Before he died in Pottsville 137 years ago at age 80, Nicholas Biddle was penniless and working odd jobs while reminding people of his place in history.
A servant of Capt. James Wren of Pottsville, the 65-year-old Biddle was hit with a brick while marching through Baltimore with The First Defenders from Schuylkill County on April 18, 1861. Biddle is known as the first man to shed blood in the Civil War.
"You can't help but pity him at the end of his life when he was walking along the streets of Pottsville looking for money," John David Hoptak, an Orwigsburg native and Civil War historian, said this week.
What Biddle might have valued most, according to Hoptak, was his Civil War notoriety.
Today is the anniversary of Biddle's death. He died at age 80 of rheumatism and old age at his home in Pottsville on Aug. 2, 1876. His grave is outside Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 816 Laurel Blvd., Pottsville.
Some historians overlook Biddle's story, like Thomas Fleming in his recently published book "A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War" published by Da Capo Press, Boston, Mass.
"Fleming, who's a pretty noted historian, said the 6th Massachusetts Infantry was the first to shed blood in the war on April 19, 1861. And he's certainly not alone in that opinion," Hoptak said.
According to The History Channel on their web site at history.com, "On April 19, 1861, the first blood of the American Civil War is shed when a secessionist mob in Baltimore attacks Massachusetts troops bound for Washington, D.C. Four soldiers and 12 rioters were killed."
"The difference is while the Pennsylvania men sustained injuries on April 18, 1861, Massachusetts men were killed on April 19, 1861. Still, the story of Nick Biddle gets overlooked too often," Hoptak said.
"But Biddle will never be forgotten in Schuylkill County," David Derbes, the historical society president, said Wednesday.
Biddle was born in 1796, according to Hoptak.
"We don't even know his real name. Many maintain he was born in Delaware and born into slavery and made his way north either through the underground railroad or because he was brought to Pottsville for some sort of business and he stayed behind at his owner's consent," Hoptak said.
It's possible Biddle named himself after Nicholas Biddle, the 19th Century American financier and president of the Second Bank of the United States, Hoptak said.
In January 1840, Biddle the financier visited Pottsville to dine at the Mansion House at Mount Carbon to celebrate the first smelting of iron with anthracite, according to "Schuylkill County in The Civil War," published by the Historical Society of Schuylkill County in 1961.
But how Biddle the servant arrived in Pottsville is unknown.
"It may have been that the 'good old colored man' drifted into Pottsville and took the name of the white financier Biddle. He may have been a Negro brought up from slavery in the South by kind-hearted country folk stirred to sympathy in their occasional visits to Southern plantations. He may have been smuggled here through the 'underground railroad' because Pottsville was one of the 'stations' in the Quaker movement to route fugitive slaves from the South to Canada," Herrwood E. Hobbs said in an article in "Schuylkill County in The Civil War."
"By 1840, Nicholas Biddle was residing in Pottsville. He worked odd jobs to earn a living, including street vending, selling oysters in the winter and ice cream in the summer. The 1860 U.S. census lists his occupation as 'porter,' " according to pacivilwar150.com, a website dedicated to Pennsylvanians in the Civil War era.
Biddle became Wren's servant. John R. Powers, 64, retired dean of students at Pottsville Area School District, said he's Wren's great-greatnephew, but he couldn't find much information on Wren's history.
Wren was born in Scotland in 1825, according to "The Wren Family of Pottsville, Penna."
According to that 1907 publication: "His first wife was Catherine (or Cassie) Mortimer, and his second wife is Clara Johns. There were children by both marriages, most of them living as young men and women, an honor to their parents. The family now lives at Boyertown, Berks County, Pa."
When Wren and the Washington Artillerists answered President Lincoln's call, with the National Light Infantry, Biddle went along. And Biddle remained with Wren until they returned to Pottville on July 30, 1861, according to Hobbs.
A sword Wren carried in the Civil War is on display at the Schuylkill County Historical Society, and a copy of a diary Wren kept from 1861 to 1862 is on file there, according to J. Stuart "Stu" Richards, Orwigsburg, a Civil War historian.
After the war, Biddle struggled to make a living in Pottsville. He sold carte de visite photographs of himself to promote his place in history and make a little money, Richards said Thursday.
By April 18, 1961, Biddle's gravestone at Bethel AME Church was in pieces in Pottsville, destroyed by vandals, according to a photo in the 1961 publication "Schuylkill County In The Civil War."
A new marker was erected for Biddle in the early 1980s, according to the archives of The Republican-Herald.