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.

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