Which black man was responsible for burying bodies at Gettysburg?

BY: HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.

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.

Background

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.”

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