“Nigger in Uniform! Nigger in Uniform!” screamed the agitated Baltimore crowd of Southern sympathizers. They had been angry enough when Pennsylvania militiamen had detrained at Bolton Street station and began marching down Eutaw Street toward Camden Station on April 18, 1861, but when they saw Nicholas Biddle, an African American in uniform who was treated as an equal by his white comrades, their blood lust only increased and their calls grew louder. “Poor Nick had to take it” as the mob closed in like “wild wolves,” Captain James Wren, Biddle’s commander, later recorded.
Biddle soon was the target of more than just oaths, as salvos of bricks pried loose from the streets began to fly through the air. One struck Biddle in the head, knocking him to the ground and leaving a wound that reportedly exposed bone.
Many of the Pennsylvanians present that day believed Biddle was the first man to be struck down by an enemy combatant in the Civil War. Regardless of who shed first blood in what would be the bloodiest of all America’s wars, it seems strange that Biddle remains an overlooked and almost entirely forgotten figure in the Civil War’s rich history.
At the time, however, Biddle received the attention even of Abraham Lincoln as the president visited the militiamen being billeted at the U.S. Capitol on April 19. Lincoln wanted to thank the men who had arrived to defend Washington only four days after he called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion that began with the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12.
The president learned the Pennsylvanians had been attacked while traveling through Baltimore en route to the capital. Private Ignatz Gresser, a native of Germany, suffered from a painful ankle wound, and Private David Jacobs had a fractured left wrist and a few broken teeth. But it was the frail 65-year-old Biddle, wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery, his head wrapped with blood-soaked bandages, who especially caught Lincoln’s attention. Biddle refused the president’s advice to seek medical attention, insisting that he preferred to remain with his company.
The Pennsylvanians were the first of the volunteers to arrive in the District of Columbia and would thus go down in history as the “First Defenders.” Their Baltimore injuries occurred as the men arrived for the final leg of their journey from Pennsylvania to Washington. The entire Baltimore police force had been summoned to escort the volunteers through the streets, but even the police had a difficult time controlling the raucous crowd of 2,000, which jeered the anxious militiamen while hurrahing for Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy.
As the volunteers arrived at Camden Station, they were pelted with stones, bricks, bottles and whatever else the local mob could reach; some were even clubbed or knocked down by a few well-landed punches. A few bolder Confederate sympathizers lunged at the unarmed Pennsylvanians with knives and drawn pistols. First Defender Heber Thompson wrote that one man was caught dumping gunpowder on the floor of one of train cars “in the hope that a soldier carelessly striking a match in the darkened interior…might blow himself and his comrades to perdition.” For the idealistic volunteers from Pottsville, Allentown, Reading and Lewistown, the ordeal quickly erased any romanticized notions of soldiering they might have had.
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