Eli George Biddle: Faithful until the End

When President Abraham Lincoln called for the raising of African American regiments during the Civil War, Black men from around the country traveled to Boston to enlist with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. This story map highlights the experiences of Eli George Biddle, one of the men who joined this historic regiment and continued to serve his community throughout his life. To explore additional stories, visit A Brave Black Regiment: The 54th Massachusetts.

Born in Pennsylvania, Eli George Biddle, sometimes called George Eli Biddle, eventually moved to Boston. Biddle enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment following a confrontation at school. As one of the oldest surviving veterans of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Biddle served his country and community in many ways over the course of his life.

Explore the story map below to learn about Eli George Biddle's service during the Civil War and his contributions to his community after the war. Click "Get Started" to enter the map. To read more about each point, click "More" or scroll to view the map, historical images, and accompanying text. To navigate between the points, please use the "Next Stop" button at the bottom of the slides or the arrows on either side of the main image. To view a larger version of the main image depicted below the map, click on the image.

Eli George Biddle

c.1846 - April 8, 1940

Explore Eli George Biddle's life as the oldest surviving veteran of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

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Eli George Biddle

c.1846 - April 8, 1940

Explore Eli George Biddle's life as the oldest surviving veteran of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

1850 federal census enumerated on September 20th of free inhabitants in Bart Township in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. The Biddle family is towards the bottom of the page, with the 4-year-old Eli Biddle highlighted.Eli George Biddle lived with his family in Bart Township, Pennsylvania during the 1850 federal census. (Credit: Family Search, The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

c. 1846 - 1863: Bart, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Born in Black Rock, Pennsylvania around 1846 and living in Bart, Pennsylvania by 1850, the early life of Eli George Biddle remains murky. Family lore claims that he and his mother, Sarah, moved to Rhode Island after his father, James, died in a train accident. At some point before 1863, Biddle moved once again. According to his enlistment papers of 1863, Biddle settled in Boston as a single man. At that time, he worked as a painter.[1]

A clipping from a newspaper with the following text: 54th Mass Regiment. Recruits wanted. Bounty $100. Pay from $13 to $20 per month. Regiment composed entirely of Colored Men. Now is the chance for our brave and loyal colored citizens to enroll themselves. Office Lincoln Hall, Burbank’s Block, Lieut. A. Bassett, Recruiting Officer, Pittsfield, Feb 17, 1863.A recruiting ad for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment that ran in the "Berkshire County Eagle" newspaper. (Credit: "Berkshire County Eagle," 1863,

February 14, 1863: Corner of Cambridge and North Russell Streets, Boston, Massachusetts

On February 14, 1863, Eli George Biddle attended school like every other day that year. As part of their lessons, the students gathered to sing “My Country Tis of Thee.” All but one voice joined in song. Biddle refused to participate. To him as a young Black man, the claim of America as a “sweet land of liberty” did not ring true. After a confrontation with his teacher, Biddle left the school and started walking the streets of Boston.[2] He soon arrived at a recruiting location for the newly established 54th Massachusetts Regiment and enlisted for three years. Only nine other individuals had signed up before Biddle, many assigned with him to Company A.[3]

Birds eye view of Camp Meigs, a military camp in Readville, Massachusetts. An American flag is raised in the middle, with white tents lined around the grounds, soldiers and horses throughout, and trees in the background.Eli George Biddle trained at Camp Meigs in 1863. (Credit: F. Moras, Library of Congress)

March - May 1863: Camp Meigs, Readville, Hyde Park, Boston, Massachusetts

As a member of Company A, Eli George Biddle traveled from Boston to Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. One of the captains of the regiment, Luis Emilio, later recalled that “During the first week seventy-two recruits were received into camp, and others soon began to arrive with a steady and increasing flow.”[4] After receiving a medical examination, the new recruits learned how to shoot, drill, and march as a cohesive unit. Company A, one of the first to be filled, included many others from the Boston area, including Privates Burrill Smith and Charles Lenox. In May, the regiment returned to Boston for its send-off. On May 28, 1863, the soldiers paraded through the city, ending at the harbor where they boarded their transport ship, the steamer “De Molay.”[5]

A map of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863. Vincent's Creek is at the top of the image, while Fort Wagner is depicted on the left. Low water is at the bottom of the image. Lines depicting soldiers maneuver around an inlet and head towards the fort from the right.This map shows the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863. (Credit: Luis Fenollosa Emilio, "History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865," 88)

July 18, 1863: Fort Wagner, Morris Island, Charleston, South Carolina

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment joined a large Union force at James Island, South Carolina to participate in the assault on Fort Wagner. Biddle and Company A took their place at the head of the column on the far end of the right wing. Generals Strong and Seymour bestowed this position of honor as recognition of the men of the 54th. They believed “the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as any other body of men; and as it was one of the strongest and best officered.”[6] As dusk fell, the men of the 54th attacked.

Though he did not sustain wounds during the battle, Biddle had his gun blown out of his hands from a nearby explosion. As darkness fell over the beach and fortress, Biddle soon realized that the rest of his company had retreated without him. Years later, Biddle recalled the battle to a reporter who wrote that Biddle:

“could hear the wild pounding of his heart in the silence, and for a moment he gave himself up to a feeling of sheer panic. At last he decided the only thing for him to do was to creep back as quietly as possibly. Stealthily he wormed his way across the ground until he came to the ditch. With infinite caution, he lowered himself into the water, but in spite of his efforts, he landed with a splash. The Confederates heard the noise and opened fire. The Union soldiers were electrified into action. They thought the whole rebel army was coming toward them and also began firing furiously. Poor George was surrounded by blazing guns and it seemed a miracle that he escaped death. At last, however, he reached his comrades with a severe wound in his shoulder.”[7]

Biddle joined the other wounded men who survived the attack in the hospital. However others, such as their leader Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, died in this attack. After spending three months in the hospital recuperating from his wounds, Biddle returned to Company A. While the records remain vague as to the rest of his time in the military, they document that Biddle served as an orderly in the Regimental Hospital located in Charleston, South Carolina for a short period of time in 1865 before returning home.[8]

A drawing labeled Rev. E. G. Biddle shows an African-American man with a beard in a black coat and white shirt with a collar.Biddle attended divinity school at Yale. (Credit: J. W. Hood, "One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism")

1865-1917: Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church, 600 Columbus Ave, Boston, Massachusetts

Upon his return to civilian life, Biddle worked once again as a painter for a few years.[9] In 1881, he began working as a local preacher and became an ordained deacon in 1883. While preaching in Worcester, Massachusetts, he attended divinity school at Yale University and received his degree in Divinity. In addition to working in Boston and Worcester, he also preached and ministered at churches throughout Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, including the AME Zion Church on Columbus Avenue in Boston.[10] Biddle even expanded his reach beyond New England by serving as editor of The Star of Zion: The Official Organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church newspaper from 1880 to 1925. As an elder in the Church, his words often appeared on the first page of the newspaper.[11]

newspaper article about gathering at Faneuil Hall to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the attack on Fort Wagner from the Boston Globe in 1917A newspaper article from "The Boston Globe" details a gathering at Faneuil Hall to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the attack on Fort Wagner. (Credit: "The Boston Globe," 1917,

1917: Faneuil Hall, 0 Marketplace Square, Boston, Massachusetts

Biddle also used the power of his words and voice to speak out against injustice in the United States. On July 17, 1917, Biddle joined former comrades Wesley J. Furlong, Alexander Johnson, Charles Harrison, and Henry Norman at a Faneuil Hall event. Organized to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the attack on Fort Wagner, the meeting also focused on the recent inequalities and atrocities against Black Americans.[12] Having fought to prove their right to citizenship during the Civil War, these men recognized that they must continue to push for social justice.

Photograph of Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands across a stone wall at the 1938 "Blue and Gray Reunion" at Gettysburg. Three men are on the left of the wall. Six men are to the right of the wall. Two men shake hands.Biddle was one of 10 Union and Confederate veterans who attended the 1938 "Blue and Gray Reunion" at Gettysburg. Biddle is located in the group on the right, second from the right. (Credit: National Archives)

Jul-38: Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As one of the last remaining members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the nation, Eli George Biddle received a great honor in 1938. That year, the country commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As part of the commemoration, the site hosted the last group of veterans of the Civil War at the park during their “Blue and Grey Reunion.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose 10 veterans from the United States Army and Confederate troops to shake hands across the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, including Eli George Biddle. At that event, Biddle waited a moment for the former confederate across the fence to extend his hand. Biddle recalled later in life that the former confederate said: “Many years ago you were shooting at me and I was shooting at you. Thank God we both missed.”[13]

A gravestone that read Eli George Biddle. Co.A. 54 Mass.Eli George Biddle's gravestone mentions his service in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. (Credit: User suki0313, Find a Grave ID:50229826,

1940: Mount Hope Cemetery, Mattapan, Boston, Massachusetts

During the early 1900s, the number of veterans of the 54th MA Regiment slowly decreased as more and more passed away. However, Biddle remained a constant presence as he attended yearly Memorial Day gatherings in Boston. Biddle’s grandson, George Coblyn, accompanied him at many of these events. Coblyn fondly recalled marching in parades with his grandfather stating in 1989, “Before he died, we used to march together in Memorial Day parades in Boston until I was 12 or 13. I wore a sailor suit my mother made and he'd always say, 'Stick your chest out! Be proud, be proud!”[14]

Eli George Biddle attended his last public event on Memorial Day, 1939. During the GAR meeting, his fellow members elected him Chaplain for the Massachusetts Department of the Grand Army of the Republic. Unfortunately, Biddle only served in that role for a short amount of time. On April 8, 1940, he passed away in Boston and laid to rest on April 12 at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston with full military honors.[15]

An article called "In Remembrance: Special ceremony Commemorates Black Civil War Dead." A picture to the right shows a man standing in the middle of 19 caskets covered in American flags. The caption reads: "George Coblyn, grandson of Eli George Biddle, the last surviving member of the 54th Massachusetts who died in 1940, stands with the caskets of 19 Civil War soldiers to be reburied today in Beaufort. Coblyn points out the 13 stars on the caskets, the style of military burials at the time."George Coblyn, grandson of Eli George Biddle, is pictured with the caskets of 19 Civil War soldiers waiting to be reburied. (Credit: "The Charlotte Observer," 1989,

2001: 9 Hubbard Ave, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Years after his grandfather passed away, George Coblyn enlisted in the military. He often recalled his grandfather passing on the following words of wisdom: “Do the harder right than the easier wrong.”[16]  Coblyn, similar to many of his siblings and cousins, enlisted in the military and served with honor. In 1989, Major Coblyn helped to reinter the remains of 19 Black Civil War veterans. Discovered during a construction project in Beaufort, South Carolina, these men may have served with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment in this area in 1863. Continuing to carry on the family tradition of education and civil service, the descendants of George Biddle helped to found the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company A reenactors.

Today, Eli George Biddle’s name lives on at the intersection of Hubbard Avenue and Walnut Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Located just around the corner from the family’s former residence, Biddle’s name is now etched on the landscape of the very nation he helped free.[17]

Painting of the Battle of Fort Wagner with men of the 54th MA Regiment fighting and wounded.


[1] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the U.S. Colored Troops, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (Colored); Microfilm Serial: M1898; Microfilm Roll: 2.

[2] R. Branham. and S. Hartnett, Sweet Freedom's Song (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 121.

[3] "Faces Of The 54Th: Soldiers And Officers Database - Boston African American National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service)." 2021. Nps.Gov.

[4] "54Th Mass. Regiment," The Berkshire County Eagle, 1863.

[5] Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).

[6] Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment.

[7] Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment.

[8] Marion Bouteillier, "Aged Negro Minister Tells Stirring Tales Of Service In Civil War," Hartford Currant, 1933.

[9] “Page 32 Civil War - Union - MA 54th Infantry Regiment Records.” n.d. Fold3. Accessed October 27, 2021.

[10] W. C. Wurtenberg & V. Kenerson, (Eds.), The Yale Banner, Volume Forty-Nine. Price, Lee, & Adkins Co, 1890. Google Books. Retrieved from

[11] James Walker Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism: Electronic Edition. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. 2001.

[12] “The Star of Zion (Charlotte, N.C.).” n.d. Digitalnc.Org. Accessed October 27, 2021.

[13] "Asks Fair Play for Negroes in Draft." The Boston Daily Globe, 1917. Vol. 92.

[14] Art Harris, “Salute to a Forgotten Black Regiment,” Washington Post, May 30, 1989.

[15]Harris, “Salute to a Forgotten Black Regiment.”

[16] “Rev. E. George Biddle,” The Boston Globe, April 12, 1940.

[17] Harris, “Salute to a Forgotten Black Regiment.”

[18] Cambridge, C. of. (2021). Dedications: Street signs + benches 2000 - 2021. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: February 9, 2022