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

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