“Keenly Alive” – Gates Fahnestock and the Children’s Experience of Gettysburg

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.

At the corner of Gettysburg’s Baltimore and West streets stands a beautiful red brick structure. Three stories tall, the Fahnestock Building sits across from the Gettysburg Courthouse, a part of Gettysburg’s town center. Today, it is used for senior living, but since its construction sometime around 1810, it has played countless other roles. For Gates Fahnestock, born in 1853, the Fahnestock building became more than just a family home – during the Battle of Gettysburg, its use by Union and Confederate troops, living and dead, proved fundamental in the shaping of the young boy’s notions of war, and of humanity.

            Gates Fahnestock was the grandchild of Samuel Fahnestock, a businessman who moved to Gettysburg sometime before 1833. After purchasing a local tavern and setting up his new store within it, Samuel had become one of the town’s “most active and successful merchants.” From 1833 to 1863, Samuel and his three sons worked to make the “Samuel Fahnestock & Sons Store” the largest store in Gettysburg, and a central figure in the town’s business scene. When he passed away in 1861, the store passed down to his three sons, becoming the “Fahnestock Brothers Store.” The oldest of the “Fahnestock Brothers,” James Fahnestock, lived across the street with his five children, including ten-year-old Gates Fahnestock.

             For young Gates, the busy-ness of the business provided plenty of excitement and activity. As he remembered later in life, “A boy of that age is an active creature – not thinking of hazard or danger as in later years.” From the second floor of his home, he and his brothers watched as the people of Gettysburg went about their lives. Recollecting his early life, Gates described that he spent his early childhood “not appreciating or understanding the great problem of life and the nation as in later years – but [I] was keenly alive to activity about [me] and usually [wanted] to have a part in it.” On June 26th, 1863, this activity came to life when Confederate cavalry rode through the town center, firing pistols and looting supplies. As for Gates and his brothers, “they enjoyed it as they would a wild west show.”

            For the ten-year-old boy, the coming battle was an exciting form of entertainment. The adrenaline-inducing galloping of horses and bullets shot into the sky soon transformed into an awesome spectacle of martial grandeur when Union troops set up camp on Seminary Ridge, west of town. Just 24 hours before the battle would officially begin, Gates and other children of the town were curiously strolling through Union encampments. The panorama of thousands of men, costumed in blue uniforms with flashing sabers and bayonets, preparing busily for battle, provided a fascinating and glorious sight to Pennsylvania children who had, for two years, heard rumors of battle along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, but had not yet witnessed the harsh realities of war.

            This is not to say that Gates or others had not been affected by the war, however. In June 1863, goods from the Fahnestock store were stolen from railcars en route to Philadelphia. Additionally, not all of the prelude to the battle had been fun and games: While the Confederate cavalry gave Gates and his brothers their very own wild west show, they had also raided the Fahnestock Brothers Store. Fortunately for Gates and his brothers, several members of the family, including the youngest son, Edward, were enlisted in a nearby infantry regiment. It was one of these family members – a cousin of Gates’s father – who warned Gates and the other children to run home on the morning of July 1st as fighting began west of town. Gates and his brothers returned to their home, but did not want to miss out on the thrill of a real battle in their own backyard; they climbed onto the roof of their home and sat next to the chimney, watching shells fly over the home. In a poignant juxtaposition of childhood innocence and martial grimness, as the boys were eagerly soaking in the panorama of war, Union Major General Oliver Otis Howard also stood atop the Fahnestock Brothers Store, solemnly surveying the battle as it moved through the town.  The boys were “having a good time” when Gates’s uncle discovered his missing children on the roof, and brought them inside the house.

            As Union troops were pushed back to Cemetery Hill, around a dozen of them entered the Fahnestock home to hide from advancing Confederate soldiers. In his recollections, Gates youthfully describes these men like participants in a game of hide-and-seek: “Some to closets, under beds, cellar room, potato bin – one went and covered himself with potatoes – some to attic among boxes with stored winter clothing.” The excitement of battle for the brothers continued into the night, as the famed “Louisiana Tigers” camped on the sidewalk in front of the family home. Fascinated by the battle which had been brought to his family’s doorstep, Gates and his brothers eavesdropped on the conversations of the Confederates outside.

            In the following two days of battle, the harsh realities of war truly set in as the Fahnestocks hid in their cellar for safety after a stray bullet smashed into the home above their heads. They buried a few prize belongings and wondered what they would do if the house caught fire or was intentionally destroyed. When the battle was over, Gates and his family did what they could to aid the wounded men left on the battlefield and filling any available building in town. It was this experience – the intense suffering and fear experienced by wounded men – which ultimately transformed Gates’s notions of war and, almost overnight, seemingly matured him by years. His awe at flying shells and booming musketry was replaced by horror at the sights, sounds, and smells of Civil War hospitals, but also by an impressive moral courage and a burning yearning to help mitigate the suffering: “There was so much to excite the interest and sympathy of the boys and it was nearly overpowering, but after seeing the first amputations, at which [I] nearly fainted, there came a remarkable self-control and the interest in the wounded and an inspiring desire to do something to help them,” Gates reflected.

            Gates’s and his family’s desire to help the wounded would transform the Fahnestock Brothers Store from a booming business into a supply hub for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In addition, delegation members from the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission arrived to aid in the humanitarian crisis left in the wake of the battle – including Ohio Governor David Tod, who stayed with the Fahnestocks. The exhilaration of the first few days of battle faded quickly for Gates, and a curiosity for battle turned into abhorrence: “The horrors of war new to the boy brought bitter abhorrence of war in itself and as a medium for settling differences – a deep reverence for the soldiers who sacrificed life. We never could, never will be reconciled to the thought that individuals or nations can by standing on opposite lines and shooting each other to the death rightly decide any questions,” he declared some 71 years later, in 1934.

The Fahnestock Brothers Store, July 9 1863. (Courtesy of the United States Military History Institute)

By August, 1863, the Sanitary Commission had returned the home to the Fahnestock family, and the Fahnestocks began to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. When President Lincoln arrived in November to deliver the Gettysburg address, Gates was too young to fully understand the meaning of his speech or the eloquence of his words. Rather, he remembered, “It was the face I saw – sad – deep lined – earnestly thoughtful. That thoughtful look back of the eyes. It was the spirit of the man I seemed to see.” Undoubtedly, Gates’s sensitivity to Lincoln’s emotions had been awakened by the death and destruction that consumed his home and his community.

            Ultimately, Gates would leave the Gettysburg community behind, becoming a successful businessman in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Not only did he carry on his family’s legacy of generating wealth, but he also became known for his philanthropic devotion. By the time of his death in 1936, the 83-year-old Gates was an active member of his church and a number of charitable organizations.

            Gates Fahnestock was witness to a number of incredible transformations in his lifetime. As a boy, he witnessed his childhood hometown erupt into a vicious and iconic battlefield. His home became a front-row seat to wild cavalry rides and artillery demonstrations, then a port of refuge for hiding Union soldiers, then a life-saving shelter for his own family. The family store was used as a gathering place for Union commanders, then a storehouse for the supplies needed to treat those commanders’ wounded and dying men. Cemetery Hill, once a pastoral neighborhood feature, became the point upon which the fate of the nation seemed to depend during those three days in July, and later, the point upon which the meaning of the nation was articulated. But, the most significant transformation was within Gates himself: Over three days, Gates went from an innocent, curious boy endlessly entertained and thrilled by the romantic aesthetic of battle to a young man disgusted by war and its inhuman consequences—a young man, in many ways, well-beyond his years whose mission in life was now driven by a passion for aiding others and restoring humanity to a war-torn nation.

            Gates’s individual story provides a window into the myriad transformations that affected Gettysburg during and after the battle. The town he called home was permanently altered by the events which occurred on its soil, both during those three July days and for months afterward. The nearly mythical stories of battle and bravery that occurred in this small Pennsylvania town do not capture the full weight of what the people of Gettysburg witnessed. Gates’s story isn’t just important because he was witness to the battle, it is important because he was changed by it. As we seek today to understand the legacies of Gettysburg, Gates’s story provides an instructive example of the battle’s transformative power upon the worldviews and perceptions of those who witnessed it and who would carry its conflicting memories with them for the rest of their lives.

Gates Fahnestock’s grave in Philadelphia.Courtesy of Ellen Johnson (Find A Grave)

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”.