On April 18, 1861, an errant crow flying high over the Pennsylvania- Maryland border might, if crows worried about such things, cast its glance below at the North Central Railroad passenger train slowly chugging its way from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Baltimore, Maryland. But it was no ordinary train, for it was carrying history.
On board were the men of the First Defenders, Pennsylvania militia from Allentown, Reading, Lewistown and Pottsville, rushing to Washington to answer the call of President Lincoln to prevent the nation's capitol from being occupied by the forces of treason and rebellion.
Among their ranks was the lone African American of the group, Nicholas Biddle of Pottsville. And before that day was out his blood, shed on the streets of Baltimore, would be hailed by some as the first blood shed in the Civil War.
Like many lives of African-Americans at the time, that of Nicholas Biddle leaves history with more questions than answers. Even his real name is unknown.
What is known is that Biddle was born a slave in Delaware in 1795 or 1796. Sometime in his young adulthood, he crossed into the relative freedom of Pennsylvania. (As a fugitive he could by federal law be shipped back to his master.)
By the late 1830s Biddle was working in a hotel in Pottsville when the Philadelphia mega-banker Nicholas Biddle came to town to open an iron furnace. At that point the young black man decided to adopt the gentleman's name as his own.
As years passed Nicholas Biddle, the former slave, became something of a local fixture in Pottsville. He attached himself to the local militia unit who gave him a uniform and made him an orderly to its commander, Captain James Wren.
It might have surprised his fellow militia members that Biddle had another side which he probably did not share with them. He was an active participant in the Underground Railroad helping local Quaker James Gillingham in aiding African Americans to freedom. By 1861 Biddle was no youngster. Yet when the call came from Lincoln, Biddle's friends were heading to Washington, and he apparently did not hesitate to join them.
The prospect facing the militia that day was a simple, but potentially deadly, one. The railroad connections of 1861 required that passengers from the north would have to change trains in Baltimore.
Ordinarily this was only a traveler's inconvenience. But Baltimore was a rough port city in a slave state, one with a reputation for violence. And that day it seethed with anger. Many wanted Maryland to leave the union. It was a political question that they were prepared to enforce with bullets, bricks, bats, knives and whatever else they could use.
Unfortunately the First Defenders were unable to defend themselves. Woefully unprepared for war, Pennsylvania could offer them nothing but guns that did not function. When Captain Thomas Yeager of Allentown pointed this out, he was told they could be useful as clubs. "I took the hint," Yeager later wrote to an Allentown newspaper editor, "of an intended massacre in Baltimore."
Yeager's fears were about to be realized. On hand to greet them in Baltimore was a small force of regular U.S. Army troops who were to escort them part of the way to the station, after which the Baltimore police were to take over the task.
In one of history's little ironies the commander of those troops was Captain John Pemberton.
A West Point graduate from an old line Pennsylvania family he would later leave the U.S. Army at the urging of his southern-born wife and join the South. Two years after the melee in Baltimore, Pemberton surrendered the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi to General U.S. Grant. And near the close of his life Pemberton found himself living in Allentown where he worked for a local iron company. In Allentown, he could be found sharing a drink and trading war stories with some of the men he had escorted that day in 1861.
On that day, the horror for the First Defenders began when Pemberton's troops left them to head to the garrison at Ft. McHenry. Now virtually defenseless they were surrounded by a mob of over 2000.
Once the mob spotted Biddle, a black man in a uniform, he became the target of their rage. This inoffensive person, described by a white friend, "as a gently aging man of 65," was transformed into a symbol of race hate. Bottles and the contents of chamber pots were aimed at him. A huge brick smashed in Biddle's head and blood flowed down his face. Attempting to protect himself by raising his hands over his head did no good.
At the same time his friends were also under attack. Among them was Ignatz Gresser, a German immigrant from Allentown whose ankle was smashed by a brick. It was only thanks to the engineer of the Washington train, who threatened the first man who tried to take over his train, that the mob did not derail it. The Pennsylvanians escaped with their lives. They arrived in Washington later that day where they went to the capitol building and were greeted by Lincoln.
The very next day, April 19, 1861, in what has become known as the Pratt Street Riot, Union soldiers passing through Baltimore met a bloodier fate. The much better armed 6th Massachusetts Regiment, a state militia unit, ran a Baltimore mob gauntlet similar to that faced by the First Defenders. When their path was blocked, the troops did not hesitate to fire in their own defense. The result was the death of 4 soldiers and at least 12 civilians. Thirty six of the troops were wounded and nearly all of their equipment left behind.
As for the Pennsylvanians, many would take part in future battles. Yeager died heroically at the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia in 1862. Gresser received the Medal of Honor for rescuing a comrade at the battle of Antietam that same year.
But the war had ended for Nicholas Biddle, who as an African American could not enlist even if he had not been wounded. He lived out his days in Pottsville, hailed by his friends as the first blood of the Civil War, a claim he never made, dying in 1876 at the age of 82.
Although he was given a big funeral and a handsome tombstone donated by his fellow veterans, no one knows exactly where Biddle lies today. Vandals so destroyed his tombstone that none of it survived and the records of its precise location have since disappeared.
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