The middle nineteenth century was not an easy one for those who lived in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, especially for those of African descent. When war came to town, many who were descendants of slaves were forced into hiding. There were some who, in the years before the war, did their part to help the unfortunate souls who were denied freedom a chance to live without shackles. While most of these people are lost to history, one of the few known was the intrepid Basil Biggs, a Gettysburg resident whose mark of aid, good will and hard work remains.
Basil Biggs was born in 1819 in New Windsor, Maryland – a town located near Westminster, in Carroll County to William Biggs and the former Elizabeth Boynton. His parents died when he was a child, and from the age of four Basil was on his own. Money his mother had left him for his education was absconded, and Basil worked as an indentured servant until he was of age. At age seventeen, Biggs moved to Baltimore where he worked as a teamster. His knowledge and care of horses served him well and gave him a living. He married his sweetheart, the former Mary Jane Jackson in 1859 in New Windsor. The couple moved north, to Gettysburg, and became the parents of five children. 1
In Gettysburg, Basil continued to work as a teamster and also toiled as a farmer on the Crawford Farm, located west of town. He worked with fellow farmer and friend John Fisher to help escaped slaves find their way to freedom on Gettysburg’s Underground Railroad. The Fisher Farm, formerly located on the Taneytown Road, was a place where some escapees were hidden. Basil used the Crawford Farm, too, as a base for the escaped slaves. 2
Basil, who was denied an education, knew that literacy was essential to liberty and success in life. He and his wife insisted that their two sons and three daughters receive an education. Having been well trained in the care of horses, Biggs was consulted often for treating these necessary animals in town, and the small fees he earned supplemented his income.
When war came to Gettysburg, the Biggs family were in as much danger as the rest of those of African descent and needed to escape the town. According to a descendant, the family, still living at the Crawford Farm at the time, traveled to Wrightsville, near York, where they remained with friends until the Confederates retreated. 3
When Basil returned to Gettysburg with his family, he rendered a monumental service for the myriad slain in the battle he was fortunate to miss. Having recently passed his 44th birthday in August, he learned that a National Cemetery was being furnished for the thousands of dead – and that the bodies needed to be exhumed, examined, separated, and reburied. Dr. Samuel Weaver from Hanover was hired to oversee the work. Basil Biggs oversaw the exhumation under the direction of Weaver. He began the work on October 27, 1863, and finished the following March, in 1864.
According to Dr. Weaver, “The battlefield had been overrun by thousands of sorrowing friends in search of lost ones, and many of the graves had been opened and but partially closed. Many of the undertakers who were removing bodies also performed their work in the most careless manner, invariably leaving the graves open, and often leaving particles of bone and hair lying around. ” 4
Under Weaver’s direction and Basil Biggs' careful execution of the work, “ every particle of the body was gathered up….and the grave neatly closed over and levelled
.” The bodies were, due to the elements and carelessness of those who had taken control after the battle, in various stages of decomposition. The laborers, at a penny a day, exhumed the bodies, identified them as much as possible, and placed them in their more permanent graves. Union dead were placed in the National Cemetery, while Confederate slain were buried in group graves according to state – where they were exhumed at a later date and removed to their states for final burial. 5
At this time, Basil Biggs lost his good friend John Fisher, who died after a lengthy illness. Since Fisher had no descendants, he willed his farm to Dr. Biggs, who moved there with his young family. Less than two years later, Peter Frey and his wife decided to sell their farm, a neighboring and extensive property. Basil Biggs purchased their farm and began to make improvements to it. He also purchased a small house belonging to another Gettysburg resident that abutted his farms, and began to work at improving the properties. 6
When the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated in 1863, it was soon apparent that, in the ensuing war years, that men from the U.S. Colored Troops were denied burial in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery. In 1866, Basil Biggs and two others formed a committee from membership in the AME Zion Church on Washington Street, seeking land to purchase a burial ground for black Civil War veterans. They named themselves The Sons of Goodwill . Their only motive was to honor the veterans who had given their lives for freedom and for the perpetuation of the nation. These men purchased land for what was originally called The Goodwill Colored Graveyard. It later became the Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg. The cemetery passes its 150th anniversary in April 2017. Basil Biggs was the only non-Civil War veteran to be honored as an officer in the Gettysburg chapter of the Sons of Goodwill – a testament to his unfailing regard for duty. 7
In addition to his many civic responsibilities, Biggs continued working with horses and other farm animals, lending his expertise to the farmers. He became the local veterinarian of choice and was known as Dr. Biggs.
In 1896, Biggs sold his acquired properties that held such historic value to the U.S. government, which included the former Frey Farm, the Copse of Trees, and most of the land between the Leister and Hummelbaugh farms, upon which many monuments to the Battle of Gettysburg were already being placed. Mr. and Mrs. Biggs, now able to live comfortably, moved into town and lived on the corner of Washington and High Streets. His children continued with their education, and his son William, named for the father Basil lost in childhood, became a certified doctor in his own right. 8
In 1905, Basil’s beloved wife Mary Jane died, leaving him an aged widower. He died the following year of heart trouble at the age of 87. Both are buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg – the graveyard he helped to establish to honor those who fought for their country and who were yet segregated. 9
Basil Biggs is a true son of Gettysburg whose mark can still be felt, over a century after his death. Instilling a love of freedom, country, and education, Dr. Biggs remains an example of tireless ability, cheerful good will, and painstaking care in all his touched in his long and capable life.
Sources: Basil Biggs Personal File, Gettysburg National Military Park. Basil Biggs Family File, Adams County Historical Society. Basil and Mary Jane Biggs Family Tree, Ancestry.com. Basil Biggs Death Certificate, ACHS. Peter Frey Farm File, GNMP. Myers, Betty Dorsey. Segregation in Death , The Lincoln Cemetery Project, 2001. National Cemetery File, GNMP. The Sun Patriot News, Sept. 15, 1974, Harrisburg, PA.
1. Basil Biggs Family File, ACHS. Basil and Mary Jane Biggs Family File, Ancestry.com.
2. Basil Biggs Personal File, GNMP.
3. The Sun Patriot News, Sept. 15, 1974.
4. National Cemetery File, GNMP.
6. Peter Frey Farm File, GNMP.
7. Basil Biggs Personal File, GNMP. Myers, Segregation in Death . The AME initials signify African Methodist Episcopalian.
9. Basil Biggs Death Certificate, ACHS.
Author's Note: The photo of Basil and Mary Biggs was taken in front of their home on Taneytown Road, the former Frey Farm. The photo given for the article by the Adams County Historical Society has been cropped. The original shows the entire homestead, including the barn, which Biggs built after he purchased the farm, sometime after 1865.