Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 94: How did the war dead from the Battle of Gettysburg get buried, and by whom?
Walking through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, I’m always struck by how neat and orderly the rows of headstones appear, where a century and a half before, the soldiers now resting peacefully fought and died during one of the fiercest, and most fabled, military campaigns ever waged on American soil. The stakes then couldn’t have been higher—slavery vs. freedom—nor the ground the soldiers fell on more hallowed. Every stone at Gettysburg contains a story of valiancy and suffering. Each also harbors a less well-known story of burial—and reburial. No soldier killed at Gettysburg ended up in the National Cemetery by divine intervention.
Instead, the serenity we see today was, in 1863, a horrifying scene of carnage everywhere one looked, and it took months of strenuous, stomach-turning labor to transform the ghastly aftermath into a proper place of burial where the living of the town—and the nation as a whole—could commune with the dead through prayer and song. What most of us weren’t taught about Gettysburg, though, is that the job of burying those bodies fell to African Americans who, having suffered personally as a result of the battle, formed burial details in aid of its commemoration. I touched on those men briefly in a previous column in this series, but in investigating the family tree of the brilliantly talented professor, playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith for Episode 3 of Finding Your Roots: Season 2 (airing tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET on PBS), I learned something that took my—and Anna’s—breath away.
Both of us recalled from school that in his timeless Gettysburg Address, delivered at the soldiers’ cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set the scene, saying, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” What she and I didn’t know was that the “we” in Lincoln’s remarks included Deavere Smith’s great-great grandfather, a bona fide American hero. His name was Basil Biggs, and his life and toil in Gettysburg were—and always will be—heroically bound to the battle that turned the tide in the war that transformed America from a slave nation into the land of the free.
Basil Biggs was born in 1820 in Carroll County, Md., in New Windsor. His parents (identified in his death certificate) were William Biggs and Elizabeth Bayne (or Boyne), and there’s good reason to believe, based on evidentiary clues and DNA testing, that William Biggs was a white man, descended from a Benjamin Biggs, with a white wife (not Elizabeth!) and white children.
Basil Biggs’ wife was Mary Jackson, born in Maryland between 1825 and 1827. The Biggs were married in 1843. By 1850, census records show they were free and owned $300 worth of real estate.
Basil Biggs was nothing if not industrious. In her book The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History, Margaret Creighton notes that Biggs “began working for others at the age of four.” Allen Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, identifies him “as a free black teamster in Baltimore.”
Although much about Biggs’ early years remains unclear, it is certain that in 1858 he moved his family from the slave state of Maryland to the free state of Pennsylvania—to a little town called Gettysburg. There, according to the 1860 census, 186 free black people lived, Guelzo says, “with another 1,500 scattered through Adams County.”
The same census tracked Biggs’ move up (in more ways than one). By then, the family had $1,000 worth of property and enough room for a farm hand. Biggs, however, wasn’t just a successful farmer. He also was a skilled veterinarian, hired to treat animals on farms in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Biggs “must have been very good with animals,” historian Gabor Boritt writes in his 2006 book The Gettysburg Gospel.
But what had spurred Biggs to leave Maryland? He moved to Gettysburg, Guelzo writes, “so that his children could take advantage of Pennsylvania’s Free School Act.” Whereas in Maryland, black people—even free people of color—were excluded from public school (there was no law against black literacy per se, but black children could only attend segregated private schools), in Pennsylvania they were allowed to attend public schools—even with whites—if there were no black schools available.
Biggs himself couldn’t read or write, but he must have realized that moving north would afford his children opportunities out of reach in his home state. That’s exactly what our investigation bore out. In the 1860 census, all of Basil and Mary Biggs’ school-age children—Hanna, Eliza and Calvin—were listed as: “attends school.”
Biggs chose to make his move at a fateful moment in our nation’s history. Gettysburg must have appealed to him as a safe haven for his family, in a state famous for its long history of opposing slavery. But by 1860, two years after he had settled there, the United States was on the brink of civil war. It would turn out that Biggs had moved his family into the epicenter of the conflict! The Battle of Gettysburg, which we all remember from school, raged from July 1 to July 3, 1863. It was a bloodbath.
The Battle of Gettysburg
Before the war, Gettysburg’s black families lived under “the threat of the fugitive hunters always hover[ing],” Guelzo writes. (Biggs, as we will learn later, had steep experience in these matters!) As the battle approached, they weren’t taking any chances with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s rebels, some of whom had seen the invasion as a tempting opportunity to reverse the flow of the Underground Railroad and send runaways, refugees and free black people—whomever they found—back down South and straight into slavery. Biggs secured his family along the Susquehanna River, Creighton writes, and just managed to escape Gettysburg himself “on a borrowed horse” as the Confederate cavalry was arriving.
During the three days of combat, the invading Confederate troops turned Basil’s farm into a field hospital. It would become one of the busiest Confederate hospital stations during that devastating battle. As the fighting dragged on, desperate soldiers from both sides ransacked the countryside for food and shelter.
After the battle, Basil returned home to find his farm in ruins. Reading his claim for damages, calculated at $1,506, we can see that he lost everything—from livestock to crops to furniture—even his reserves of jams and jellies! Biggs also discovered that “forty-five dead Confederates were buried on the farm,” according to the website Pennsylvania Quest for Freedom. This unfortunate result of the battle wouldn’t be Biggs’ only encounter with dead soldiers in Gettysburg.
Burying the Dead
Photographs of soldiers’ corpses remind us of the unfathomable human cost of the Civil War—both for the nation as a whole, as Drew Faust writes in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, and for individual families. Basil Biggs was no exception. Having returned to find his farm ransacked, he realized there was a job to do that nobody else wanted—exhuming bodies hastily buried during and immediately after the battle and ensuring that they were returned home or reburied in a more dignified way. In making the dead and their families whole, Biggs saw a way to make his family whole.
A white Gettysburg resident, F.W. Biesecker, won the government contract to exhume the bodies of Union soldiers and rebury them in the Gettysburg (or Soldiers’) National Cemetery. Biesecker’s “bid,” according to Creighton, was “a little over a dollar and a half per body.” Once he got the contract, what did Biesecker do? He found a black man to execute the job!
That’s right: The actual work of digging up and transporting the cadavers was farmed out to Basil Biggs as subcontractor, and Biggs then hired several black men to tackle the monumental task. Leander Warren, who helped carry the bodies from Gettysburg when he was 13 years old, recalled this arrangement in a 1936 article in the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel: “Basil Biggs, colored, of Gettysburg, was given the contract for disinterring the bodies on the field. He had a crew of eight or ten negroes in his employ.”
Work began Oct. 27, 1863, with Biggs and his men having to dig up, transport and rebury the 3,354 corpses that littered the area.
The reburial work moved decorously. The men picked up coffins at the railway station, brought them to the original burial site, and, under the supervision of a man named Samuel Weaver, took their time to inspect and remove the remains. Biggs and another man then used their horse teams to take the coffins to the new cemetery for reburial. They found soldiers everywhere, in every condition. Some of them were in trenches, side by side. Some of them had been deposited in clay, or in wet soil, and still looked like men. Others—particularly those who had been buried in sandy soil—were nearly gone.
Did Biggs have nightmares? Did he grow numb by the process? Did he wonder whether any of the men he came across had owned (or kidnapped) slaves? (Confederates weren’t provided for in the cemetery, although according to the National Park Service, “a few” ended up there anyway.) Did he talk about it with his family or keep it shut up inside?
We’ll never know the internal story of Basil Biggs and his black burial detail, for even the most disturbing photographs, Creighton writes, fail to capture “what these men did with their emotions as they sorted through people—whether they grew inured to the dead and learned to work mechanically, or whether the smell and sight of humans turned from flesh to dust exacted a lasting psychological toll.”
What we do know is, thanks to Biggs and his men, Lincoln was able to deliver his Gettysburg Address in front of orderly rows of graves in the new national cemetery. As Creighton reveals, “By November 19, 1863, when Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln spoke to the throngs at Gettysburg, Basil Biggs and company had reburied close to a thousand men. They would not finish their work—which amounted to more than 3500 corpses—until the Middle of March 1864.” In other words, it took President Lincoln little more than two minutes to orate what he had written, while it took Biggs and his crew four months to finish their grisly task. Creighton quotes a Gettysburg resident who witnessed their effort: “ ‘Words would fail to describe … the grateful relief that this work has brought to many a sorrowing household!’ ”
Planting New Roots
Basil and Mary Biggs used the money he earned digging up the dead to rebuild their lives, purchasing a new farm where his family could live and thrive. (Biggs was never reimbursed for the damages to his property. He had been awarded $1,356, on paper, but Congress never released the funds to repay him.) The farm happened to be on Cemetery Ridge, a critical piece of the Gettysburg battlefield. Once again, Basil found himself at the center of history.
Here’s what we learn in a July 20, 2013, posting on the Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park about the artist John Bachelder, who devoted himself to preserving the history and memory of the battle for future generations:
If a single monument were selected to represent [John] Bachelder and how he viewed the battle it would be the High Water Mark monument at the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, along Hancock Avenue. Bachelder worked harder to have this monument erected than any other on the field. Several years after the war, perhaps in 1868 or 1869 [John] Bachelder came upon Basil Biggs, a farmer whose property included the Copse of Trees, who was busy cutting the trees down. ‘I expostulated with him,’ wrote Bachelder, about the trees’ historic value, but Biggs, who had lived west of Gettysburg during the battle and had helped re-bury Union dead to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery after the battle, was unmoved. Then Bachelder tried a different tack. He explained that ‘I suggested to him that if he cut them, then he was only getting for them their value as rails, whereas, if he allowed them to stand to mark the spot he would eventually get ten times as much for them.’ Biggs was a shrewd businessman as well as a successful farmer and this line of argument worked. He spared the trees and in 1881 sold seven acres to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) for $125 an acre, plus an additional $475.12 for damages to his property caused by the opening of what would be called Hancock Avenue.
Years later, in an article in the Cleveland Gazette on June 18, 1892, a Mr. Scotland told of his encounter with Biggs while visiting Gettysburg: “He is a veterinary surgeon and is reputed to be the wealthiest Afro-American in Gettysburg. He has a large practice and his residence is a magnificent one, surrounded by one hundred and twenty acres of land.”
Today, the High Water Mark Monument is one of the most solemn spots on the battlefield, where tourists peer out, trying to imagine the spectacle of Pickett’s Charge and the climactic fighting of the three-day campaign that repelled the Confederates from northern soil. Basil Biggs toiled that soil as his own and, when opportunity presented itself, proved, once again, that he could do right by the nation and his family.
Sons of Good Will
But Biggs wasn’t just concerned with honoring the white fighting men at Gettysburg. Although no black soldiers were involved in the battle (Guelzo identifies one unnamed black civilian who, in the midst of the fighting, took up arms on his own with the 5th Ohio and fought valiantly), there were blacks killed in other Civil War battles who deserved proper burial. So in 1866, just a year after the end of the Civil War, Biggs and others formed the Sons of Good Will, a benevolent association rallying around the cry “We must find a place to bury our dead,” according to a June 27, 2013, report by Cara Anthony in the Frederick News-Post.
To that end, the Sons of Good Will put up the money to buy half an acre, which, to echo Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, would provide for black soldiers “a final resting place for those who … gave their lives that that nation might live.” They called it the Sons of Good Will Cemetery, which, over time, came to be known as Lincoln Cemetery. “Laboring under the shadow of the Soldier’s National Cemetery,” Creighton writes, “the Sons of Good Will struggled to find and maintain a place to bury black veterans.”
Was it that the Gettysburg National Cemetery was officially closed to black soldiers of the Civil War?
Here’s what Guelzo wrote in an email to me Oct. 2:
“There’s no record that segregation was ever an explicit policy in organizing the Soldiers National Cemetery. Because the Cemetery was set aside for the burial of the Union dead—and because no enlisted black soldiers fought at Gettysburg—the issue seems never to have come up, at least explicitly. The Cemetery was transferred to federal ownership in 1872, and subsequently the War Department opened the Cemetery to non-Gettysburg soldier burials.”
So, after the Sons of Good Will opened Lincoln Cemetery, were black soldiers later buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery that Biggs had helped consecrate during the Civil War?
Yes, Guelzo wrote:
“The first African-American Civil War soldier to be buried there was Henry Gooden, 127th USCT, in 1884 (this was a re-burial, since Gooden had originally been buried at the Adams County Almshouse burying-ground).” But, Guelzo was quick to add, “no others were buried there until 1936.” What this meant, Guelzo suspected, was “that a de facto segregation policy was the rule until then.” Accordingly, some “[t]wenty-nine black Civil War veterans were buried before 1920 in the ‘colored cemetery’—the Lincoln Cemetery [or ‘Good-will Cemetery,’ since it was originally created by a black mutual-aid society, the Sons of Good-will]—on Long Lane.”
As the battles of the Civil War faded, Creighton writes, Gettysburg’s “black community continued to witness the public segregation of memory.” They celebrated Emancipation Day on their own ground and decorated the graves of black and white soldiers, but few outside the race returned the favor.
Basil Biggs is buried in Lincoln Cemetery alongside his wife, and today a plaque there honors him and the other Sons of Good Will for their good works. Reading Biggs’ headstone, we learn that he died June 6, 1906, 38 years before the date June 6 would be sealed in world memory as D-Day. Even though Biggs didn’t live to see that day, he had seen other harrowing days, especially before the Civil War.
Biggs’ June 13, 1906, obituary in he Gettysburg Compiler reveals his most impressive accomplishment of all. Before the Civil War, Biggs had been a farmer, veterinarian and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Of course, given the absolute secrecy the Underground Railroad had to maintain, we couldn’t find documents listing his participation in this or that slave escape. It would have been far too dangerous for everyone involved. But since then, historians, including Creighton, William Switala and James Paradis, have helped us understand how Basil Biggs took part in this complex and dangerous operation.
Reportedly, Basil used the barn at the McPherson Farm, which he rented, to hide runaway slaves. The routes were treacherous and rife with slave catchers and informants. After all, Gettysburg was less than 10 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line! To avoid notice, arrest and possible death under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Biggs would wait until night to bring the fugitives to the home of another free black man, Edward Mathews, in Yellow Hill. From there, the escaped slaves would flee to Canada—and freedom.
No wonder Biggs is buried in the black soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg—he was a soldier risking his life for freedom long before Lincoln enlisted the Union Army in the cause.
Basil Biggs’s greatest living monument is his great-great granddaughter Anna Deavere Smith. Amazingly, as you will see in Episode 3 of Finding Your Roots, she didn’t know about Biggs, even though she had grown up visiting the Gettysburg battlefield with her family. Like the dead soldiers her great-great grandfather tended to in the cemeteries there, family stories first had to be unearthed and brought back to the light before they could be properly honored.
Now the descendants of a true American hero—a soldier for freedom—who made others whole with his helping hands, can be made whole themselves through genealogical research and DNA science. Deavere Smith always knew she could claim all of American history as hers, but now she knows that her ancestor was a pivotal actor at the center of one of our most important chapters.
One thing for sure: We can never think of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address again without remembering that the noble labor of black men made both possible.
Don’t miss Episode 3 of Finding Your Roots tomorrow night!
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.