Basil Biggs, James Warfield, and Abraham Brian (also spelled Bryan and Brien) were farmers on what would become the Gettysburg battlefield. Warfield also ran a highly regarded blacksmith shop, and Biggs was well known for his veterinary skills. What set them apart from neighbors such as Joseph Sherfy and William Bliss was that they were Black. It is notable that 5.1 percent of the residents of Cumberland Township, in which these three families lived, were African American. Their stories provide some understanding of the unique experience of Gettysburg’s Black residents and the Gettysburg Campaign that uprooted their lives.
The color of their skin made all the difference. There were worries that Biggs and the others dealt with daily that Joseph Sherfy did not have to consider. They were free, but the border with Maryland, a slave state, was only about five miles from Gettysburg. Biggs had moved his family from Maryland specifically because it was illegal for his children to receive an education in that state. Pathways of the Underground Railroad ran through Gettysburg, and Biggs worked as an agent helping escaped slaves pass through. To do so, he was taking a great risk because of the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, which required that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters and made it mandatory for officials and citizens of free states to assist in their capture.
Federally authorized slave-catching patrols were not uncommon around Gettysburg before the war. The legislation also gave cover to an illegal business that predated the 1850 act: the kidnapping of African Americans and stealing them away to the Deep South to be sold into slavery, a story highlighted in the 2013 Oscar-winning film Twelve Years a Slave. As Richard Bell points out in his book Stolen, children were often targets of these individuals because they had many working years before them. Biggs, Warfield, and Brian all had children. Their concern was underscored by the experience of Mag Palm, who rented a tenant house from Brian. She was nearly a victim of one of these raids in 1857, but managed to fight off her kidnappers.
In the 1857 Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court declared in a 7-2 decision that African Americans were not, and could not be, citizens of the United States. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that Blacks were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” By Taney’s opinion, Biggs, Warfield, and Brian had no protection under the law because of their skin color. But they could own property in Pennsylvania, and Brian and Warfield both owned their small farms. Biggs was a tenant farmer, as were many of the other Black and White farmers in the area.
When the Army of Northern Virginia entered Pennsylvania in June 1863, White farmers generally took their families and their horses to safety to avoid the danger of possible fighting. But occasionally the men departed with the horses and left the women of the household behind because it was less likely soldiers would enter a residence if it were occupied. This was the case on the Emmanuel Harmon farm on the July 1 battlefield, where the tenant, David Finnefrock, left his wife and her niece at the farm. He did not fear that they might be harmed or seized by the Confederates. The Black residents could take no such chance, for their very freedom was at stake. They had certainly heard that Confederate units were actively rounding up African Americans in adjacent Franklin County on the premise they were escaped slaves and taking them south. So they gathered their families and generally headed east to get out of the Confederates’ path.
The Battle of Gettysburg took a toll on each of these individuals’ lives. The farm Biggs rented was used as a field hospital for Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ Division. The dining room of the house became an amputation room. All his corn, oats, wheat, and fencing were destroyed. Warfield was ruined. His farm was on the front line and the site of heavy fighting. All his blacksmithing tools were taken, his crops and fencing wrecked, and he found 14 Confederates buried in his garden. Brian, whose farm was on the front line of Union Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays’ 2nd Corps division, lost nearly everything but his house and barn, which were riddled with bullets and shell fragments. Since most of the damage each of these families sustained was caused by an act of war, there was little relief for them from the federal or state government.
Warfield did not recover. He put his farm up for sale in 1864 but failed to sell it and was forced to remain there until 1871, when he moved to nearby Cashtown. Brian was able to repair his property and farmed it until 1869, when at age 62 he found less physically demanding work in Gettysburg. Biggs not only recovered, he prospered. In the fall, he found work as a subcontractor for Samuel Weaver, the superintendent in charge of efforts to exhume the bodies of Union soldiers and rebury them in the newly created Soldiers National Cemetery. Biggs hired a crew of 8–10 other African American men and did the hard, physical work of removing the dead from their battlefield graves.
No work associated with the battle was more solemn…or more nauseating. Weaver examined each body to ensure that it was a Union soldier, then Biggs and his crew reinterred the body in the cemetery. Biggs received $1.25 for each body and used the money he earned to purchase the Peter Fry Farm on the Taneytown Road. The property included the Copse of Trees, where Pickett’s Charge reached its terrible climax on July 3. One day in 1869, historian John Bachelder came upon Biggs cutting trees down, no doubt for some practical need. Bachelder appealed to Biggs to stop, arguing that the trees had historical value, but this failed to stir the pragmatic farmer. So Bachelder suggested that Biggs might earn more in the future by preserving the trees than he could by cutting them down. In the hard, practical world in which Basil Biggs lived, there was logic in Bachelder’s suggestion and he saved the trees and later sold the property that included them to Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.
Biggs, Warfield, Brian, and their families and those of other African Americans who lived in and around Gettysburg, inhabited a world where their country stacked the deck against them because of their skin color. For them the Gettysburg Campaign, and the war, was about more than a threat to their homes and property. Everything was at stake in the outcome, including their right to be citizens.
Scott Hartwig writes from the crossroads of Gettysburg.
National Park Service preservationists are restoring the Warfield farmhouse, built in the mid-1850s, to its 1863 appearance. Additions and modifications to the stone house were made at the turn of the century and in the 1950s and ’60s. The NPS has removed the non-historic part of the home and restored the original roofline and roof height; stabilized and reconstructed masonry walls; and are restoring original doors and windows. More details about the project can be found at https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/warfield-house.htm.