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The Frey Farm: In the Eye of the Storm

by Diana Loski
The Peter Frey farmhouse, Gettysburg
The Peter Frey farmhouse, Gettysburg

The Union defensive line at Gettysburg was a sorely contested spot in the early days of July in 1863. It was here that the Battle of Gettysburg raged on the second and third days, and it was here that the contest was ended. For the farms that dotted the landscape in an otherwise peaceful and bucolic setting, those days were among the worst anyone living there would witness. One of these farms,belonging at the time to an aged farmer named Peter Frey, miraculously survived the brutal storm of war.

The house and barn that stand today bearing the name of Frey appear markedly different from the edifices that stood in 1863. The stone house, built by Peter Frey, was added upon after the war. The original barn was, like at least one other on the Taneytown Road south of town, built of logs. It was the Frey log barn that was used as a busy field hospital during the battle.

It was not unusual in the mid-19th century that, as the farmers aged, they retired and moved into town, leasing their lands for others to farm, and allowing another to stay on their farm and pay rent. This was the case with Peter Frey and his wife, the former Catherine Weikert.

Johann Peter Frey was born in what was then York County, Pennsylvania (now Adams County), the son of German immigrants, in 1784. He married Catherine, the granddaughter of German immigrants and the daughter of George Weikert, in 1809. Five children were born to the couple: Michael, Elizabeth, John George, Catherine, and Mariah. Before acquiring the land that would become the Frey Farm, the family lived in Mt. Joy Township, south of Gettysburg. 1

An exact year is not given as to when Peter Frey built the stone house on the Taneytown Road, but it is estimated to have been built sometime around the year 1850. By 1860, the children were grown and Peter and Catherine retired from the farm and lived on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg. They rented their farm and fields, and therefore were somewhat spared the horrors of war that came to their property in the summer of 1863. 2

The Frey Farm found itself in the middle of the terrible storm of war as the Union and Confederate soldiers fought at Gettysburg. The Frey Farm was located close to the Leister farm, which served as General Meade’s Headquarters during the battle. It was close to the fight for the Union center in the early evening of July 2, and the subsequent Pickett’s Charge the following afternoon. Both the stone house and log barn were used to house wounded and the barn was one of many amputation stations, so necessary as the battle ensued. Some of the men taken to the Frey property included the wounded of the First Minnesota regiment, Webb’s Brigade, Harrow’s and Heath’s brigades, Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, General Wright’s Confederates, and men from Cowan’s, Brown’s and Arnold’s Batteries. Although no cavalry was ever stationed there, nor were there any wounded Cavalry there, General Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of Union cavalry at Gettysburg, briefly had his headquarters near the Frey Farm. 3

The din of battle was so horrendous that the surgeons working at the Frey Farm were affected. During the cannonade that preceded Pickett’s Charge on July 3, the house and barn were filled to capacity with men already in dire need of aid from the previous day’s fight. “ While the heavy cannonade lasted ,” remembered one surgeon, “it became impossible for surgeons to do anything but patiently await the result. The hum of fragments of shell around us was incessant, and no one knew when he would be struck down .” At one point, an officer from General Hancock’s staff entered the house “ in search of a surgeon ” for his wounded commander. Apparently, no surgeon offered to accompany him due to the dangers at the front, angering the officer, who threatened to report them for cowardice. One surgeon, a Canadian serving in the 108th New York, later wrote that he would have gone to help the general, but had been in another part of the house and had not known. “ They were no doubt terrified of the gunfire, but indeed I think the open field was quite as safe as the house ,” he remembered. 4

The damage done to the Frey Farm was heavy, as well as loss of property. Peter Frey’s land included the Copse of Trees – the focal point of Pickett’s Charge. The battle had been so severe that within a few years most of the scrub oaks that made up the rather large copse died of lead poisoning.

The aged Freys sold their farm in 1865 to Basil Biggs, who owned the neighboring Fisher farm. Basil Biggs, with his wife and five children, worked to improve the embattled farm house, adding on the extension in 1890. He also tore down the remains of the log barn and built a fine two-story barn, the one that exists today. He worked for many years to improve the land, which included the Copse of Trees. 5

The current barn, built by post-war  owner Basil Biggs
The current barn, built by post-war owner Basil Biggs

Peter Frey died in 1873 at the age of 88. His wife, Catherine, died the following year. They are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

Basil Biggs, who owned the property longer than the Freys, sold his consolidated farms, beginning the sales in the 1880s and culminating in 1896, to the U.S. government. Like Peter Frey before him, he wished to retire from farming. He worked as the local veterinarian for most of his life, including his years after farming, and was known as Dr. Biggs. He was also active in community affairs. He died in 1906 at the age of 86. He is buried beside his wife, who died in 1905, in the Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg.

In 2007, a fire nearly destroyed the old Frey homestead, beginning in the attic. Smoke alarms, which had been placed in the home, alerted the responders, and the home was fortunately saved. 6

Today, the Frey home remains at 350 Taneytown Road. The red barn built by Basil Biggs stands nearby. The fields are once again quiet, belying the horrors of war that raged there 154 years ago. It is believed that some Union and Confederate remains, buried there while the property was used as a field hospital, are still interred.

There are Frey descendants who remain in the area. Some include those born to Michael Frey, who had eleven children. Basil and Mary Biggs, too, have numerous descendants – all of them connected by the stone house at 350 Taneytown Road.

Sources: Basil Biggs Personal File, Gettysburg National Military Park (hereafter GNMP). Diary of Francis Moses Wafer, assistant surgeon, 108 New York Regiment, Douglas Library Arhcives, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Johann Peter and Catherine Weikert Frey Family History, Ancestry.com. 1810 United States Census, Peter and Catherine Frey, Adams County Historical Society. GNMP Historical Statement, Biggs Farm Buildings, Peter Frey Farm File, GNMP. U.S. Department of the Interior, Peter Frey Farm, April 24, 2007, GNMP.

End Notes:

1. Peter and Catherine Frey Family History, Ancestry.com. 1810 U.S. Census, ACHS.

2. GNMP Historical Statement, GNMP. Adams County broke off from York County in 1800, naming itself after the U.S. President at the time, John Adams.

3. Ibid.

4. Diary of Francis Moses Wafer, 108 NY, Queen’s University Archives.

5. Basil Biggs Personal File, GNMP.

6. U.S. Dept. of Interior, Apr. 24, 2007. GNMP.

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