were signed by the regiment’s commander, Captain John Fulton McCullough, who forwarded them to the judge advocate for consideration. Unfortunately, McCullough never left behind any material to explain why he wanted to prosecute Rodgers. As it happened, McCullough was later killed at the Battle of Totopotomy Creek; however, Rodgers did not believe that McCullough was the true author of the charges. Rodgers wrote, “He [McCullough] was urged by others, one of whom was higher in rank than he, but at the time absent from the Reg’t.” Who were these others? Rodgers never said, but I can make an educated guess. Most likely, the head of the conspiracy was Captain (later bvt. Brig. Gen.) Henry Harrison Bingham, a member Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s staff. An ambitious man (and a member from another political party), Bingham was eager to take Rodgers’s place. Having heard about Rodgers’s scuttling behind a rock at Gettysburg from a Democratic friend, Colonel Byrnes (who himself was later killed in action at Cold Harbor), Bingham told McCullough to prefer charges against him.

Even though McCullough (the initiator of the charges) and Byrnes (the key witness) were no longer alive, the court martial convened on March 2, 1865, at the headquarters of the 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Eight officers constituted the court, with Brig. Gen. Henry J. Madill acting as president. Captain James H. Hamlin served as the prosecuting judge advocate. Rodgers elected to defend himself. He pleaded “Not Guilty” to all three charges. The court testimony went on for two days. The prosecution called four witnesses. The defense called six.

After reading the court transcript, it becomes clear that the prosecution had the weaker case. Hamlin’s witnesses could establish that Rodgers crouched behind a rock, but nothing more. Consider this line of questioning put to Corporal James S. Rankin:

Hamlin: Was the accused there behind the rock when you stopped?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Hamlin: How long after you stopped was it before he was captured?

Rankin: Not more than two minutes.

Hamlin: Was the accused sitting down?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Similar questions were put to the prosecution’s other witnesses. However, none of them could describe Rodgers’s behavior in a negative way. When Rodgers had a chance to redirect, all of the prosecution’s witnesses defended their former commander. Below, see how Rodgers got praise from Corporal Rankin:

Rodgers: Were you captured at the same time and place with me?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Rodgers: What was my general reputation as an officer in the 140th Pa. Vols. previous to the preferment of these charges?

Rankin: It was good.

Rodgers: What has it been since?

Rankin: It has been good since.

When Rodgers presented his own witnesses, they claimed that Rodgers had done well throughout the battle. They saw him at various points, encouraging the men. When Rodgers asked Corporal William Griggs if he had seen him during the battle, Griggs replied:

Sir, you were right in the rear of the regiment. You had your sword drawn, and was [sic] telling the boys to go ahead and to keep cool and fire low: that we were driving them like hell! The regiment was firing at the time. You went up as far as we went. It was about five minutes before the regiment fell back.

Corporal George Rose delivered similar testimony:

You had your sword drawn, and said, “Keep cool, boys, and fire low.” You had first come along the line and was [sic] standing in the rear of our company. The company was firing at the time.

Further, Rodgers made it clear that when he crouched behind a rock, it had not been for long. He argued that the prosecution had erroneously concluded that he had been hiding behind the rock for the better part of an hour. When calling his witnesses, Captain Hamlin stumbled upon a problem, learning too late that Rodgers had ducked down twice during two unrelated incidents. During the opening of the fight, the 140th Pennsylvania had captured three Confederate prisoners. Rodgers had stopped to write down their names before sending them to the rear. To do this, he crouched beside a rock so he could write their names legibly. Captain John Auld Burns remembered seeing Rodgers “sitting on his knee with some two or three rebel prisoners. He was writing as if in a memorandum book.” Rodgers seized upon this testimony, making it clear that he had not been hiding the entire time, but he had simply sat down at the beginning of the engagement so he could write in his memoranda book. After sending the prisoners to the rear with a sergeant, he rejoined the fight. When he was seen again, surrendering, he had taken cover behind a different rock. In their inexpert assemblage of witnesses, the prosecution had conflated the two incidents.

Finally, Rodgers made it clear he had not surrendered from some idle fancy. He surrendered to Confederate forces only after he knew he could not escape and only after he quarreled with his captors. One of Rodgers’s witnesses, Private Hugh Shaw, described the scene this way:

Shaw: You were kneeling down on your knees when a rebel Serg’t. came up and ordered you to throw down your saber. You replied, you would not surrender your saber to a private. The Serg’t. said he would run you through with his bayonet if you did not surrender. You replied, you did not care a damn! But you would not give your sword to any man but an officer. The Serg’t. placed a guard over you and marched you to the rear, when you gave your sword to an officer on horse-back. There are the particulars of your capture as far as I can remember.

Rodgers: Did you see any person pass further to the rear than us when we were captured?

Shaw: No, sir.

Rodgers: Did you arrive at the place where we were captured at the same time as I did?

Shaw: Yes, sir.

Rodgers: How long had we been there before the rebels captured us?

Shaw: About fifteen seconds.

Rodgers: What were the chances of escape when we arrived at the ledge of rocks where we were captured?

Shaw: From anything that I could see, we were entirely cut off; the enemy was in our front and on our flank. —I mean, —they were between us and the rear.

In his final argument, Rodgers asserted, “The evidence of those who were captured with me is to the effect that escape was impossible.” Firm in his tone, Rodgers could not understand how anyone could imagine that he’d surrendered to the enemy in a fit of cowardice. Every witness had made it clear that he had surrendered at the end of the fight. How could anyone go through the hellish combat of Gettysburg, gaining glory along the way, only to throw it all away in the last few seconds of the engagement? It made no sense; so argued Rodgers: “It is not possible that I, after going through the whole of that battle, the hottest in which my Regt was ever engaged (& it has been in many) with credit to myself, would afterwards in a cowardly or disgraceful manner allow myself to be captured by the enemy.”

After two days of testimony, the court gathered at 10 A.M., March 4, to hear the verdict. The court found Rodgers “not guilty” on all charges.

I prefer to believe that justice was served here. Rodgers’s honor was vindicated and he promptly resigned from the service, which was what he wanted all along. But now, he could leave without the shameful accusation of cowardice hanging over his head.

However, it seems to me that some form of injustice occurred anyway. When Rodgers surrendered, he sacrificed his freedom and his health, not unlike some 5,000 other Union prisoners, some of whom died in captivity. From 1861 to 1865, Union soldiers surrendered all the time, but none of them were prosecuted for it. Unluckily for Rodgers, someone decided to challenge him. I cannot see how anyone could believe the insinuation that he surrendered too quickly. His regiment had fought for hours in one of the most hellish areas of the battlefield. How could anyone single out his surrender as being an exemplar of what not to do? In my opinion, the charges ought to have been dropped long before his case went to court-martial.

For whatever reason, in this instance, the Army of the Potomac felt the need to officiate over the unclear distinction of courage and cowardice. Rodgers was nearly the victim of that impulse.

After the war, Rodgers returned to Mercer County, Pennsylvania. In the autumn, he married a woman named Marion E. Long, eventually raising four sons with her. The family moved to Missouri where Rodgers got into politics. He died on October 18, 1908, at age 73.

All right, Gettysburg trampers, here is your challenge. Can you find the rock where Major Rodgers and eight soldiers from the 140th Pennsylvania surrendered? If you do, you'll get to call it, "Rodgers Rock" and you'll be the envy of all the LBGs! Go out and wander the fields, select the most likely boulder, and get your photograph with it. (Be sure to surrender to an imaginary Confederate while you're at it.) Do I have advice where to look? Try this area here. Rodgers said the rock was in the belt of woods in rear of where his regiment encountered prone soldiers from the 5th Corps. That means the triangular-shaped Trostle woods just south of Plum Run and immediately north of the Wheatfield Road. Good luck seekers! Don't hurt yourselves.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surrendering at Gettysburg: The Vindication of Major Thomas B. Rodgers, Part 1.

This is a two-part series that discusses the court-martial of a Union officer, Major Thomas B. Rodgers, who surrendered to Confederate forces at the Battle Gettysburg. In 1865, after he was paroled and exchanged, the U.S. Army brought charges against him, accusing him of surrendering too easily. Interesting, no? More than 5,000 Union soldiers surrendered at Gettysburg. Apparently, Rodgers was the only one to be brought up on charges for “allowing himself” to be taken prisoner. Since the beginnings of U.S. military history, the army had always allowed its soldiers the option of surrendering to the enemy. No one expected a soldier to throw his life away when the enemy had him surrounded. Many believed a soldier better served his country—not by dying fruitlessly—but by becoming a burden to the enemy, who had to show him the usual “rights of prisoners,” taking care of him until properly exchanged. Indeed, even the war’s first battle—Fort Sumter—involved the surrender of the entire Union garrison. While a few incidents during the war depicted  the moment of surrender as a cowardly act—such as the surrender of the Harpers Ferry Garrison in 1862—generally, Americans held to a less-judgy assumption. When done on a battlefield, surrendering was a rational act. Rarely did Americans call it cowardly. If the enemy was close enough to threaten a soldier with their bayonets, there was no dishonor in giving in.

Major Rodgers’s court-martial shattered that illusion. Although it came late in the war, it made clear that surrendering wasn’t as simple as being “out” in a game of tag. A surrendering soldier had to make the enemy work for it. To get himself vindicated, Rodgers had to prove his surrender had not been done indolently. He had to show he had fought hard, and then, when confronted by the enemy, he had to prove he had no other choice than to throw in the towel. He didn’t just “let” the enemy take him prisoner, he argued. The Confederates had to work hard to capture him. In essence, Rodgers’s court-martial charted out the boundaries of courage and cowardice, two of the slipperiest—yet most important—concepts that explain the struggles and the eventual success of the Army of the Potomac.

But we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about Gettysburg.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, 28-year-old Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers found himself in a bit of a pickle. Rodgers’s regiment, the 140th Pennsylvania, was in full retreat. Confederate forces had broken his brigade’s line near the Rose Wheatfield and it was every man for himself. Already, the 140th Pennsylvania had lost more than fifty killed and more than 150 wounded. Pushed by the pursuing Confederates, Rodgers scampered north through a belt of woods, closing in on Plum Run. As bullets whizzed past his ears, he took shelter behind a large boulder. He crouched down to get a look at the smoke-covered field. Within a few seconds, eight enlisted men joined him at the boulder. At the same moment, Colonel Richard Byrnes of the Irish brigade came running past, warning Rodgers that if he stayed any longer, he’d be captured. Rodgers pondered his next move, but within seconds, his fate was decided for him. As he later wrote, “three Confederate battle flags flashed by us, and we were in the hands of the enemy.”

A Confederate sergeant accosted Major Rodgers, demanding his sword, which he refused to give up, saying he would relinquish his sword only to another officer. After a protracted argument, the Confederate sergeant allowed Rodgers to carry his sword to the rear. Near the Samuel Pitzer Farm, a mounted officer—a member of James Longstreet’s staff, apparently—arrived, asking the sergeant why a Union prisoner had been allowed to keep his sword. The sergeant explained how Rodgers insisted on proper etiquette, refusing to surrender to anyone but an officer. Nodding in agreement, the unnamed staff officer replied, “Very well, I am an officer and he can give it to me.” Later that evening, Rodgers saw the staff officer exhibit his sword to General Longstreet, saying that he had captured it from a “Yankee officer.” Rodgers remarked, “Of course, I remained discreetly silent.”

Rodgers’s disagreeable experience was only beginning. Along with 5,000 other Union prisoners of war, Rodgers marched south over 200 miles with the defeated remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia. In mid-July, he arrived in Richmond where Confederate authorities confined him to Libby Prison, an awful rat-infested tobacco warehouse along the James River. After nine months of hellish incarceration, the Confederates finally paroled him. He returned to the North in the spring of 1864, staying several weeks at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. While quartered there, Rodgers received word that the governor of Pennsylvania had seen fit to promote him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. (The promotion was signed on April 5, 1864, a few days prior to his release.) The promotion mattered little to him; having been mistreated by his captors, Rodgers’s health was broken and he was eager to leave the service.

However, ugly news reached him not long after he transferred to a new post in Washington, D.C. While in prison, members of his regiment had preferred charges against him, accusing him of cowardice at Gettysburg. Specifically, they accused Rodgers of: 1) “Misbehavior in the presence of the enemy,” 2) “Allowing himself to be taken prisoner by the enemy,” and 3) “Neglect of duty.” The charges stemmed from the fact that several retreating soldiers—including Colonel Byrnes of the Irish Brigade—had seen Rodgers hunker down behind a boulder at Gettysburg. Specifically, the charges argued that “the said Thomas B. Rodgers  . . . did shelter himself behind a large rock and did remain there until captured by the enemy,” and while there “ . . . did not assist in encouraging the men by words and acting to do good service against the enemy.”

This news caught Rodgers off guard and it changed his mind about asking for a medical discharge. He decided to stay in the army, if for no other reason than to contest the charges and vindicate his character. As Rodgers explained:

I was broken down by disease induced by the hardship of my captivity. I was unfit for service & was likely to be for an indefinite period. At that time I would have resigned & fully intended to do—but when I heard of these charges, involving as they did, all I held dearest in life, I determined that I would never leave the service until I had met & disposed of them. As an honorable man, I could do not otherwise. When I first entered the service in April 1861 as a 1st Sgt. In the 10th Pa. Reserves, I came with a good reputation & an honorable name, & when I leave the service, I want to leave it honorably.

Rodgers wanted to fight this in court. A year later, he finally had his day. He remained under arrest until March 1865 when his division—1st Division, 2nd Corps—finally held his court-martial under direction of Special Orders  Number 11.

Did he vindicate himself? Check the next installment for the answer.

This is Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, shown here as a lieutenant in the 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 6

So, for the past five posts, I’ve been telling tales about the Biddle family, the ultra-wealthy Philadelphia brood that served in all four corners of the Army of the Potomac. We learned about Copperhead dissident Charles, quiet warrior Chapman, sentry-spooking Alexander, battle-scarred warhorse Transportation, and precocious cigar-thief James. You may have noticed that all of my choices survived the war. Did any Biddles give their last full measure of devotion?

Yes. At least one did. Captain Henry Jonathan Biddle.

Captain Biddle was born on May 16, 1817. He was the older brother of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Williams Biddle, who appeared in several previous posts. I know precious little about him. Henry Biddle attended West Point, and after graduation, he became a member in his father’s firm. When the war broke out in 1861, Biddle asked for a position in the Pennsylvania Reserve Division, the same unit where his distant cousin, Charles, served. When Curtin appointed Major General George A. McCall as commander of that division, McCall selected Biddle for his staff. Biddle operated as assistant adjutant general.

Generally, Biddle’s service was exemplary. He excelled at his job and contemporaries considered him an asset to the divisional staff. He served with the Pennsylvania Reserve Division until his death. He fought at Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, and Glendale Cross Roads. At the latter battle, June 30, 1862, McCall gave Biddle orders to redirect the fire of two nearby artillery batteries. After carrying out the order, he collided with a group of soldiers belonging to the 47th Virginia. They fired on him. Biddle was hit twice—once in the shoulder and again through the left arm. He fell from his horse and was captured. The Confederates took him to a nearby field hospital and then to Richmond (to Chimborazo Hospital Number 3).

In Philadelphia, newspapers reported that Biddle had died, for he had not been seen by friendly faces since being shot. But soon, Biddle managed to get information through the lines, telling loved ones that he had, in fact, survived. He made it clear that his accommodations were not great. On the battlefield, he watched another captured Union officer—Colonel Seneca Simmons—die of his wounds, while lying right next to him. He wrote, “I laid out in a field, mudhole, house and woods, till dusk on [the] 2d, and reached here [Richmond] at midnight.” Biddle told readers that the Confederate surgeon who examined him pronounced his wound non-mortal. General McCall, who had also been captured, likewise sent an optimistic message through the lines to Biddle’s brother, Thomas, telling him not to worry. He wrote, “Do be pleased to express to Mrs. Biddle my sincere and deep sympathy; but at the same time, my sincere and deep conviction that it will not be long until her husband joins her, with all his honors.”

None of these predictions held true. Biddle died in captivity, July 20, 1862. The Confederates returned his body to Union lines and it was eventually interred in Philadelphia.

Biddle’s death is a reminder that the Civil War culled from illustrious families just as well as it did from those of more modest means.

Captain Henry Jonathan Biddle

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 5

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. . . .”

Biddle died November 2, 1898. So Grant didn’t kill him, if that’s what you were wondering.

At left is the cigar-thief, Major James C. Biddle. At right is his foil, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 4

For the past three posts, I’ve been profiling members of the Biddle family, the illustrious Philadelphia tribe that held high-ranking positions in the Army of the Potomac. So far, we’ve seen the political machinations of Charles, the never-to-be-forgotten bravery of Chapman, and the sentry-scaring antics of Alexander. Today, we get to see the workhorse of the Biddle family (quite literally)—the forgotten four-legged war Biddle—Transportation.

That’s right. I’m talking about a horse.

Before heading to the front with the 121st Pennsylvania, Major Alexander Biddle purchased a horse named Transportation. Biddle’s letters to his wife frequently mentioned him—or “Trans” as he was called—and indeed, Biddle loved his steed so much that he considered him family.

Transportation possessed a personality similar to his master; he took awhile to get used to the violence of war. Also, rider and mount were deeply devoted to each other. Biddle looked to Transportation’s devotion to inspire his own courage. Fortuitously for us historians, Alexander Biddle left behind a story about his hirse, one describing his separation from him during the first day at Gettysburg and his (presumably) heartfelt reunion with him on Cemetery Hill.

What happened to horse and rider? Let’s find out.

On July 1, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Biddle rode Transportation atop McPherson’s Ridge. Along with their regiment, they went into battle at 2 P.M., the hour when Confederates from Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew’s and Brig. Gen. Abner Perrin’s brigades attacked the outnumbered men of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 1st Corps. Lt. Col. Biddle described the moment when the Confederate assault began. As the rebels came forward, their line started to envelop the Union position. Biddle wrote: “[I] Saw the fighting on our extreme right–Saw at this point two lines of rebels come down to attack our troops one supporting the other, this attack was so far successful that it extended at last over to Wadsworth’s division, which we changed front to the right to support –here shell flew thickly round us.”

Just as the first volleys came whizzing in, a MiniĆ© ball struck Transportation in the leg. Gamely, the horse shrugged off the pain and continued to carry his master along the line of battle. In the heat of the moment, Alexander’s cousin, Colonel Chapman Biddle, ordered two regiments to move by companies to the left, directing Alexander Biddle’s regiment to lead the way. Although wounded, Transportation stayed upright as Biddle executed the maneuver. Dutifully, the blue-clad Pennsylvanians unrolled their line, desperately trying to block the Confederate advance. Lieutenant Colonel Biddle narrated: “they [the Confederates] came on beautifully in perfect order until just as their heads showed over the grain on top of the hill—we poured in a volley receiving a severe fire in return—outnumbered by a double line we fought hard [and] gave them fire for fire but found them coming up on our left. The[y] were not more than 30 yds off firing on us briskly.”

As the opposing lines blazed away, two more bullets struck Transportation, including one in the shoulder. “I thought he was done for,” wrote Biddle. Fearing for his horse’s safety—and for his own, as he worried Transportation might collapse under his weight and crush him—Biddle dismounted and began leading Trans by the reins. Suddenly, a rider-less horse came careening toward them. It was none other than his cousin’s wounded horse, a fiery black. Having been struck by a musket ball, Chapman Biddle’s horse had thrown its rider and bolted. Now on foot, Alexander Biddle caught Chapman’s horse by the reins, but Transportation became frightened by the other horse’s erratic behavior. He pulled free from Alexander Biddle’s grip and galloped to the rear. Unable to hold two horses at once, Biddle looked on helplessly as his animal-friend disappeared into the smoke of battle. Immediately, he dispatched a soldier to find his cousin. After a few minutes, the soldier reported that Colonel Biddle had gone to a field hospital at the Lutheran Theological Seminary to have his head bandaged. With few options, Alexander Biddle mounted his cousin’s horse and rode for the Seminary to find him.

As it happened, as the afternoon wore on, the Union line fell back and rallied at that Seminary. Casualties mounted as the Yankees made a last-ditch effort to hold back the Confederate onslaught. Biddle wrote, “Bullets were striking everywhere and men [were] falling.” Biddle found his cousin on the steps of the Seminary. Although wounded, Chapman Biddle still had every intention of continuing to command his troops in the field. Chapman asked to have his horse returned. Alexander Biddle dismounted and helped his cousin back into the saddle. Everywhere, the battle swirled around them. Alexander Biddle wrote, “A man receiv[ed] a wound almost every moment and the noise of Artillery shots in the houses and the smack of a ball against wood work [were] occurring every moment.”

As the brigade gave way, falling back over Seminary Ridge and into the town, Biddle resigned himself to capture. On foot, he didn’t believe he’d have any chance at outrunning the pursuing Confederates. Following the rush of retreating bluecoats, Biddle ambled through the streets of Gettysburg, winding his way to the rallying point at Cemetery Hill. He had all but given up hope, and for about an hour, he believed the 1st Corps was doomed to capture. Suddenly, as Biddle turned up the Baltimore Pike, a familiar whinny emanated from a cloud of smoke ahead of him. It was Transportation! His horse had survived!

Transportation was standing proudly in front of the Cemetery Hill gate house carrying an orderly who belonged to Brigadier General John Buford. After his unceremonious retreat, Transportation had presented himself to one of Buford’s cavalry regiments. One selfish cavalryman had robbed Transportation of his blanket, but in turn, he presented the horse to Buford’s dismounted orderly.

Biddle’s gloom evaporated. His beloved mount was there to greet him! Pushing his way past Major General James Wadsworth, who happened to be standing in the way, Biddle reunited with his horse. He didn’t say anything specific about the reunion, but I can only imagine he was as happy as a child who found his lost puppy. The unnamed orderly gave the reins to Biddle, who remounted. Somehow, Transportation ’s fright had evaporated and his strength to carry a rider had returned. Even though he bled from three wounds, he happily let Biddle take his seat atop him.

Through the smoke, Biddle soon saw the divisional flag and sixty-six survivors of his decimated regiment huddled underneath their tattered banner. You might think this sorry sight, the broken ranks of the 1st Corps, would have filled Biddle with despair, but it didn’t. Being reunited with his horse had filled him with hope. Transportation was still bleeding, but eager to carry out his duty. Like the other Union soldiers, he seemed to have shaken off the shock of the retreat. All around them were 1st Corps soldiers resolutely preparing their defenses. That evening, before “lights out,” Biddle wrote this: “I have reason to thank God for my merciful preservation and I trust the obstinacy of the fight will be emulated by the other Corps. . . . [T]here is no doubt of success. As we marched up the hill in the Evening a beautiful rainbow spanned the Eastern sky. I hailed it as a sign of promise for I believe if ever men fought under a sense of duty, all do so now. May God guide us and be merciful to us.”

There is no doubt of success? Yikes! Somehow, on the night of July 1, Biddle believed the Army of the Potomac was destined for victory at Gettysburg. How was that kind of optimism possible? I’m sure several factors can help us answer that question, but I prefer to believe that Biddle’s incredible reunion with Transportation had something to do with it.

Transportation survived Gettysburg and he survived the war. Near as I can tell, he continued to carry his master. In December 1863, as Lieutenant Colonel Biddle prepared to resign from the army, he wrote his wife about making arrangements to send Transportation back home to Philadelphia. He wrote, “I will send Trans back on the first opportunity, he is perfectly well.” After this, no other mention of Transportation appears in Biddle’s letters. We are left to wonder whether Transportation made it back to Philadelphia for a well-earned retirement from military life.

I like this story, and not just because it involves an animal-soldier. Transportation’s tale epitomized the story of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Like so many other bluecoats, Trans recovered from his initial shock and held the line. Gettysburg could have been a loss if the 1st and 11th Corps had failed to rally. All honor to the bluecoats who found the courage to stand and fight after that awful first day, be they two-legged or four-legged.

Transportation, the thrice-wounded veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 3

In the last two posts, I profiled members of the famous Biddle family of Philadelphia. My series isn’t over yet, so here’s another Biddle for your reading pleasure.

This Biddle frightened one of his men nearly to death.

Alexander Williams Biddle was born on April 29, 1819. Like most Biddles, he came from a wealthy, illustrious family. Biddle’s grandfather, Clement, had served as quartermaster general for George Washington’s army. After the Revolution, he worked as a U.S. Marshal and a broker in Philadelphia. One of Clement’s thirteen children was Thomas, who became a trustee for the University of Pennsylvania. When Alexander came of age, he went to his father’s university, from which he graduated in 1838. Later, Alexander Biddle served as a partner for a shipping firm, Bevan and Humphreys, and like his cousin, Chapman, he traveled the world, going to Australia, China, and Manila. Also, like his cousins, Charles and Chapman, Alexander Biddle joined a militia company. In 1849, he joined the illustrious 1st Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry.

When Alexander Biddle’s first cousin, Chapman, received authority to recruit the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, he eagerly joined in the endeavor, becoming the regiment’s major. Already, Alexander had a personal reason to fight. His older brother, Henry, had been killed during the Peninsula Campaign (the subject of a future post) while serving with the Pennsylvania Reserve Division. Eager to take up the fight where his brother left off, Alexander Biddle went to the front with his regiment in September 1862, and he participated in the Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. In April 1863, he received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Similar to his cousin, Alexander Biddle was also slightly wounded at Gettysburg (as was his horse), but he stayed on the field until the battle was decided.

We know quite a bit about Biddle’s life and personality, largely because he preserved his vast collection of wartime letters (written almost daily) to his wife, Julia Williams Rush, the granddaughter of Declaration signer Dr. Benjamin Rush. In general, Lieutenant Colonel Biddle was a soft-spoken man. He was proud of his position, but he longed for the war to end. He repeatedly called the conflict, “this cruel war,” and he spoke openly about his desire to return to Julia. “How I wish I could be back to you never to part,” he wrote to her one day in the autumn of 1863, “I have been in hopes that this war was soon to end but I am fearful. . . . Strange that we should have these continually recurring fears without so much warning for preparations. May God protect and guard us from all evil and give us a sense of our duty and guide us in the right path.”

Like other Biddles who served in the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel Biddle’s inner struggle involved an epic quest to live up to his name, to become the man society expected him to be: a confident, tough-as-nails commander, someone respected and admired like his famous grandfather who had served at Washington’s side. As a regimental commander, Biddle frequently had to step outside his comfort zone, applying his stentorian voice, leading his men sternly and uncaringly, as only a grizzled veteran might. In this, he succeeded, but he never stopped second-guessing his approach. 

To prove my point, I’d like to offer an incident from Lieutenant Colonel Biddle’s life to illustrate the way he struggled to find a proper “commander’s tone.” In November 1863, Biddle’s brigade (1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 1st Corps) was deployed at Cedar Run, a small stream that coursed through Fauquier County, Virginia. Every day, Union troops deployed as sentries along the steam. They received instructions to stop and question all civilians who traveled through Union lines, and if necessary, to shoot at all suspected guerrillas. It was fairly boring work, as you might imagine, but it was vital. Guerrillas eagerly waited a chance to seize the Union cattle housed at nearby Culpeper, a stopping point on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Like most commanders in the area, Lieutenant Colonel Biddle did his best to make sure his sentry line was tight and alert.

One day, Biddle found a weak link. Before dawn, November 22, 1863, he began walking from post to post, inspecting his sentries’ positions. It was a cool, wet morning, “the ground being so soft with the rain that it gave no resonance to a footstep,” or so he narrated to his wife. Moving in silence, Biddle came upon a carefree sentry sitting under a tree with his gun across his feet. The sentry was innocently “singing away with great satisfaction.” Furious at seeing one of his sentries off his feet and not holding onto his rifle—a dangerous position, indeed—Biddle felt obliged to teach him a lesson. With little ado, he creeped up to the idle picket, and despite cracking a few branches on the way, grabbed the soldier’s bayonet and put the barrel of his revolver underneath the soldier’s right eye. Biddle narrated what transpired:

I said nothing. He sat for about three seconds [and then] sprung to his feet jerking his musket away saying[,] “I can blow you anyhow.” I believe he was desperate and would have taken the chance had I been a Reb. I don’t think he knew me for it was a gray morning and I had my black India rubber coat over my uniform. He came to a charge with his musket and I believe then . . . [he] clearly recognized me. I said to him, you see what sort of a sentry you are. He held up the little book in his hand whilst a big tear of . . . partial fright, agitation, & desperation rolled down his face and said it was . . . the soldier’s devotional song book and he had been whiling away his hour of duty on post by singing his morning hymn of praise. I could not say anything more to him but cautioning him to let no one come so close to him. It was my duty to scold him but I know I scared him about as much as was possible and felt half sorry for it as he really[—]though frightened[—]would have taken the chances [of fighting me] rather than give up. 

So, Biddle felt guilty about frightening the poor soldier. After all, the unnamed private was only taking a moment out of his day to sing God’s praises. But something lingered in Biddle’s mind. He couldn’t let go of the notion that it was abstractly right to teach the idle sentry a lesson, even if it meant startling him half to death.

A week later, Biddle had his moment of vindication. A soldier in his brigade went missing. Private John P. Deibert (Company E, 142nd Pennsylvania) had left camp to chop wood. He had taken his gun and loaded it, but foolishly laid it aside and too far away to be of any help to him if trouble came his way. In a scene that closely mirrored Biddle’s lesson to the singing sentry, three Confederate guerrillas approached Deibert from behind, grabbed his rifle, and ordered him to surrender. They carried the poor Union soldier for two miles, until near Catlett’s Station, where they summarily executed him. When the noise of the gunshot resounded across the countryside, the 142nd Pennsylvania sent forward a line of skirmishers. Eventually, they came across Deibert’s corpse. It was still warm and oozing blood from his chest. It had been stripped of its overcoat and trousers and robbed of about $8. Deibert’s rifle—which had been deliberately broken by the Confederates—lay discharged not far away. They had shot him with his own weapon.

Later in the day, after the morose Union soldiers brought back Deibert’s body for burial, Biddle stopped to console them. He described the atmosphere of the camp to his wife, saying, “We are all pretty indignant today for a more devilish atrocious murder on an unoffending man was never committed.”

Surprisingly, in his letter, Biddle never connected the similarity of this incident to that of the lazy sentinel he had chastised a week earlier. But he must have thought about it. Maybe he had saved that man’s life by warning him to keep alert, or at least, that’s what I think. Truly, Biddle hated scaring his pickets, but he had to do it. That’s the great lesson of war; to be good at it, we must act against the better angels of our nature. I’d say Biddle succeeded in acting against his own compassionate impulses, but he regretted every second of it.

Biddle didn’t remain in the army for much longer. On December 11, 1863, he received a promotion to colonel, but then resigned on January 9, 1864. He returned to his father’s business in Philadelphia. In 1874, he became director of the Pennsylvania Railroad. After that, he served as a director of several other prominent companies, expanding his family’s wealth and influence. He died on May 2, 1899, at age 80.

I don’t know if Biddle ever gave that lazy picket another thought, but I prefer to believe the picket forever remembered that cool autumn day in Fauquier County when Alexander Biddle, scion of the famous clan of Biddles, scared him nearly to death.

Here, Lt. Col. Alexander W. Biddle sits atop his faithful steed, Transportation.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 2

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.

I prefer to believe that Chapman Biddle lived up to that imperative.

Colonel Chapman Biddle (postwar)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 1

Have you ever said to yourself, “I wonder which family had the most influence in the Army of the Potomac?” Well, I have. So, fellow Army of the Potomac fanatics, worry no more, I have an answer for you. Undoubtedly, the Biddle family of Philadelphia should receive that distinction. Every so often, in my research, I’m reminded of the presence of the Biddles and all they did during the Civil War. So for the next six posts, I’m going to remind you, too, of what they did, profiling some of the noteworthy Biddles and their various contributions to the history of the Union’s most magnificent army.

First thing’s first. Who were the Biddles? The Biddle family started when two Quakers, William Biddle and his wife, Sarah, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1681. As you might imagine, they were part of William Penn’s first wave of English settlers who intended to occupy the newly-founded proprietary colony of Pennsylvania. For generations, the Biddles survived and prospered within the “City of Brotherly Love,” and today, there are numerous buildings, roads, and awards named for them. By the nineteenth-century, the Biddles had formed into two distinct branches, one that descended from William Biddle III (b. 1698) and another that came from his brother, John (b. 1707). Both branches of the Biddles lived lives of wealth and self-importance; their sons and daughters held prominent political positions, ran lucrative businesses, and led famous social activist groups. There are lots of famous Biddles who left their mark on American history, but most of you probably know about Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), the Whig politician who became president of the Second Bank of the United States.

Anyway, enough about that; let’s talk about a Civil War Era Biddle, perhaps the most controversial of the storied clan.

Charles John Biddle was born April 30, 1819. (In case you are interested, he was a member of the William Biddle III branch). Born into luxury, Charles Biddle attended Princeton University, graduating there in 1837. He studied to become a lawyer, joining the bar in 1840. Although he made law his profession, Biddle dabbled in the military. In his twenties, he served in a city militia company and even participated in the disruptive Bible Riots of 1844. During the Polk administration, he served as a captain in the Mexican-American War, commanding a company assigned to the U.S. Voltigeur regiment. Biddle fought at Contreras, Churubusco Bridge, and Molino Del Rey. According to a popular tale, Biddle was sick during the climactic assault on Chapultepec Castle—as were many Americans during that rigorous campaign—but he managed to crawl out of his bed just prior to the assault and stormed the walls with his company. He later claimed he was the first to surmount the parapet—again, as did many Americans who participated in that battle.

When the Civil War broke out, Biddle gave up his profession and went to war with a three-year volunteer regiment. In June 1861, he joined Colonel Thomas L. Kane’s “Wildcat Rifle Regiment,” the unit destined to become known as the “Pennsylvania Bucktails.” Hoping to fill all of Pennsylvania’s regiments with experienced officers, Governor Andrew Curtin offered Biddle the regiment’s vacant lieutenant-colonelcy. True to his family’s reputation, Biddle did not settle with a post that made him only second-in-command. After only a few days in camp, Biddle convinced everyone who would listen that he was a better commander than Kane. It’s not exactly clear how he managed it, but Biddle convinced Kane to resign his commission, and then he convinced the captains to elect him as their new colonel, ordering them to report their election to Curtin. Accordingly, Governor Curtin sent new commissions to the regiment, appointing Biddle to the colonelcy and Kane the lieutenant-colonelcy. (Essentially, through this conniving, Kane and Biddle swapped positions.) As a Democratic newspaper explained it, Kane and the regiment accepted the change selflessly: “The former [Kane], appreciating the superior military qualifications of Major Biddle, with a magnanimity that did him credit, promptly proposed a change of positions and insisted upon Major Biddle taking command of the regiment. After repeated and urgent solicitation, the generous proposition was accepted, and the arrangement heartily approved by the entire regiment, which is now one of the best-officered in the State.”

You may be wondering whether Biddle lived up to that hype. Well—surprise, surprise—he never saw combat. It’s possible the war actually stirred in him a desire to fight for his country. In describing the outbreak of the conflict, he took pride that after Fort Sumter, “the North rose like one man.” But if selfless devotion motivated Biddle in the beginning, it did not last long. Probably, Biddle had no intention of leading his regiment into a long, bloody campaign. He wanted the reputation of going to war at his country’s call, but he refused to sacrifice any blood to gain it. In short, he did not want to stay at the front and fight in what he called the “Republican Party’s war.”

Now, Biddle wasn’t just a Democrat. He was a Copperhead, a Democrat who derided the war effort and the Lincoln administration’s prosecution of it. He frequently consorted with the Ingersols (the most notorious Copperheads of Philadelphia) and with George W. Woodward (later the Copperhead candidate for governor). Although Biddle had willingly taken up arms against the Confederacy in June, by the end of the war’s first summer, he began to have second thoughts. Union forces had been trounced at Bull Run, and already, the Democrats spied an opportunity to win the upcoming election by criticizing the party in power. Further, one of Philadelphia’s congressmen, Edward Morris, had resigned his seat to become Lincoln’s minister to Turkey. In October 1861, Biddle decided to run in the special election to fill Morris’s vacant seat for Pennsylvania’s 2nd District. Despite being away from Philadelphia for most of the election season, Biddle won easily.

Although Biddle had gone to great lengths to take command of the 1st Rifle Regiment and make it the “best-officered in the State,” once Biddle secured his Congressional seat, he wanted to get out of the army, quick as he could. When he announced his resignation publicly in early December, he said it was in the best interest of the country. Theoretically, although he could have held both the colonelcy and the Congressional seat simultaneously, he argued, “I could not perform the duties of both,” particularly since the Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln, might exert his corruptive influence over him while Biddle held the commission—or so he feared. Biddle derided the Union’s war effort as a “Black Republican job,” and he refused to allow one of Philadelphia’s representatives to be “thus trammeled” by Lincoln’s military authority. As a Copperhead representative, Biddle intended to use his power to criticize the President at every step. He vowed to “exercise the right of free speech” liberally, and he could not do that as a member of the U.S. Army. Biddle’s letter explaining his resignation launched into a loud attack against the Republican Party:

My political opinions are what they have always been. I am a Democrat—never more one than at this hour. I rejoiced that it was with my name upon your banners that you [the Democrats of Philadelphia] overthrew the Republican Party in this city.
This, at least, we may say for the Democratic party—it rated at their true value the fantastic theories, the whims, the ‘isms,’ the question of mere phraseology that men, calling themselves statesmen, have preferred to peace, to union, to the gradual progress and development of each section, and all races in due relation to natural causes. This, too, we may say for the Democratic party—while it maintained its sway, ‘Secession’ was a little, baffled clique; as the Republican Party rose, ‘Secession’ became ‘an army with banners.’
Nor was the foresight of the Republican leaders wider than their patriotism. The false prophets of the party promised their followers that three months should see the end of all the trouble, and when war came upon them even then they wanted only three months’ volunteers to end it. They created and fostered that intoxicating self-confidence that was the cause of our earlier reverses. They had so persistently abused that part of the American people that lived across a geographical line, that they had come, at last, to underrate and despise them, and Republican oratory summoned its hearers to stern encounters, but only to pays and pillage.

Naturally, Philadelphia Democrats were happy to have a Union veteran enter Congress and commence his unfettered criticism of the President. However, Republicans scornfully expressed their own happiness to see Biddle leave the army. Only days after Biddle resigned, the 1st Rifle Regiment engaged Confederate forces at Dranesville, Virginia, losing twenty-nine men killed and wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Kane led the regiment that day, and Republicans were quick to point out that it benefited from Biddle’s absence. One newspaper asked, “Would Biddle have faced the enemies of his country as fiercely as he attacks the friends of the government on the floor of Congress? These questions are answered in the negative by the nation in thunderous undertones, and the congratulation is universal that Charles J. Biddle was not at the head of his regiment when it so gallantly faced the enemy at Drainesville.” Another newspaper, the Philadelphia Press, barked, “He [Biddle] was elected [to Congress] because he wore an American uniform. . . . In resigning his commission in the American Army he has paid the highest tribute to his sincere opposition to the constituted authorities, and we trust his example will be followed by all officers entertaining the same opinions.”

Republicans continued to mock Biddle as the war continued. He lost re-election in November 1862 and refused to go back into military service. The Republicans reminded newspaper readers that Biddle was an example of Copperhead cowardice. When the war broke out, he was all bluster and bravado, and when it appeared he might have to bleed, he left the army and took to criticizing the nation’s leaders. When Emancipation came, Biddle loudly played the trumpet of white supremacy, calling slavery “an artificial cause” of the war, something fabricated by abolitionists. In June 1863, Biddle became chairman of the Democratic State Convention, which nominated fellow Copperhead George W. Woodward as the party’s frontrunner. At the time, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was bearing down on Harrisburg (where the convention was taking place). Just one day’s march (and one burned bridge) prevented Lee’s soldiers from reaching Pennsylvania’s capital and occupying it. To help the beleaguered Army of the Potomac, Governor Curtin called up 60,000 emergency militiamen, imploring all patriotic citizens to serve until Lee’s army had been repulsed. At the Convention, Biddle announced that he’d resign his position as chairman and serve in the militia, even as a private soldier, if he had to. Apparently, he even promised to raise a regiment in Philadelphia and lead it to the nearest battlefield.

But it never happened. When Lee’s army retreated after Gettysburg, Biddle remained ununiformed and without a regiment. A Republican newspaper mocked him, calling him “Charles the Valiant.” Biddle had missed his last chance to be the war hero he often proclaimed to be:

Hon. Charles J. Biddle, whose people voted him into Congress because they believed him to be a patriot, and afterwards decisively voted him out because they found out he wasn’t, has turned up alive—a fact we announce with pleasure to our Democratic friends, especially those of the Copperhead stripe. . . . For weeks we supposed he had fallen in some sanguinary struggle, and found a grave in some secluded spot, unwept and unsung, where he would lie monumentless and unepitaphed, because his dying valor spared no foe to record his achievements.  . . . But Charles neither marched, nor fought, nor died; neither commanded, nor was commanded; but ‘still lives,’ as he did during the invasion, in peace and security in Philadelphia, as his immense address to the Democracy of the State assures us. For that we rejoice, for he might have fallen, and more sense and patriotism might have appeared in Democratic addresses to defraud the voters of the State; but that he insisted upon rushing to battle, and called the world, Judge Woodward, and the ‘rest of mankind’ to witness his bloody purpose, and then quietly squelched out while thousands marched to the field without making public proclamation of their bravery, might be called by the unappreciating home-spun world a mingling of fraud, falsehood, and cowardly bravado.

All the insulting did its work. Biddle never held public office again. He continued to influence politics, however. He became editor-in-chief of the Age, Philadelphia’s only appreciable Democratic newspaper. During Reconstruction, fellow Democrats routinely called him a “hero” for his service early in the war. They conveniently forgot, of course, that he paid his political opposition higher tribute.

Charles J. Biddle died on September 28, 1873, at age fifty-four.

Colonel Charles John Biddle