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 Minié 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.

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