Merchant Captain and Militia Officer
Capt. Charles Biddle’s autobiography reads like an adventure novel. He was born in Philadelphia to an unlucky businessman and the daughter of the surveyor-general of Pennsylvania. His father died after going broke due to a bad choice of partner, and Biddle went to sea at age 14. His early experiences included getting shipwrecked off Mexico; a pistol duel on Chincoteague Island, Va., stopped by a stranger; voyages as far as France and Portugal; and a near-fatal illness. In January 1776, he joined the militia in Philadelphia while captain of an armed merchant ship. He was in the small crowd at what now is Independence Hall when the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly, on July 8. After Biddle’s ship was captured by the British, he was taken to Jamaica as a prisoner. He tried to escape several times, once dressed as a woman, and finally succeeded after he got a drunken British captain to let him go ashore. With money sent from friends, he purchased half-ownership of another ship in Haiti. During a visit to Beaufort to sell cargo, he met Hannah Shepherd, his future wife. Biddle returned to Philadelphia, where he commanded a small armed brig. When the Continental Army lost the Battle of Brandywine (Pa.), he helped evacuate and protect refugees. Before leaving, he buried some money for safekeeping in a cellar, and soon after the war he returned to find the money still there! While visiting Charleston he served briefly on the U.S.S. Randolph under his brother Nicholas, a Continental Navy captain. Biddle agreed in 1778 to command an armed merchant ship in New Bern. There he learned the Randolph had exploded during a sea battle with the British, killing Nicholas. While in Beaufort for repairs, Biddle married Shepherd, bought a house there, took command of the local militia, and led the building of a small fort. Soon after he was elected to the state assembly. The Biddles left in 1780 for a visit with family in Pennsylvania, but never returned. The next year he took command of a privateer. It was captured by a British man of war, and Biddle was held in a prison ship in New York before being exchanged for a British prisoner. After the war Biddle served with Benjamin Franklin on the council that ran Pennsylvania, and was elected its vice-president. (Biddle also knew George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.) He died at home in Philadelphia at 75, and Hannah passed four years later.
Though major facts are corroborated by other sources, most of these details come from Biddle’s autobiography (1883). Believe with caution!
- Biddle, Charles, Autobiography of Charles Biddle, Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. 1745-1821, ed. by James S. Biddle (Philadelphia, Pa.: E. Claxton and Company, 1883) <http://archive.org/details/autobiographyofc00bidd> [accessed 13 August 2021]
- Biddle, Charles, ‘Circular Letter from Charles Biddle to the State Governors, Volume 18, Page 596’, Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 1786 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr18-0101> [accessed 3 September 2021]
- Biddle, Charles, ‘Letter from Charles Biddle to Richard Caswell, Volume 14, Page 70’, Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 1779 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr14-0072> [accessed 3 September 2021]
- Kell, Jean Bruyere, North Carolina’s Coastal Carteret County During the American Revolution: 1765-1785 (Era Press, 1975)