Walking through the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War inside the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center, one passes numerous original artifacts from the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. Each of these historical treasures represents a unique story, continuing to inform us why the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg events and history are important and relevant to us today.
As one pauses next to a museum case, an inscribed relic of the past tells the personal story of one participant of 1863 and the horrific events that came to our town and county that year. This particular artifact, a pocket watch, belonged to Adams County resident Basil Biggs, an African American laborer who became a witness to the Battle of Gettysburg.
In 1863, Biggs and his family lived as tenant farmers on the Crawford Farm west of Gettysburg. After the battle, Biggs had a leading role in the creation of the National Cemetery, helping to oversee the reburial of Union soldiers from the battlefield to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He also brought the remains of Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg to the local train station for transportation. The station is now known as the Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad StationTM.
Basil Biggs was born in Carroll County, Maryland, as a free person. According to his obituary, Basil’s mother died when he was only four years old; he was bound out for service for the next thirteen years. After enduring backbreaking labor as a young man, Basil moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a teamster. Before the Civil War, he came to Gettysburg with his family. He reportedly served as an agent or conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting those seeking freedom in the north. After the war, he purchased a farm on Taneytown Road and became a prominent veterinarian. After fifty years of living and working locally and continuing to be a leader in Gettysburg’s African American community, he died in 1906. Buried in the Lincoln Cemetery, Basil Biggs left behind five children, fifteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Biggs was one of nearly 200 African Americans living in Gettysburg at the time of the Civil War.
Basil Biggs and family, Farm on Taneytown Road, Gettysburg, Pa. Photo courtesy of the Adams County Historical Society.
Inside the historic Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad StationTM, located at 35 Carlisle Street in Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Foundation recently opened Ticket to the Past–Unforgettable Journeys, a virtual reality experience featuring Basil Biggs as one of three historic figures depicted in the experience.
As we celebrate Black History Month and focus on the contributions of African Americans to the United States, we bring into focus the significant contributions of African Americans in Gettysburg and Adams County. The Gettysburg Foundation tells Biggs’ and other compelling stories in partnership with Gettysburg National Military Park.
With the display of historical objects, like Biggs’ watch in the museum exhibit, and the story of Biggs featured in the new virtual reality experience, we honor Biggs and his important contributions throughout his life. You can learn about Biggs’ compelling story and others through the exhibits in the museum and in our historic sites and experiences. The Gettysburg Foundation is pleased to tell these fascinating and powerful stories in multiple ways through traditional museum exhibitions paired with exciting new technology, connecting our nation’s past for all generations.
Wayne E. Motts
President and CEO, Gettysburg Foundation
First appeared in the Gettysburg Foundation's column in the Feb. 28, 2023, edition of the Gettysburg Times