The Biddle Connection

Written by Charles C. Cox, III, Member, the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Advisory Committee.

The year is 1867. The American Civil War has been over only two years.  A newly established institution of learning called the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina has just been established. In a few more years, it will change its name to Biddle University; in 50 years,  it will become Johnson C. Smith University. Yet the name of Biddle will remain with the school and its history. First, the surrounding area will become known as Biddleville. Then in 1883, Biddle Hall will be erected. Yet who was Biddle? 

What was the genesis of Biddle’s involvement in establishing this institution? To answer these questions and others related to the history of a remarkable institution located in Charlotte, we must go back to 1862 and tragic events unfolding outside of Richmond, Virginia.

Major Henry J. Biddle (1817-1862)
Major Henry J. Biddle (1817-1862)
From the collection of Inez Moore Parker Collection at Johnson C. Smith University
It was June, 1862. The Civil War had been raging for a year and a half. Death tolls had steadily been climbing. Battles in the upper South, and along the Mississippi River, had produced the brunt of the casualties. And nowhere were the levels of hostility greater than along the Peninsula Drive, from City Point towards the city of Richmond, the Confederate capital in Virginia. Lincoln had made Richmond the most important military target in the entire Confederacy. His logic was simple: take the capital and the whole rebel government would collapse, and with that the war would end. Success with this goal would provide the best chance to end the hostilities and restore the Union quickly.

Summers in Southside Virginia are hot, steamy, with unrelenting hordes of mosquitoes and gnats reducing everyone to a state of misery and frustration. Add to this in 1862 the periodic volley of bullets and cannon fire on the peninsula battlefields and the atmosphere was truly from hell. It was on one of those hot steamy days, June 30, that a Pennsylvania officer, Maj. Henry Biddle (1817-1862), fell wounded, the casualty of a Confederate volley. It was on the New Market Road, in what would be known, by among other names, as the Battle of Glendale. He was 45 years old and had left his wife, Mary Baird Biddle (1829-1900), and their children back in Pennsylvania.

Major Biddle was carried to the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, at the time of the war possibly the largest military hospital in the world.  It was the primary Confederate hospital throughout the South,yet always short of medical staff and medicines. There was little enough to alleviate the suffering of Confederate soldiers, never mind soldiers and officers from the Union Army. Nevertheless, Major Biddle fell into the care of a Virginia physician, Dr. Edwin Harvie Smith (1813-1891). Although we do not know of the relationship that unfolded between these two men- the Confederate surgeon and the Union Major- nevertheless we do know that at the war’s conclusion, Mary Biddle would honor the doctor for an act of “extreme kindness”. This is when we first become aware of her very deep devotion to her husband and to his memory, a link between this episode and the later founding of a college in North Carolina.

Dr. Edwin Harvie Smith, life portrait, courtesy  of Rebecca Cox’s private collection.
Dr. Edwin Harvie Smith, life portrait, courtesy of Rebecca Cox’s private collection.
A letter dated July 20, 1862, the day of his death, with the heading Chimborazo Hospital, "dictated to an attendant" and addressed to his wife, has survived. In it, the Major writes "I have fought the battle of life, as hard as I could, but I feel that I am now going. I write to bless you and all my dear children…. Good night- may God bless you." That evening, he passed away. 

What actually happened next is conjectural. We know that Dr. Smith, in seeking to console the widow and family of Major Biddle, could have had the Major’s remains prepared and sent back to his wife and family. This would not be a breach of military conduct, however extraordinary it might be in the midst of this war. It would also explain the depth of Mary Biddle’s gratitude for being able to bury her husband in the family plot. Unlike so many tens of thousands of soldiers, including officers on both sides of this war, her last act of devotion to her husband was to be able to lay his body to rest. 

Another piece of information has surfaced which provides yet another possible interpretation of events subsequent to Biddle’s demise. In a biographical sketch from the History of the Pennsylvania Reserves Corps, by Josiah Rheinhart Sypher, after his death, Biddle’s body was buried near the hospital. 

His remains were exhumed in 1865 at the end of the war and were sent back to his wife. They subsequently were buried in the family plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery, near Philadelphia; they remain there to this day. 

Was it at the behest of Dr. Smith that Biddle’s body was exhumed and sent back North? To date, we can only conjecture that this as a possible explanation for his eventual repatriation homeward.  

No correspondence has surfaced between Mary Biddle and Dr. Smith.

How many conversations did Biddle and Smith share talking about their families, the war, their respective fates in this war? What bonds did these men forge in that month of his convalescence? 

These questions may never be answered. What we do know is that Major Biddle’s remains were sent back to his Pennsylvania home to be buried. And his wife, filled with gratitude, would honor this gesture with a special gift, a memorial, at the war’s conclusion. One of at least two memorials she would dedicate to the memory of her husband. 

Photo by: Charles C. Cox, III,
Photo by: Charles C. Cox, III,
In 1865, with the war finally over, Mrs. Biddle purchased a silver pitcher and had it engraved. On one side is inscribed the scripture from the book of Matthew: I was sick and you came on to me; on the other side a personal message which reads in part: As a mark of gratitude and esteem for his extreme kindness, July, 1862. The pitcher was sent to the Smith home in Richmond. It was Mary Biddle’s testimony to a magnanimous act, one which moved her to honor the man who had acted with charity towards her and her family. It is one indication of the depth of devotion this woman had for her fallen husband. She would make a second and more impactful memorial shortly.

By 1867 news of the fundraising effort to found the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina reached Mary Biddle’s congregation in Philadelphia.  It elicited a response from Mary Biddle who was determined to memorialize the life and sacrifice of her husband in a lasting way. It is the university’s website that tells us she pledged $1,400 towards the founding of the school. It also tells us that "friends requested Mrs. Biddle name the newly established school after her late husband, Major Henry Biddle…," a name it would bear from 1867 until 1921. In 1883, the main academic and administrative building of the school would be dedicated as Biddle Hall, an imposing Neo-Gothic academic hall, a physical connection to this legacy and to the woman determined to honor her fallen husband. 

According to Johnson C. Smith’s historical sketch on the university webpage, the school dates the decision by the Catawba Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church to found a school for the instruction of teachers and ministers among the newly freed population of Freedmen as April 7, 1867. It was the Revs. S.C. Alexander and W.L. Miller who began raising funds to build the new school.  Its original name: the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina.

Records of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Philadelphia reveal the background of the first president of this new college. He was the Rev. Stephen Matoon,  a missionary who had recently returned from "Siam," his mission there lasting from 1847 to 1866. It was he who had translated the New Testament into the "Siamese language" during his tenure in Bangkok.  The Freedmen’s Board requested Rev. Matoon to accept the post of president of the "Institute." 

Thus, we find the school’s first leader both a skilled linguist as well as a Presbyterian theologian. He would serve as president from 1870 to 1885, and professor of theology until 1889. He also would serve as the first minister of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, being appointed to that post in 1876. 

Matoon graduated from Union College in Pennsylvania in 1842; later from the seminary at Princeton.

By 1846, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Miller had graduated from the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in 1853. He began his preaching career in 1855. Finally, Alexander, although born in Pennsylvania, was educated at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, from which he graduated in 1861. All three men of the same theological cloth, would join in the post-war effort to found a school of higher education for Freedmen in North Carolina. 

Out of their effort would come the Freedmen’s School, which after 1876 would become known as Biddle University. 

Later, records of the Pennsylvania Prison Society show that she was also a member in 1899, yet another sign of her deeply felt sense of religious obligation and moral commitment to better the world of which she felt a part. 

Mary Baird Biddle (1829-1900)
Mary Baird Biddle (1829-1900)
Photograph taken in Paris, according to writing on the reverse side. The original is in the archives of the University of Oregon.
How do we describe Mary Biddle? She was a devoted wife; she was the donor of a silver memorial to a Confederate doctor who had honored her husband and her family by sending his remains back to her for burial. She was the woman who funded the establishment of a school to educate North Carolina’s Freedmen. Years later, near the end of her life, she was also moved to join a society seeking prison reform. 

So little written evidence of her life has survived. We have her single photograph contained in the papers of her son, Henry Biddle, Jr., a noted naturalist of the Northwest during the late 19th-early 20th century,  and now part of the archives of the University of Oregon. But on the bases of her actions, certain conclusions may be drawn. 

A woman deeply devoted to her husband and his memory. Also a woman of faith devoted equally to the perpetuation of the Presbyterian theology and its commitment to the improvement of the human condition according to the tenants of this faith. The primary benefactors of her vision have been the generations of students who have graduated from this eminent institution born out of the ashes of the Civil War. An institution to be re-christened Johnson C. Smith University in 1921. She inaugurated what would grow into a substantial financial commitment dedicated to the perpetuation of this university which flourishes today. The University, whatever the change in its nomenclature, is the embodiment of her beliefs.  JCSU has kept faith with her intentions.