Basil Biggs and America’s “Unfinished Work”

By: Brandon Neely

War on the Doorstep: Civilians of Gettysburg

By late June of 1863, alarms warning of approaching Confederate forces were nothing new for the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg. Living just ten miles from the Mason-Dixon line, small-scale raids, kidnappings of freed-people, and rumors of an imminent clash between the two great armies had long plagued the borough and its surrounding community.  Nevertheless, none of these events could prepare Gettysburgians for the ferocious 3-day fight between 165,000 soldiers in early July of that year that would transform the lives and lands of Gettysburg’s civilians forever. However, these civilians’ experiences were not monolithic; while some were defined by tragedy and blight, others included remarkable episodes of perseverance, successful pragmatism, and creative profiteering.  This new blog series profiles the lives of diverse Gettysburgians who were forced to confront the war at their very doorsteps, each on their own terms, whose stories speak to the kaleidoscope of experiences of civilians struggling to survive, and thrive, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Civil War.

For over 150 years, Americans have worked to more fully understand and properly memorialize the Battle of Gettysburg. The most enduring of these attempts – “a few appropriate remarks” in the form of the Gettysburg Address – has been etched in the hearts and minds of all Americans. Other ways of remembering the battle, however, have yet to be fully recognized. While it was the 16th president who uttered the most famous speech in American history, it was a black Gettysburgian – Basil Biggs – who set the stage for that speech and dedicated his life’s purpose to the nation’s “unfinished work”.

            Born free in Maryland on August 10th, 1819, Basil Biggs was quickly introduced to difficult labor. His mother passed away when he was only four years old, leaving him $400 to secure an education. This money, however, disappeared before he could receive any schooling, leaving him to “work with his hands.” Ultimately ending up in Baltimore, the industrious Basil found work as a teamster – the person who drove a team of horses to pull a wagon. This job paid well and he quickly developed his skills with wagons and cargo, both of which played central roles throughout his life. It was in Baltimore that he also met his wife, Mary Jackson, whom he married in 1843. Together they owned $300 of real estate and began a family.

            After fifteen years of marriage, Basil and Mary Biggs decided to move further north to provide their children with a formal education. In Maryland, black children were not allowed to attend public schooling, regardless of their free or enslaved status. Thus, the Biggs family moved to Gettysburg in 1858 with their four children: Hanna, Eliza, Calvin and William. By time of the 1860 census, the Biggs family had added their fifth child, Mary. During his early years in Gettysburg, Basil worked as a tenant farmer for John Crawford, near Marsh Creek.

            Basil continued his farm work until he and his family made the difficult choice to evacuate from Gettysburg in late June of 1863 in response to rumors of Confederate kidnappings—common throughout the war—began to proliferate through the region. Although the family ultimately was safe from the battle, their home was not. Used as a field hospital by Confederate soldiers, the home was littered with abandoned items. Upon returning, the Biggs family must have been dismayed to see so much of their hard-earned property destroyed or stolen. In a claim to the federal government, Basil’s losses in livestock and property amount to $1,506, including his children’s beds and much of the family’s food. Because this destruction was perpetrated by Confederates, Basil did not receive any reimbursement.

            With much of his property destroyed, and the landscape littered with bodies and debris, Basil returned to his work as a teamster: Beginning on October 27th 1863, Basil dug up the decomposing bodies of fallen soldiers and transported them to the National Cemetery for reburial. He was probably chosen for this task because of his ability to cart nine bodies in his wagon at a time. To assist him in the traumatizing work, Basil hired nearly a dozen other black men from the area.

            This process was not finished by the time President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on November 19th 1863. In fact, it was not formally completed until March 18th 1864 – eight months after the battle. The final resting place which the president eloquently sanctified through his words would not have existed if not for the work of Basil Biggs and other members of the black community in Gettysburg. Thus, despite – and perhaps, ironically, because of – his illiteracy and lack of formal education, Basil was able to play a critical role in shaping the historical landscape of Gettysburg and its meaning, preserving the memory of those who fell upon it.

Unlike many Gettysburg residents, Basil Biggs managed to generate additional wealth in the aftermath of the battle. In 1863, he inherited the 8-acre farm of John Fisher, a local black resident, just south of the famous “High-Water Mark”. In 1865, Basil purchased 30 more acres from Peter Frey along the Taneytown Road. He moved his family to a building on this second plot of land, and rented out a tenant house on the first. With this income, Basil was one of the wealthiest black citizens of Gettysburg.

Basil Biggs At His Home (Courtesy: National Park Service)

Basil Bigg’s contributions to the community did not end with the war, however. With the burial of white soldiers who died at Gettysburg completed, he turned his attention to Gettysburg’s black veterans. Informally banned from burial alongside white soldiers in the National Cemetery, deceased soldiers from the United States Colored Troops lacked a final resting place. Basil became a prominent member of the Sons of Good Will, a local organization dedicated to honoring these heroes. The group purchased a half-acre of land in which to inter black veterans, probably with significant financial aid from Basil. This Good Will Cemetery was established in 1867.

            Shortly after, while chopping down trees on his property in 1868, Basil was approached by artist and early battlefield preservationist, John Bachelder. While Basil planned on selling his newly harvested wood as rails, Bachelder persuaded him to leave the trees standing, as they were part of the Copse of Trees, of “Pickett’s Charge” fame on Cemetery Ridge. Bachelder explained that, “If he allowed them to stand to mark the spot he would eventually get ten times as much for them.” True to his word, Biggs made $1,350 by selling seven acres of land to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1881. This sale exemplifies Basil’s lifelong foresight into how to secure economic prosperity – even amidst personally challenging, chaotic times – as well as his deep appreciation of the historical meaning that his town would forever hold.

            Basil Biggs’s role in the formation and preservation of these many, now famous local landmarks illuminates his pivotal contributions to shaping Gettysburg’s national memory, as well as his personal devotion to the nation’s unfinished work. Such devotion is also readily apparent in his local civil rights activism. During the election of 1870, Basil Biggs worked alongside white allies as a poll worker. After receiving word that white citizens were being transported to voting locations, but not poor black citizens, Basil once again returned to his work as a teamster. Joining with Dave Henke, a white ally, Basil drove a wagon of black voters to the polls, ensuring that they could make their voices heard.

            Basil Biggs continued to purchase land and serve his community until his retirement from farming in 1894. He moved to the center of Gettysburg and sold his land and home to the federal government; the former Biggs property now comprises some of the most heavily visited land within Gettysburg National Military Park. He lived in the borough for 12 years before his death by heart attack in 1906. Fittingly, he was buried alongside those same black Gettysburgians whose lives he had fought to improve in the much-expanded Good Will Cemetery. Eventually renamed the Lincoln Cemetery, Basil Biggs’s final resting place—in large part the product of his personal devotion to uplifting the local black community—the formerly known Good Will Cemetery today continues to be known by its identification with the 16th president.

Basil and Mary Biggs. (Courtesy: Public Broadcasting Service)

            While Basil Biggs filled countless important roles in his life, it is his position at the head of a wagon which connects them all. After his inheritance was consumed, Basil created his own wealth as a teamster in Maryland, true to the enterprising ideals celebrated by black and white Americans alike. One can imagine Basil fatefully driving his wagon north to Gettysburg to provide his children with the education he could not attain, in the hopes of giving them a life and civic voice he likely never imagined he would have. In 1863, it was Basil’s wagon that carted the bodies of men who died in a war that determined the fate of over four million black men, women, and children held in bondage. Only seven years later, in 1870, Basil’s wagon brought black citizens to the voting booth, ensuring that their voices were heard in the government which had only recently recognized their freedom.

            Even still, Basil Biggs was far more than a man who simply drove a wagon, or the man who buried Gettysburg’s dead – he both embodied and actively shaped the meaning of the Civil War for black and white Americans alike. The Frey-Biggs farm stands quietly in the shadow of a nearby hill, atop which Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the importance of honoring those who died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The silent gravestones lining that hillside, the quiet plot of land tucked behind Gettysburg’s main thoroughfares now known as Lincoln Cemetery, and the faded records of local black voters tucked away in local archives, all speak to the critical work of Basil Biggs and his dedication to the nation’s “unfinished work”.