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Charmed Life

First Blood

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 4/23/2003

Before getting to our intended business, Louis Fields (pictured) wants to take me on a quick tour. We drive around Fells Point, checking out three brand-new signs that mark sites associated with the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Fields, one of Baltimore's most passionate promoters of African-American history, worked for three years, nagging and cajoling officials to get these markers erected. An unveiling was planned for mid-February, but record-breaking snow kiboshed the plans, and so the signs finally went up on March 27. Fields happened to be leading a walking tour of the Douglass sites that day, so he and a group of English teachers were on hand to cheer.

Since 1996, Fields' business has been running tours of African-American historic sites in Maryland, mainly in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore; he has also organized conferences and lectures on black history themes and collaborated on a wide range of private and public projects, including the creation of West Baltimore's Leon Day Park, named for the city's ranking Negro League baseball hero. Although Maryland's heritage includes such giants as Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Field's business has been an uphill effort.

"It's not even a get-rich-slow scheme so far!" he chuckles. His passion for black history, Fields says, is largely about correcting injustice: "I'm a person who wants to see the left-out get in."

Which brings us to what Fields and I had planned to talk about in the first place: Nicholas (or Nickoles) Biddle, an African-American man who was wounded by a pro-South mob in April, 1861, and thereafter celebrated--by a few cognoscenti--as the first casualty of the Civil War. He's not exactly famous: An Internet search for his name churns up hundreds of references to a far better-known Nicholas Biddle, a Philadelphia financier. From what little I'd heard of the black Biddle, I mistakenly assumed that he was the first man killed in the Pratt Street Riots of April 19, 1861, when the 6th Massachusetts Regiment marched from President Street Station to Camden Station en route to Washington, D.C.

Close but not correct, says Fields, who has been assembling the Biddle saga from scattered and strikingly contradictory shreds of history and tradition. Fields' sources differ on many particulars--beginning with the spelling of Biddle's first name--but they agree that he was badly injured on April 18, 1861, in circumstances that foreshadowed the next day's more notorious violence. This was three days after the "official" beginning of the war--President Lincoln's order to blockade the South--and five days after the de facto commencement of hostilities, the not-quite-bloodless fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Biddle's claim of "first blood" rides the de jure start date.

Biddle was passing through Baltimore en route to the nation's capital, attached to a newly-formed Union artillery company from Pottsville, Pa. As a black man, he wasn't allowed to serve as a soldier (an inequity which Frederick Douglass later helped set right); most sources describe him as a servant or orderly working for the company commander, Captain James Wren. In all, five companies of Pennsylvania troops rode the Northern Central Railroad to Baltimore that day, then marched from Bolton Depot (where the old Mount Royal Station stands today) to the Mount Clare Depot (near the B&O Railroad Museum) to continue their trip.

The next day's Sun reported what happened: "A throng of several thousand persons gathered at the Bolton depot, and upon the arrival and disembarkation of the troops, about 2 o'clock, strong symptoms of a riot were manifested. . . . Hisses, groans, cheers, and imprecations were mingled by the crowd, who, highly excited, followed along the sidewalks. The march was down Howard to Camden, up Camden to Eutaw, Paca and Pratt Streets. . . . While the troops were occupying the cars at Mount Clare, a perfect pandemonium existed." Some of the rowdies hurled bricks, and (the Sun continued) "A colored man received a severe cut on the head, and it was said one of the soldiers was injured." War diaries and Pottsville records--including his gravestone--identify the man as Nicholas Biddle. Some accounts say Biddle was singled out because of his color. According to some especially florid versions of events, the wounded--or dead--Biddle was taken to the U.S. Capitol, where his blood dripped on the floor, and he was greeted--or mourned--by Lincoln himself.

An undated photograph of Biddle is on display at the Baltimore Civil War Museum on President Street. He's shown in a low-rank uniform, with a broad, smooth face, a mild expression, and tousled black hair and beard. The photo is dark and murky; there's no obvious sign of his historic head wound, and he looks younger than 65 (or, according to some sources, 72), his supposed age in 1861. Belying the notion that Biddle died from his wound, there's another image of him (in Fields' files) as an older, thinner man in civilian dress. The photo accompanies a poem called "The Grave of Nick Biddle," and an illustration of his gravestone in Pottsville, which was dated 1876.

Rescuing Biddle from obscurity and myth is no easy task, but Fields is on it. The most rigorous article he has found so far was written by the Sun's John Goodspeed in April 1961, the centenary of the Baltimore riots. Most of the more recent press mentions have been short rehashes, heavily laced with folklore. Even the redoubtable Goodspeed made at least one mistake: He placed the Bolton Depot at Howard and Read Streets; contemporary maps put it at Mt. Royal and Dolphin.

Fields plows ahead, sorting fact and fiction as best he can. Even advocating for a well-documented hero like Douglass, he says, has required "doggedness and stubbornness, and not taking 'no' for an answer." If, like Nicholas Biddle, he suffers the occasional brickbat along the way, it's one of the risks of taking history to the street, reclaiming it block by block.

For more information about Louis Fields' history tours, call (410) 783-5469 or e-mail bbhtours@aol.com.

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