Basil Biggs and His Wife 
Adams County Historical Society

John Hopkins
Special Collections/Mussleman Library, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania

Margaret "Mag" Palm
Adams County Historical Society

--------------------------- “We did not know where our colored friends had gone.” -------------------



by Peter C. Vermilyea

Peter C. Vermilyea teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Valley, Connecticut, and at Western Connecticut, and at Western Connecticut  State University.  A graduate of Getysburg College, he serves as a scholarship director at his alma mater's Civil War Institute.  Vermilyea was an assistant editor for Of the People, By the People, For the People and Other Quotations from Abraham Lincoln (1996).

Old Liz” was a washerwoman for the McCreary family. In all probability, the “Old Liz” that young Albertus McCreary remembered and would later describe in his account of the Battle of Gettysburg was Elizabeth Butler, who, in 1863, was in her fifty-third year. Her husband Samuel was a wagonmaker, and together they owned a house worth one hundred dollars and owned another hundred dollars in personal possessions: pots and pans for cooking, clothing, maybe a horse. The Butlers lived comfortably compared to the standard of living in Gettysburg’s African American community in 1863. They were able to send their children to school and had lived long enough to enjoy their four young grandchildren. Although she could not have know it at the time, when Elizabeth Butler walked to the McCreary’s house on the morning of June 15, events were unraveling which would forever change her life. Within three weeks, “Old Liz” would be a captive of the Confederate States Army, and she would be bound and gagged in preparation for being sent south into slavery. She would make a dramatic escape, and would return to her home when the Confederate army retreated the next day. But Elizabeth Butler would never be able to return to the life she had known before the Battle of Gettysburg. [1]

The neighborhood to which Elizabeth Butler returned after her escape was, in effect, a ghost town. While the community would soon regain life, it was altered forever. The old faces were gone: of the fourteen inhabitants of Elizabeth Butler’s home in 1860, only four remained a decade later. > [2] The Confederate invasion would have a permanent effect on Gettysburg’s African American community. There are literally thousands of volumes which explore every conceivable facet of the Battle of Gettysburg. There are but scant reference dedicated to the question of how Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania affected the African American community of Gettysburg. While scholars and amateur historians alike continue to debate whether Gettysburg was the military turning point of the Civil War, there can be no question that the invasion was the turning point in the history of the borough’s black community. Any understanding of the effect of Lee’s invasion upon the African American community of Gettysburg is dependent upon a recognition of the character of that community before July of 1863. 

Alexander Dobbin, a Presbyterian minister, established Gettysburg’s black community in the spring of 1774 when he arrived in the Marsh Creek valley and purchased a two hundred-acre plot of land. Two years later, Dobbin returned with his two slaves to construct the stone building that would serve as Dobbin’s home and classical school. These slaves were the first known African Americans in Cumberland Township. When Dobbin died in 1808, the “remaining part of the time of [his] Negro servant Lett” was will to his wife. [3] James Gettys incorporate the borough of Gettysburg around 1800, and his slave Sydney O’Brien became the borough’s first black resident. Gettys later freed O’Brien and provided her with a house in the southwestern part of town. While the James Gettys family faded away within a few decades, Sydney O’Brien’s descendent, the Stantons, still live in the Gettysburg area, and the site of O’Brien’s house is today the location of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. [4] The African American community has as long a history in Gettysburg as Gettysburg’s white community.

While Gettysburg’s African American community was born in slavery, those slaves’ descendants were instrumental in helping Southern slaves escape to freedom. Membership in any of the area’s antislavery organizations was denied to Gettysburg’s blacks for fear that they would draw the attention of proponents of slavery. Indeed, the Rev. Jonathan Blanchard had been attacked by an anti-abolitionist mob in 1837 for fraternizing with blacks. [5] Therefore many blacks felt that the only way they could assist slaves seeking freedom was through the Underground Railroad. In fact, one of the main “stations” of the Underground Railroad was the Dobbin house, owned by Reverend Dobbin’s son Matthew, who was a “captain” in the Underground Railroad. [6] Gettysburg’s African American residents were active in the line of the Underground Railroad that ran through McAllister’s Mill, on the Baltimore Pike. [7] Gettysburg’s newspapers, however, frequently carried reminders of the dangers of such work, as the Sentinel did on June 12, 1805, with a notice that Ned Butler had been jailed on suspicion of being a runaway. [8]

In February 1841, five members of Gettysburg’s African American community formed the Slaves’ Refuge Society. The Society, which was created in association with St. Paul’s AME Church, was founded with a resolution that proclaimed: “We feel it our indispensable duty to assist such of our brethren as shall come among us for the purpose of liberating themselves, and to raise all the means in our power to effect our object, which is to give liberty to our brethren groaning under the tyrannical yoke of oppression.” [9]

Among the most active of Gettysburg’s residents in the anti-slavery movement was Basil Biggs. Biggs was born in Carroll County, Maryland, in 1819, and was four years old when his mother died, leaving him to be “bound out.” Biggs was forced to do hard labor for thirteen years, before becoming a teamster in Baltimore. Biggs married Mary Jackson in the 840s and bought a house in Maryland, but shortly thereafter decided to move to the North where his children could receive an education.

Arriving in Gettysburg in 1858, Biggs reportedly used his home, the McPherson Farm, to conceal runaway slaves during the day, while at night he would take them to Quaker Valley. From there they went to Canada. [10]

Those blacks who worked so diligently to free others of their race from slavery could not always count on the support of their white neighbors. In February 1860 the Adams Sentinel reported that:

Petitions are in circulation in…Pennsylvania for the presentation to the legislature of the state representing “that the rapid growth of the free Negro population within a brief period is not only a burden to the petitioners, by increasing demands on their poor fund, but owing to the indolence and dissipation of the Negroes they have filled the prisons and increased the taxes to an enormous extent. [11]


The petitions failed to have the desired effect in the legislature and, due in part to the efforts of the Underground Railroad, the African American population of Gettysburg grew from 108, including 5 slaves, in 1820 to 186 in 1860. The fact that thirty-one percent of Gettysburg’s African Americans in 1860 were natives of Maryland and Virginia serves as evidence of the impact of the Underground Railroad on the borough’s population. Fugitive slaves would choose to live only seven miles from the Mason-Dixon line because Gettysburg provided economic opportunities for runaway slaves desperate for work. Fifty of the borough’s 186 black residents held jobs in 1860. The types of occupations ran the gamut from clergyman to fortune teller, with day laborer being the most frequent occupation for men, and domestic servant the most common for women. Seventeen of the 103 black women in the borough held jobs. As with white workers, Gettysburg’s African American workers performed their jobs with mixed results. [12]

Abraham Brien, a descendent of Sydney O’Brien, was a farmer whose land south of town shared a small hill with the town’s cemetery. Sixty-one years old in 1863, he had five children by his three wives. Brien purchased his twelve acres in 1857, and set about farming wheat, barley, and hay, along with apples in his small orchard. Brien was so successful that he was able to sell his farm for a handsome profit in 1869 and move into town where he lived in semi-retirement until his heath in 1879. [13]

Owen Robinson was, in the words of Charles McCurdy, a “well-to-do Negro, who kept a little restaurant where he sold oysters in the winter and ice cream in the summer.” He ran his business out of the house at the corner of South Washington and West High streets that he rented from a white resident of the borough. McCurdy remembered that one of his “delights as a boy was to hang around his shop and watch the fascinating process of making the [ice cream]. Sometimes there was a little gleaning to be had, for Owen and I were on friendly terms.” Robinson had been born a slave in Maryland, but had lived in Pennsylvania for at least 20 years before the battle. In addition to operating the restaurant, Robinson served as the sexton of the borough’s Presbyterian Church. [14]

John Hopkins was hired in April of 1847 as the janitor of Pennsylvania College. Hopkins was charged with the care of the building and grounds, and in return he received fifteen dollars a month and was provided with money for housing for himself and his family. While Hopkins was considered financially successful by Gettysburg’s black community, his employers did not share such a positive view of his job performance, as Hopkins did not ring the bell on time, his cleaning of the rooms did not suit them, and he sometimes let the classroom fires go out. Hopkins was fired on one occasion, and resigned on another, but managed to keep his job until his death in 1868. [15]

The fact that both Brien and Hopkins owned real estate placed them in the economic elite of Gettysburg’s African American community. Only twenty blacks owned real estate in Gettysburg in 1860. Real estate owners were most often males with a family, although six women, all widows, also owned property. Almost two-thirds of black real estate owners were natives of Maryland and Virginia, perhaps offering a commentary on the economic goals of ex-slaves and free people of color who had lived amongst slavery. While the 186 blacks living in Gettysburg accounted for almost eight percent of Gettysburg’s population, real estate owned by blacks accounted for $8,650, or less than one percent of the borough’s total real estate, which was valued at $899,500. Per capita real estate for African Americans calculated to $46.50, in comparison to $408.12 for white residents of the borough. [16]

A comparison of the statistics for ownership of personal estate provides an even bleaker picture of the economic status of Gettysburg’s African Americans. Blacks owned 0.58 percent of personal estate, or $18.35 per capita, compared with $267.32 for Gettysburg’s white residents. Despite these figures, almost all African American of working age in Gettysburg held a job, and were able to put a roof over their families’ heads and food on their table. [17]

Life was hard for Gettysburg’s African Americans. Their most common occupation, that of day laborer, required working six days a week, often from sunup to sundown, and involved largely tasks requiring hard labor. Their existence was driven by two goals: economic and spiritual advancement. While economic advancement proved to be elusive for most blacks, they were successful in fostering religious activity in their community. Between 1837 and 1841, the forty African American members of Gettysburg’s Methodist Church left that congregation and formed two new churches, Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (later St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church) and the Asbury Church. [18] It is not surprising that Gettysburg’s African American moved to form their own churches during Daniel Alexander Payne’s stay in town in 1837. Payne, who would later become an AME bishop and president of Wilberforce University, “labored to produce revival, which labor were blessed by the coming of many souls to Christ.” Payne also “organized societies among the women for moral and mental improvement.” [19]

The original St. Paul’s church building, a wooden frame structure, was constructed in 1943 on the corner of Long Land and Breckinridge streets. This had been the site of the first structure in town owned by an African American. When, in 1834, Thomas Craig Miller gave the land to his ex-slave, Ann Child. The Rev. Abraham Cole became the church’s first pastor. The Asbury Church was located on South Washington Street, and the Rev. J. J. Matthews (whose cousin Edward was instrumental in establishing the Yellow Hill Church in nearby Middletown) was the church’s first pastor. A black cemetery had been in operation since the 1830s at the corner of York and Fourth streets. [20] Both St. Paul’s and the Asbury Church provided Gettysburg’s African American community the opportunities for socialization, education, and “moral improvement” that were so desperately desired by those who spend their days in hard labor. [21]

During Daniel Alexander Payne’s stay in Gettysburg, he was also instrumental in the establishment of education for Gettysburg’s African American children. In his autobiography, Payne remembered:

I obtained permission to use an old building belonging to the college for Sunday school instruction. So gathering in all the colored children in the neighborhood, I opened the school, having for teachers such persons as I could obtain from the village and the seminary. [22]

African American, so desperate for economic advancement, saw education as a means of providing their children with skills they never were able to acquire. Illiteracy was a problem, as many in the African American community escaped to Gettysburg from slavery. Those blacks who were natives of Pennsylvania had a literacy rate of 84.5 percent in 1860, for most of them had been educated. Those from Maryland and Virginia had a literacy rate of only 54 percent, perhaps a result of laws banning the education of slaves or slave-master reluctance to do so. Illiteracy was a setback to black economic advancement, as illiterates owned only ten percent of black-owned real estate. [23]

Education was provided for all blacks by Pennsylvania’s Free School Act of 1834, which declared, “The City and County of Philadelphia and every other county in the commonwealth shall each form a school division, and that every ward, township and borough, within the several school divisions shall each form a school district.” [24] Gettysburg’s school directors divided the town into four school sectors on November 28, 1834, and set one sector aside for “colored children.” [25] This school was established at 201 South Washington Street, in a “building of one story, rudely furnished with home made desks and benches.” Mrs. Elizabeth Keetch was the first teacher in the black school, serving from 1834 to 1839. In 1839, the school board hired “J. Sibbs, a colored man,” and the school was moved to St. Paul’s church. [26]

There were thirty-three African American children in school in 1860, representing forty-six percent of all the black children in town. While Pennsylvania’s Free School Act mandated that education must be provided for all children, families were not forced to send their children to school. Children frequently had to work in order for their family to make ends meet. This was especially true of girls, who often became domestic servants at a young age.  Thus, the determining factor as to whether or not a child was education was his parent’s economic status. In Gettysburg’s black school, seventy percent of the students had parents who owned real estate, the most obvious sign of financial success. The curriculum of the schools was geared toward development of reading and mathematical skills that would be essential in achieving economic advancement. [27]

By 1860, the African American community was becoming established in the town. There was some slow improvement in economic conditions; they had established two churches and their children had the opportunity to receive an education. Yet a dark cloud lingered over the community. Gettysburg’s location seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line rendered the community constantly in fear of slave kidnappers, and such fears were not unfounded, as the experiences of one black resident of Gettysburg demonstrate.

Mag Palm was twenty-four years old in 1860. She lived with her husband Alfred and their son Joseph, who was not quite one year old. In the black community she was better know as “Maggie Bluecoat” for the sky-blue uniform coat of an officer of the War of 1812 that she wore when she served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Mag was so notorious for helping slaves escape that on several occasions slave-owners from Maryland attempted to kidnap her and sell her into slavery to put an end to her practices. David Schick, whose farther was Palm’s employer, recounted one of these episodes:

She lived up Long Lane, back of the old fair grounds. On this occasion she was attacked by a group of men who made the attempt to kidnap her and take her south where they expected to sell her and derive quite a profit. She was a powerful woman, and they would have, from the sale, derived quite a profit. These men succeeded in tying Mag’s hands…She was fighting them as best as she could with her hands tied. She would attempt to slow them and succeeded in one instance in catching [an attackers] thumb in her mouth and bit the thumb off. John Karseen, who was crippled and ran a novelty shop on Baltimore Street, happened along at just the right time and by using his crutch was able to assist Mag in her fight with these kidnappers and drove them off and freed her from her bonds. [28]

Regardless of the veracity of this account, it clearly demonstrates that on the eve of the Civil War, nothing was dearer to Gettysburg’s African Americans than their freedom. The events of the summer of 1863 brought the greatest challenge yet to that freedom, and forever changed Gettysburg’s black community.

Salome Myers lived on West High Street in Gettysburg, adjacent to the black section of town. On the night of June 15, as Myers remembered in her diary, “the Darkies made such a racket up and down by our house that we could not sleep.” [29] Gettysburg’s African American population was hurriedly making preparations to evacuate the town. On that day, Brig. Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins’ Confederate cavalry crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland, and rode as far as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, twenty-three miles west of Gettysburg. [30] The black residents of Gettysburg and all of south central Pennsylvania were fleeing northward, correctly fearing that if they were caught by the Confederates, they would be taken to slavery.

There is no evidence to suggest where in the Confederate high command the order to capture and return blacks to slavery originated. In spite of this, there is no doubt that high-ranking Confederate officers were involved in the seizure of blacks. On July 1, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet reminded his division commander George Pickett that “the captured contraband had better be brought along with you for further disposition” when Pickett left Chambersburg for the march to Gettysburg. [31]

In addition, guerilla ands accompanying the invasion confiscated livestock, household valuables, and blacks to sell in Virginia for personal profit. On several occasions Confederate officers helped release black captives because “they, too, were heartsick when they saw this happening.” On at lease one occasion a civilian, Charles Hartman of Greencastle, was ordered by Rebels under Maj. Gen Robert Rodes to assist in the kidnapping of blacks. Hartman remembered

One of the exciting features of the day was the scouring of the fields about town and searching of houses for Negroes. These poor creatures, those of them who had not fled upon the approach of the foe, concealed in wheat fields around the town. Cavalrymen rode in search of them and many of them were caught after a desperate chase and being fired at. In some cases, the Negroes were rescued from the guards. Squire Kaufman and Tom Pauling did this, and if they had been caught, the rebels would have killed them. [32]

The best-known incident in which the Confederate army captured blacks occurred on the afternoon of June 16 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, twenty-five miles southwest of Gettysburg. Between thirty and forty black women and children who had been captured at Chambersburg were brought into town in wagons. A Confederate chaplain and four soldiers guarded this caravan. As the wagons came through the town, the residents surprised the guards, disarmed them and locked them in the town’s jail. The captives were freed. When Jenkins received word of this, he demanded $50,000 in compensation for the blacks, who he claimed were his property. The town leaders refused, prompting Jenkins to threaten to return in two hours to burn the town. After Jenkins rode out of town, fourteen of the blacks whom the townspeople freed met with the town leaders and offered to give themselves up to Jenkins to spare the town. The town leaders refused their offer, and the town ended up being spared as Jenkins never returned. [33] Despite the happy ending in Greencastle, no less than fifty blacks from the Adams County area ended up on the auction blocks of the southern slave markets, brought south while “bound with ropes” as “ the children were mounted in front or behind the rebels on their horses.” [34] It seems likely that most of the kidnappings were committed by those units operating either in the van of Lee’s invasion, like Jenkins’ cavalry, or those under quasi-independent command like “Hanse” McNeill’s Partisan Rangers who served with John Imboden’s cavalry. Perhaps the most intriguing evidence of this comes from Chambersburg resident Jacob Hoke’s account of the campaign. Hoke, citing J.C. Smith’s account of Imboden’s wagon train of wounded passing through Greencastle on July 4, state “The common soldiers seemed to be either to stupid to speak, or else forbidden to give a true account of the battle, but all the way through the colored portion declared that they were badly whipped.” [35]

While the borough’s newspapers did present stories on the plight of local blacks, it is clear that the editors were not as concerned for the welfare of these human beings as they were for the personal property of white residents. On June 23, the Adams Sentinel reported: “[The Rebels] too possession of Hagerstown on Monday of last week. They remained until Wednesday afternoon… They carried off with them some horses and quite a number of colored persons, but otherwise doing very little damage.” Six days later the following appeared in the Gettysburg Compiler: “About daybreak on the 18 th, a force of about 200 rebel cavalry made a dash into McConnelsburg and surrounded it in a few seconds. They then commenced their work of plunder, taking horses [and] Negroes… We are sorry to say that Captain States of Bloody Run had fourteen fine horses taken.” [36] Newspapers throughout the North, however, reported on the flight of “thousands” of free Negroes from the Cumberland Valley swarming through Harrisburg. [37]

Among the black refugees en route to Harrisburg in mid-to-late June of 1863 were many of the residents of Gettysburg’s African American community. The sight of the borough’s black population fleeing northward would make a lasting impression on Gettysburg’s residents, many of whom later wrote of their experiences with the Confederate army. Twenty-five years after the invasion, Tillie Pierce Alleman recalled seeing the exodus of Gettysburg’s African Americans:

We had often heard that the rebels were about to make a raid… On these occasions is was also amusing to behold the conduct of the colored people of the town. Gettysburg had a goodly number of them. The regarded the rebels as having an especial hatred toward them, and they believed that if they fell into their hands, annihilation was sure. These folks mostly lived in the southwestern part of town, and their flight was invariably down Breckinridge Street and Baltimore Street, and toward the woods on and around Culp’s Hill. I can see them yet; men and omen with bundles as large as old-fashioned feather ticks slung across their backs, almost bearing them to th4e ground. Children also, carrying their bundles, and striving in vain to keep up with their seniors. The greatest consternation was depicted on all their countenances as they hurried along; crowding, and running against each other in their confusion; children stumbling, falling and crying. Mothers, anxious for their offspring, would stop for a moment to hurry them up, saying: For’ de lod’s sake, you chillen, cum right long quick! If dem rebs dun katch you dey tear you all up. [38]

Fannie Buehler, who lived just east of town, reported one of her servants, Elizabeth Brien, Abraham’s wife, left town in early June. [39] A detachment of the Confederate army arrived in Gettysburg on June 26, sending those African American still in town into hiding. Catherine Foster wrote that the “colored People feared the rebels more than death. The played hiding and peeping all this time.” Mary Fastnacht reported that the Rev. Abraham Cole’s wife and daughter lived not far from her home. “The daughter’s husband was in the Union army,” she wrote. “They were alone and did not know what to do. Mother told them to come to our house, that she would dine them in the loft over the kitchen, take the ladder away, and they would be safe. They stayed Friday night, Saturday no Confederates were about and they felt safe to go to their home again. The daughter said she couldn’t be paid to put in such another night, that she heard soldiers walking around all night – that they surely knew who was in that loft.” The two women fled to an unknown location, and Mrs. Fastnacht commented, “We did not know where our colored friends had gone.” [40]

Charles McCurdy recalled that “whenever there was a report that the Rebels were coming, [Owen Robinson] would decamp with his family for a place of safety and not return until the coast was clear. This time there could be no doubt that the dreaded enemy was at hand, and the Robinson family joined the exodus of colored people. Before going he asked my father permission to put [his] pigs in our stable until his return. Father consented and promised to have them properly looked after.” [41]

Among the last to leave town was Basil Biggs. When Biggs heard of the Confederate invasion he sent his family away, but he remained in town. Biggs did not leave the town until the afternoon of July 1. As the Confederate army entered the town’s square via the Chambersburg and Carlisle roads, Biggs borrowed a horse from a Mr. Musselman and escaped eastward down the York Road. [42]

The departure of much of the black community had an effect on the economic life of Gettysburg. Twelve-year old Mary Elizabeth Montfort wrote:

Today we saw Aunt Beckie. She is the colored lady who helps mother with the wash. Jennie and I love Aunt Beckie. She and some other colored people were pulling wagons or pushing wheel barrows and carrying big bundles ‘Yo ol’ Aunt Beckie is goin’ up into de hills. No rebel is gonna catch me and carry me back to be a slave again. [43]

Rebecca Johnson’s departure would leave Mrs. Montfort without a servant to help with the household chores. On Tuesday, June 30, the professors of Pennsylvania College met to decide who would ring the college bell in the absence of John Hopkins, who had fled from the Confederate army. It was decided that a temporary tutor would assume Hopkins’ responsibilities. [44]

It is uncertain where those African Americans who left Gettysburg during the Confederate invasion fled. It is most likely that many of those who left town went of Harrisburg or Philadelphia, both cities with large African American populations. Evidence exists to corroborate this theory. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported on June 24, “Contrabands are arriving here constantly, and it really is a distressing sight to see women and children huddled in wagons, bringing all their worldly possessions with them.” [45] Maj. Gen. Darius Couch, charged with the defense of Harrisburg, immediately put crews of blacks to work building Forts Washington and Couch outside the city, at the rate of seventy-five cents per day, a quarter less than he paid white workers. [46]

Many other refugees from south-central Pennsylvania fled eastward. Of the disappearance of her servant, Fannie Buehler wrote, “I know not whither [she fled], for I never saw [my servant] afterwards. I heard of her from someone who had seen her on the way to Philadelphia.” [47] Folklore in Gettysburg’s African American community maintains that a number of Gettysburg’s blacks fled to the Yellow Hill community. [48]

Yellow Hill lies seven miles north of Gettysburg and two miles west of Biglerville, Pennsylvania. [49] Runaway slaves in the eighteenth-century had established it as an African American community. At the time of the Civil War, Yellow Hill was home to eight black families, who made their living making charcoal for the nearby Pine Grove furnace. [50] According to the town’s tax records, Edward Matthews, the relative of the Asbury Church’s J. J. Matthews, donated the land to establish a “colored church” in the Yellow Hill area in 1856. [51] Members of Gettysburg’s African American community would have certainly been aware of the existence of the Yellow Hill community as the churches in the two communities changed preachers on occasion. [52] If the local folklore is true, Yellow Hill would have been a good place to evade the Confederate search parties. The church was located in a heavily wooded area some two miles off the main road between Gettysburg and Carlisle. The Confederate Army did not come within a mile of the Yellow Hill Church. [53] It is conceivable that some portion of Gettysburg’s African Americans may have fled to the Yellow Hill region, especially those who planned on returning to Gettysburg after the crisis had passed.

While the number of blacks who fled Gettysburg because of the Confederate army is unknown, there where certainly those who stayed behind in the town. Those who stayed were frequently employed as farm hands, day laborers or domestic servants and worked for white families. Fannie Buehler made an agreement with one of her servants by which “she promised to stay be me, and I promised to protect her.” Buehler’s agreement unraveled with the Confederate army arrived in town of June 26, and Buehler’s servant fled. [54]

Others stayed behind in town because they were physically incapable of leaving. One Gettysburg resident remembered:

a nigger named Jack who worked on a farm near the town. At a time when a troop of raiders was known to be swooping in our direction he said, “they’ll kill all us niggers, or take us back to slavery.” He was a bow-legged nigger who couldn’t make much speed and he didn‘t have any confidence in his ability to outrun the rebels, so he crep’ under a haystack and stayed without a morsel to eat for three or four days. He almost starved. [55]

Physical disability became a desirable characteristic among Gettysburg’s black population. Sally Myers recalled, “those who were obliged to stay at home were, at the shortest notice, suddenly transformed into limping, halting and apparently worthless specimens of humanity.” [56]

Those blacks that remained in town were often able to escape capture through the help of their employers. Jacob Taughinbaugh of Gettysburg later remembered:

My mother had two Negro servants. We were sure if the Confederate found them they would be taken away. Our front porch was a few feet above the ground, and at one end there was an excavation below ground where you could get to the cellar from the outside. This entranceway was separated from the rest of the space under the porch by a wall made of stones without mortar. My mother took away stones enough to let the servants crawl through, then put the stones back just as they had been. She had to take out a good many stones, too, because on of the Negroes was a great big woman. Someone had to keep a sharp lookout all the time, and as soon as a soldier was seen coming Mother would take the servants down and stow them away. Sometimes there would be men hanging around the house all day. The best she could do then was to take down some food and slip it to them through the space of one stone when none of the men was near about. [57]

Isaac Smith was a thirty-two year old black farm hand who remained with his employer throughout the invasion. On the morning of July 1, Smith was working in the fields west of town, when he witnessed the beginning of the battle:

A great many people had skedaddled, but… we were right there when the battle begun, and then we loaded up a wagon with provisions and gain, and got away with seven or eight of our houses down an old road into the woods. After we’d gone far enough to be well out of sight and hearing we unhitched the horses that drew the wagon… There I stayed fearin’ and tremblin’ and looked after the horses. If the Rebels had happened to come through they’d have took ‘em and me too, but they didn’t get there… The man’s sons come back’ards and for’ards to bring me something to eat and make sure everything was all right. [58]

Isaac Smith’s wife was caught in a farmhouse behind Confederate lines throughout the battle. When the Confederate army occupied the house as a hospital, Mrs. Smith recalled: [I] got down into the cellar, and I crawled way back in the darkest corner and pile everything in front of me. I was the only colored person there, and I didn’t know what might happen to me.” A Confederate officer lay wounded upstairs, and he “wanted the women to come up out of the cellar to take care of him and do some cooking and he promised they should be well treated.” Mr. Hankey, Mrs. Smith’s employer, asked the officer “Would you see a colored person protected if she was to help with the work her? He said he would, and he sent out a written somethin’ or ‘nother orderin’ the men to keep out of the kitchen, and he had the door boarded up halfway so they could hand in things to be cooked and we could hand ‘em out afterward.” [59]

Not all of Gettysburg‘s African Americans were as fortunate as the Smiths. Young Albertus McCreary later recalled:

A number of colored people lived in the western part of town and when on the first day a great many of them were gathered together and marched out of town. As they passed our house our old washerwoman called out “Goodbye, we are going back to slavery.” Most of them were crying and moaning. We never expected to “Old Liz” again, but the day after the battle ended she came walking in, exclaiming, “Thank God, I’s alive again!” We all crowded around her, anxious to know how she had got away… The main fact was this: She was marched with the rest down the street and there was such a crowd that when they were opposite the Lutheran Church, in the confusion she slipped into church without being seen, and climbed up into the belfry; she stayed there for the two days without anything to eat or drink. [60]

While Elizabeth Butler managed to escape the return to slavery, there are no records that detail the number of Gettysburg residents who were returned to slavery.

The Confederate army retreated from Gettysburg in the early morning of July 5, but life did not return to normal for Gettysburg’s civilians. Isaac Carter, who had spent the battle hiding in a woodlot for fear of being captured, recounted that he

Visited the battlefield three days after the fight, and it made me sick the bodies were so numerous and so swelled up, and some so shot to pieces – a foot here, an arm there, and a head in another place. They lay so thick in the Valley of Death that you couldn’t walk on the ground. Their flesh was black as your hat – yes, black as the blackest colored person. [61]

Col. Charles Wainwright, an artillery officer in the Union’s First Corps, recorded in his diary that “every house and church was full of wounded,” and it has remained a common myth in Gettysburg that following the battle “every building was a hospital.” [62]

For whatever reason, no black-owned building in Gettysburg served as a field hospital after the battle. The only building that was lived in by a black family that served as a field hospital was the John Crawford farm on Marsh Creek, at which Basil Riggs lived as a tenant farmer. The main farmhouse served as a hospital for the men of Paul Semmes’ and William Barksdale’s Confederate brigades, while the tenant house on the property-where Biggs most likely lived-was occupied by the wounded artillerymen of Longstreet’s corps. [63] Abraham Brien’s farm stood at the center of “Pickett’s Charge” but was not used as a hospital. John Timber’s farm was only a few yards from Devil’s Den, but did not house any wounded. James Warfield’s farm on Seminary Ridge was General Longstreet’s headquarters, but saw no action as a field hospital. While larger structures such as the black school or the AME church were not hospitals, it is inconceivable that racial feelings would intrude upon the needs of the wounded. Most likely these structures were either poorly located, too small, or too badly damaged by the battle to serve as hospitals. [64]

Gettysburg’s African American population did not escape from having the bodies of soldiers killed in the battle buried on their property. James Warfield returned to find fourteen Confederate bodies buried in his garden. Forty-five Confederate were buried around Basil Biggs’s property. Two Confederate bodies were buried in the AME church cemetery. [65] Yet the task of exhuming the bodies for interment in the National Cemetery was also an economic opportunity for blacks, as town-resident Leander Warren described:

Basil Biggs had the contract to raise the dead and put them into coffins. He had a two-horse team and hauled six at a time… Every particle of the body was gathered up by the, and the grave neatly closed over and leveled. The bodies were found in various stages of decomposition. They were generally covered up with a small portion of earth dug up from along side the body. [66]

Biggs removed more than three thousand bodies for reburial. No records exist as to how much he earned for his labor, but F. W. Biesecker, the contractor for whom Biggs worked, received $1.59 per body. Biggs certainly received a good deal less. [67]

Biggs was not the only African American who found economic opportunity in the aftermath of the battle. Georgeanna Woolsey, who came to town with the United States Sanitary Commission to serve as a nurse at the field hospital, reported that he organization had its “camp set up in town by the railroad depot. Here we set up two stoves, with four large boilers always kept full of soup and coffee, watched by four or five black men who did the cooking under our direction, and sang (not under our direction) at the tops of their voices all day. “Oh darkies hab you seen my Massa.’” Woolsey also reported that many blacks come to Gettysburg on contract with the federal government to repair the railroad. “Every night,” Woolsey wrote:

They took their recreation after the heavy work of the day was over, in prayer meetings. Such and “inferior race,” you know! We went over one night and listened for an hour, while they sang, collected under the fly of a tent… men only, - all very black and very earnest. They prayed with all their souls, as only black men and slaves can: for themselves and for the dear white people who had come over to the meeting, and for “Massa Lincoln” for whom they seemed to have a reverential affection… Very little care was taken of these poor men… They were grateful for every little thing. Mrs.__________ went into town and hunted up several dozen bright handkerchiefs, hemmed them, and sent them over to be distributed the next after the meeting. They were put on the table in the tent, and one by one the men came up to get them. Purple and blue and yellow, the handkerchiefs were, and the desire of every man’s heart fastened itself on a yellow one… When the distribution was over, every man tied his head up in his handkerchief and sang one more hymn, keeping time, all round, with blue and purple and yellow nods and thanking and blessing the white people… as much as if the cotton handkerchiefs had been all gold leaf. One man came over to our tent, next day, to say: “Missus, was it you who sent me that present? I never had anything so beautiful in all my life before;” and he only had a blue one, too. [68]

The aftermath of the battle also witnessed acts of tremendous generosity on the part of Gettysburg’s African American residents. J. Howard Wert, a reporter for the Harrisburg Telegraph described the deeds of Gettysburg’s Lydia Hamilton Smith:

She belonged to a downtrodden race, for she was a colored woman… She was poor, yet she had a little money saved up, a trifle at a time, by years of labor. From a white neighbor she hired a ramshackle wagon with which she did hauling, and a horse (who) was a pile of bones, else probably he would not have been in Adams County at all but mounted by a Confederate cavalryman. Lydia circled widely through the farm section around Bendersville and York Springs. Eloquently she told of the tens of thousands of suffering men: “ I thank de good Lawd that put it in my heart to try to do something for these poor creatures.” When she could get donations of delicacies and suitable clothing, she accepted them. When donations failed, she bought till she had spend the very last penny of her little hoard… But now the wagon was heaped high to its full capacity, and she turned toward the hospital miles away… And then Lydia, feeling no the weariness from many miles of travel, began to distribute the articles she had brought-to Union soldiers, of course? No! Union and Confederate lay side by side, and that noble colored woman saw not in the latter the warriors who were striving to perpetuate the slavery of he race. She saw only suffering humanity. [69]

Few blacks, if any, worked in the field hospitals that Smith would visit. One exception was Nelson Royer, a member of Gettysburg’s African American community who was hired by surgeon T. T. Tate of the 3 rd Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1861, and returned to town for the battle, serving in the hospital at the public school on East High Street. [70] Blacks were employed by the federal government to repair the railroads destroyed by the Confederate army. It is interesting to note, however, that on July 10, the following item appeared in the New York Herald : “Among the Rebel prisoners who were marched through Gettysburg there were observed seven negroes in uniform and fully accoutered as soldiers.” [71]

African Americans who returned to Gettysburg often found their property or belongings damaged, destroyed or stolen by either of the two armies. While Robert McCurdy tried to care for Owen Robinson’s pigs, “the regularity of their feed was interrupted by the battle and the angered porkers made know their wants in the vociferous way that pigs do and advertised their presence to certain Union soldiers, hungry for fresh pork. Owen returned to his shop and his duties as sexton, but if he ate fresh pork the next fall it was not of his raising. [72]

More seriously, Basil Biggs reported damages totaling $1506.60, including forty-five acres of wheat, eight cows, seven cattle, ten hogs, twenty-six yards of carpet and five dollars worth of jellies. Abraham Brien claimed to have lost $570 worth of property, but was only awarded fifteen dollars from the government because that was the value of the amount of hay that Brien could prove was consumed by Union horses. James Warfield, described as “on of the best blacksmiths in the county” reported the destruction of fifty bushels of wheat, sixty bushels of corn, fifty dollars worth of fencing, two head of cattle, three hogs, and damages to other property totaling more than five hundred dollars. Abraham Flenner, who passed by Warfield’s home in the aftermath of the battle, testified that “the house, barn, smith shop, and garden orchard had been severely injured, the house shop and barn plundered of almost everything of value… The property of Warfield was the one of the battle near the peach orchard, a place of severe conflict and could not escape destruction and injury.” He was reimbursed $410 for his losses. All Margaret Brown wanted to be reimbursed for were two beds and quilts, and the hardship caused by being forced to leave her home. [73]

There was undoubtedly more damage caused to African American owned personal belongings during the battle. One reason why more claims were not filed is that many of the black residents of Gettysburg who fled the town never returned. The tax roll for the borough in the fall of 1863 reported sixty-four African American living in the town. [74] In all likelihood, many of those who left town “would drift into new towns and find employment, and there they’d make their future homes.” [75]

Those who returned to Gettysburg generally did so mainly because they owned real estate in the town. The twenty-two black families who never left Gettysburg or returned after the battle collectively owned $10,790 worth of real estate and personal estate. Of the sixty-four African American who lived in Gettysburg in the fall of 1863, sixty of them either owned real estate, or lived with a spouse, father, mother or other close elative who did own real estate.  [76] It is likely that those African Americans who owned real estate fled to a nearby hideout, such as Yellow Hill, to evade the Confederates. When the danger had passed, they returned to their homes. Their relief proved only to be temporary, however, for on July 5, 1864, the Adams Sentinel reported that “refugees were abundant” on the roads to Harrisburg, this time fleeing the advance of Jubal Early’s Confederates. [77] Meanwhile, those who did not own real estate fled to the areas with the largest black population, such as Philadelphia or Harrisburg, where they could become lost in the crowd. There they found new jobs, and made their homes.

The departure of so many of Gettysburg’s African Americans was to have ramifications throughout their community. In December of 1864 a motion was made to end St. Paul’s Leaders Meetings because the members were either too “young and inexperienced” or “too old.” The Sons of Goodwill, a church organization dedicated to the establishment of a new cemetery near St. Paul’s, saw its membership drop from twenty-three to thirteen, and Basil Biggs was pressed into service as the organization’s secretary despite the fact that he was illiterate. [78]

After the war, St. Paul’s provided disability pay to those of Gettysburg’s African American community who had enlisted in the Union army and had been wounded or injured. Forty-three black men from the Gettysburg area enlisted in the army. Nine soldiers were wounded in battle, seven became seriously ill or lame and Fleming Devan was killed at the Battle of Olustee, Florida. In all of Adams County, more than 50 of the 474 blacks enlisted in the army, representing “more than the traditional ten percent of the whole.” [79]

In 1870 Gettysburg’s African American population exceeded it pre-war size. The census for that year reveals 239 blacks living in gets

. However, lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania had changed the nature of the community forever. Of the 186 blacks that lived in Gettysburg in 1860, no more than 74 still lived in the borough in 1870. At the most, only 31 percent of the 239 African American living in Gettysburg in 1870 had lived in the town in 1860. [80] Ninety percent of the blacks who moved to Gettysburg between 1863 and 1870 were natives of Maryland and Virginia; these were most likely former slaves escaping the land of their persecution. [81]

Those entering the African American community of Gettysburg after 1865 would find increased economic opportunities because of the birth of the tourism industry. Tourism offered blacks employment as cooks, waiter, porters, caretakers, and a variety of other jobs. [82] This increase in economic opportunity may help explain why the percentage of black-owned real estate increased by almost one percent between 1860 and 1870 while the percentage of African Americans in the overall population of Gettysburg would decrease by 0.15 percent over the same time period. [83]

The percentage of black children attending school decreased in the years after the war despite the construction of a new school for African American children, and the hiring of a black schoolteacher, Lloyd F. A. Watts, a Gettysburg native. [84] Forty-six percent of African American children were in school in 1860. That number had fallen to forty-two percent ten years later, most likely as a result of the need for workers in the tourist industry. Of the thirty-nine African Americans between the ages of five and twenty-one who were not in school, thirty-seven held jobs. Perhaps resulting from children getting jobs instead of going to school and the influx of freed slaves into the community, illiteracy in Gettysburg’s African American community rose from 24.3 percent in 1860 to 28.1 percent in 1870. [85]

The opportunities for developing a true African American community in Gettysburg, which had been so vibrant before the war, waned as the borough became simply the first town many blacks encountered on their route north after being freed from slavery. These newly freed blacks were not interested in continuing the advancement of their new community’s institutions. They wanted only to be able to afford housing and food. Gettysburg’s African American community would unravel under the pressures of losing many of its old members and the apathy of its new members toward community institutions. Consequently, Gettysburg became a less attractive place for blacks to settle, and the African American community of Gettysburg and Adams County would decrease by forty percent by the turn of the century. [86]

Regardless, there were constant reminders of the horrors the black community faced in the summer of 1863. Isaac Smith remembered that “for years afterward farmers ploughing would once in a while find a skull, and they’d take those skulls home and have ‘em sittin’ up on the mantelpiece for relics. But I didn’t want no such relics as that.” [87] Owen Robinson could never quite put the past behind. In his post as sexton of the Presbyterian Church, “he had an unhappy time closing the church at night. In common with all the public buildings, in town, it had been used as a hospital and many wounded had died there. For him the place was haunted, and certain prankish youths in the congregation arranged that he would have convincing proof of his belief.” [88]

On September 20, 1896, John Timbers, and African American farmer who lived on his family’s farm near Devil’s Den, hanged himself in his barn. Doctors later said melancholia was the cause. [89] Indeed, it is apparent that a deep sadness prevailed over Gettysburg’s black community. In the years preceding the Civil War, Gettysburg’s African Americans took deep pride in their community and institutions. The Confederate invasion had do altered that community that within seven years, nearly two-thirds of its members had moved elsewhere, and its two most cherished institutions, it school and church, were suffering from decreased attendance. The Battle of Gettysburg may or may not have been the military turning point of the Civil War, but it was certainly the turning point in the borough’s African American community’s history.

Bibliographic Essay

In his introduction to Robert L. Bloom’s article “ ‘We Never Expected a Battle’: The Civilians at Gettysburg, 1863” Professor Michael J. Birkner of Gettysburg College comments, “Just how Gettysburg’s civilian population managed during the three climatic days of July 1863, and what survivors remembered about it later are surprisingly understudied issues.” This is especially true of Gettysburg’s African American community at the time of the battle. There are but few references to Gettysburg’s blacks in the historical literature and still fewer on how they dealt with the invasion and its aftermath.

General Histories of Gettysburg

Robert L. Bloom’s A History of Adams County, Pennsylvania 1700-1990 (Gettysburg: Adams County Historical Society, 1992) is by far the best researched and detailed history of the area. Bloom devotes several paragraphs to the history of the town’s black community.  Other general histories of the Gettysburg area, all of which ignores the town’s black history, include: H. C. Bradsby’s A History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Warner and Beers, 1886); Robert Fortenbaugh’s Notes on the History of Adams County Pennsylvania (Gettysburg, 1949); William A. Frasanito, The Gettysburg Bicentennial Album (Gettysburg: Gettysburg Bicentennial Committee, 1987); and Charles H. Glatfelter and Robert L. Bloom’s Gettysburg (York, Pennsylvania: Maple Leaf Press, n.d).

Carey A. Moore’s A Glimpse Into Adams County 1860-1914: A Photographic Record (Gettysburg: Adams County Historical Society, 1977) and D. J. Lake’s Atlas of Adams County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: I. W. Field, 1872) are indispensable for developing an understanding of the appearance of Gettysburg at the time of the Civil War.

History of Gettysburg’s African American Community

The lack of historical research into Gettysburg’s African American community makes a dependence on primary sources a necessity. Essential for researching black history is the United States Census. The population segment of the census alone establishes names, ages, occupations, literacy, amount of personal estate, amount of real estate, and children’s educational status for nearly every member of the community. Also important are the Borough of Gettysburg Tax Rolls, which aid in establishing the population or residency of an individual in a certain year, as well as an individual’s financial situation. Additional primary sources include Court House records, deeds, etc.

Betty Myers’ lecture “History of Blacks in Adams County” is preserved on audiotape in the Adams County Historical Society. Myers provides good insights into the town’s African American history up until the 1830’s. An overview of the town’s black history is provided in Shelly L. Jones and Harry Stokes’ “Black History in our Community” (privately printed).

For more information on Alexander Dobbin or the Dobbin House see Walter L. Powell, The Alexander Dobbin House: A Short History (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Published by the author, 1989). Alexander Dobbin’s will is on file at both the Adams County Historical Society and the Gettysburg National Military Park library. Information pertaining to the Dobbin House’s role in the Underground Railroad is contained in file VF 9-67 at the GNMP library.

Charles L. Blockson’s The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Jacksonville, North Carolina: Flame International, 1981) is the best secondary source for information on the local operations of the Underground Railroad. For black/white relations in the pre-war North see Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), Gary B. Nash, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation and its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

My thinking on economic issues in the black community has been greatly influenced be Edward Turner’s classic book, The Negro in Pennsylvania, Slavery, Servitude, Freedom (New York: Arno Press, 1969), which provides an excellent discussion of why black economic conditions improved so slowly, concentrating on how discrimination affected economics. Richard Wright’s The Negro in Pennsylvania: A Study in Economic History (New York: Arno Press, 1969) concentrates solely on blacks in Philadelphia. On the employment experiences of African American women, see Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Women, Work and the Family, From Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1965). While Jones all but ignores free blacks in the North, she provides some good general information on the topic.

All information derived about economic conditions in Gettysburg’s African American community is from the United States Census, 1860 and 1870 and the Borough of Gettysburg Tax Rolls, 1855-1870. For more information on Abraham Brien, see Marcus Sherfy, “The Brien Farm and Family” (unpublished manuscript) and Vertical File 1-110, both at the GNMP. For more information on John Hopkins, see Charles H. Glatfelter, A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College 1832-1985 (Gettysburg: Gettysburg College, 1987).

Charles H. Glatfelter’s The Churches of Adams County, Pennsylvania: A Brief Review and Summary (Biglerville, Pennsylvania: St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1987) provides a good overview of the county’s church history. Shelly L. Jones’ article “Historic Gettysburg Survey: St. Paul’s AME Church” (Gettysburg Times, February 24, 1972) provides a good background on the history of the church, as does information contained in the GNMP File VF-9-20. “AME Church in Gettysburg.” Daniel Alexander Payne’s autobiography Recollections of Seventy Years (New York: Arno Press, 1969) is a good description of the events leading up to the founding of St. Paul’s “Pennsylvania Historical Resource Survey From 181-89,” prepared by Elwood W. Christ, is an excellent reference on the history of the Asbury Church.  On a larger scale, Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame’s Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) provides an excellent discussion on the role of the church in nineteenth-century African American family life.

For a general discussion on education in African American communities see Berry and Blassingame, Long Memory and Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of the Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). James P. Wickersham’s A History of Education in Pennsylvania (Lancaster: Inquirer Publishing Company: 1886) and Willis W. Eisenhart’s “A Brief History of Adams County Schools” (unpublished manuscript, ACHS) both ignore the history of black education. The United States Census is the only resource available for obtaining the number of students in Gettysburg’s schools. For a discussion of Pennsylvania’s Free School Act of 1834 see Wayland Fuller Dunaway’s A History of Pennsylvania (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1946). Robert Bloom provides some information on the establishment of Gettysburg’s black school. “Pennsylvania Historical Resource Survey Form-201 South Washington Street,” prepared by Elwood W. Christ, establishes the location of the black school. Erle Diehl’s article “A History of Our Schools,” Gettysburg Compiler, June 6, 1909, gives a good overview of the life of Elizabeth Keetch, Gettysburg’s first teacher in the black school. The Gettysburg School Board minutes are an invaluable resource for the history of the town’s schools.

On the issue of kidnappings see Barbara J. Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). Although Maryland was a slave state, the northern counties of the state, especially Carroll and Frederick counties, provide the best parallels for African American community studies. See also Blockson’s work on the Underground Railroad. The letter from David Schick to Elsie Singmaster, a remarkable document, is in the Adams County Historical Society. Also in the Mag Palm file is the photo of Mag Palm demonstrating how the men who attempted to kidnap her tied her hands.

For general information on the Confederate army’s capturing free African American and returning them to slavery, see Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), Wilber S. Nye’s Here Come the Rebels! (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), and volume 7 of Frank Moore, ed., Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events. With Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1861-1868) W. P. Conrad and Ted Alexander’s When War Passed This Way (Greencastle, Pennsylvania: Greencastle Bicentennial Publication, 1982) contains the dramatic description of the capture and escape of thirty African Americans from the Confederate. On the general experiences of Gettysburg civilians during and after the battle, see Robert L. Bloom, “We Never Expected a Battle: The Civilians at Gettysburg, 1863,” Pennsylvania History , vol. 5, no. 4.

The experiences of Gettysburg’s African American residents are best told through personal accounts. Those personal accounts which include a description of the town’s black citizens include: Tillie (Pierce) Alleman, At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle, (New York: W. Lake Borland, 1889); Fannie J. Buehler, Recollections of the Rebel Invasion and One Woman’s Experience During the Battle of Gettysburg (privately published, 1896); Mary Warren Fastnacht, Memories of the battle of Gettysburg: Year 1863 (New York: Princely Press, 1941); Catherine Foster, “Account of the Battle of Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Compiler, June 29,1904; Albertus McCreary, A Boy’s Experiences at Gettysburg ; Charles McCurdy, Account of the Battle of Gettysburg ; Diary of Mary Elizabeth Montfort; Jacob Taughinbaugh, “In Occupied Pennsylvania,” Georgia Review (Summer 1950); Leander Warren, Account of the Battle of Gettysburg. All of these accounts are on file at the Adams County Historical Society. Also see the diary of Salome (Myers) Stewart in the Robert Braker Collection at the United States Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Clifton Johnson’s Battleground Adventures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 19195) contains three accounts of Gettysburg civilians which mention the town’s African American community, including two dictated by black residents of the town, Isaac Smith and his wife. J. Howard Wert reported on Lydia Hamilton Smith and the field hospital at Gettysburg for the Harrisburg Telegraph . Georgeanna Muirson Bacon arrived in town after the battle to serve in the hospitals, and recorded her observations in Three Weeks at Gettysburg (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1863). Charles Glatfelter’s A Salutary Influence contains information pertaining to John Hopkins and the Confederate invasion. For the escape of Basil Biggs, see “Obituary-Basil Biggs,” Gettysburg Compiler, June 13, 1906.

On the arrival of African American refugees in Harrisburg, see the Harrisburg Telegraph . I first became acquainted with the Yellow Hill community through a discussion with Ms. Jean Odom. I am indebted to Linda Marshall of Gettysburg College’s Civil Ware Institute for her help in acquiring information on Yellow Hill. Donnie Hollobaugh currently owns the land where the Yellow Hill Church stood, and is familiar with the topography and terrain as it appeared in 1863. An untapped resource on this subject is oral history, including interviews with Rebecca Sachs of Biglerville, Betty Myers and Catherine Caner, both of Gettysburg. Robert Bloom’s A History of Adams County discusses the history of the Yellow Ill community. See also “Historians Hear Early History of Jesuit Priests, Paper Mills and Other Industries,” Gettysburg Times , May 3, 1950.

The Tax Roles of Butler Township, Pennsylvania reveal that Edward Matthews owned seventeen acres of land from 1850 to 1855, and sixteen acres of land from 1856 to 1872. The deed to the Yellow Hill Church property reveals the lot to be one acre. Therefore one may hypothesize that the church was built in 1855-1856. The route of the march of the Confederate army marched only on the Gettysburg-Carlisle Road and the Middletown-Arendtsville Road, neither of which comes within a mile of the Yellow Hill area.

Gregory Coco’s A Vast Sea of Misery (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1988) is the best source on the field hospitals at Gettysburg. By comparing a list of African American residents from the census with Coco’s list of field hospitals, it can be established that no black-owned buildings served as field hospitals. For a contemporary description of the field hospitals, see Charles Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, ed., Allan Nevins (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1962). Coco’s Wasted Valor (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1990) is the best source for the burial sites of Confederate soldiers.

The records of damage claims made to the federal government are on file at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and microfilm copies of the original claims are at the Adams County Historical Society.

The only records available as to how many of Gettysburg African American residents returned after the battle are the Borough of Gettysburg Tax Rolls . By comparing the names on the 1864 tax roll with their number of family members in the 1860 census, an approximate population can be calculated. All real estate and personal estate figures are derived from information in the 1860 census.

The history of St. Paul’s AME Church after the war is best told through the church minutes. These are in the possession Jean Odom of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By far the best source on Gettysburg’s African American soldiers is Harry Bradshaw Matthews, Whence They Came: The Families of Unites States Colored Troops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1815-1871 (privately printed, 1992). An interesting source on the participation of African Americans in the Gettysburg Campaign is Robert E. Green, Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973 (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1975). For a discussion of economic opportunities available to blacks in 1870, see Robert L. Bloom’s A History of Adams County . The information provided for education in 1870 was derived from the United States Census.


In his book Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) Bruce Levine comments, “We need far more information about the origins and daily life of blacks in the North.” Levine then discusses only blacks in urban settings in the North. There is an absence of research into nineteenth-century rural free blacks in the North. The historiography is dominated by histories of slavery, with only the slightest amount of attention devoted to free blacks

One problem impeding research about African Americans in the rural antebellum North is the lack of sources. There is little else to use but the census. One major problem in the preparation of this paper was the ignorance of the plight of Gettysburg’s African American population by the local press. In reading through Gettysburg’s major newspapers, The Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg Star and Banner, and the Gettysburg Compiler, there are no references to Gettysburg’s black population fleeing town. However, the Adams Sentinel did find the space in the July 28 edition to carry two articles about the battle’s effect on birds. Instead, the newspapers’ coverage of African American is restricted to racist stories contained in the “Humor” section. As an example, the Adams Sentinel ran the following story on June 30, 1863:

A Negro was brought before the local magistrate and convicted of pilfering, the magistrate began to remonstrate, “Do you know how to read?” “Yes massa, little.” “Well, don’t you ever make use of the Bible?” “Yes massa, strap him razor on beard sometimes.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter C. Vermilyea teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Connecticut, and at Western Connecticut State University. A graduate of Gettysburg College, he serves as scholarship director at his alma mater’s Civil War Institute. Vermilyea was an assistant editor for Of the People, By the People, For the People and Other Quotations from Abraham Lincoln (1996).

[1] Albertus McCreary, “Gettysburg: a Boy’s Experience of the Battle,” Personal Accounts File, Adams County Historical Society (ACHS), p. 14; United States Census, 1860.
[2] United States Census, 1860; United States Census, 1870.
[3] Robert L. Bloom, A History of Adams County, Pennsylvania 1700-1990 (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Adams County Historical Society, (1992), pp. 28-29.A copy of Dobbin’s will is in the Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) library, vertical file 9-G7.
[4] Shelley Jones and Harry L. Stokes, “Black History in our Community.” Privately published, ACHS.
[5] Gail A. Stanislow, “Anti-Slavery Sentiment and Opposition in Adams County,” unpublished research paper, ACHS.
[6] Walter L. Powell, The Alexander Dobbin House: A Short History (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Published by the Author, 1986).
[7] Republican Compiler, July 12, 1836. McAllister’s Mill was also the site of Fourth of July celebrations by the black community.
[8] Adams Sentinel, June 12, 1805.
[9] File 160, “Slaves Refuge Society,” ACHS.
[10] “Obituary-Basil Biggs,” Gettysburg Compiler, June 13, 1906: Biggs Family File, file number 1000, ACHS.
[11] Adams Sentinel, February 20, 1860, p. 2.
[12] United States Census, 1820; United States Census, 1860.
[13] Vertical file 1-110, “Abraham Brien Farm,” GNMP.
[14] Charles McCurdy, Gettysburg: A Memoir (Pittsburgh: Reed & Witting Company, 1929) p. 6.
[15] Charles H. Glatfelter, A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College 1832-1985 (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Gettysburg College, 1987), p. 151.
[16] United States Census, 1860.
[17] United States Census, 1860. In 1860 there were no blacks living in Gettysburg’s Alms House. For a general discussion of African American economic issues in Pennsylvania, see Edward Turner, The Negro in Pennsylvania: Slavery, Servitude, Freedom, (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 9.
[18] Shelly Jones, “Historic Gettysburg Survey: St. Paul’s ANE Church,” Gettysburg Times, February 24, 1972.
[19] Daniel Alexander Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 59.
[20] “AME Church in Gettysburg,” GNMP, VF-9-20.
[21] For a discussion on the role of the church in the antebellum free black communities, see Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame, Long Remember: The Black Experience in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
[22] Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years, p59.
[23] United States Census, 1860. For a discussion of the role of education in the black community see Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).A person who could sign their name was considered literate.
[24] Wayland Fuller Dunaway, A History of Pennsylvania (New York: Prentice Hall, 1946), p753.
[25] Bloom, A History of Adams County, p 172.
[26] Elwood W. Christ, “Pennsylvania History Resource Form-201 South Washington Street,” ACHS; Erle Diehle, “A History of Our Schools,” Gettysburg Compiler, June 6, 1909; Gettysburg School Board minutes, volumes 1-3, ACHS.
[27] United States Census, 1860; School Board minutes, vols. 1-3, ACHS.
[28] Letter from David Schick to Elsie Singmaster, Palm family file, File #1000, ACHS.
[29] Salome (Myers) Stewart diary, Robert Brake Collection, United States Military History Institute (USAMHI).
[30] Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), p. 103.
[31] United States Ware Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies , 70 vols. In 128 parts (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 51, pt. 2, pp 732-33. This reference was incorrectly cited by Coddington and by subsequent historians.
[32] W. P. Conrad and Ted Alexander, When War Passed This Way (Greencastle, Pennsylvania: Greencastle Bicentennial Publication, 1982).
[33] Ibid., p 137.
[34] Frank Moore, ed. Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc. , 11 vols. And supplement (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1861-1868), 7:197.
[35] Jacob Hoke, the Great Invasion of 1863, or General Lee in Pennsylvania (Dayton, Ohio: W. J. Shuey, 1877; reprint, Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books, 1992), p. 501
[36] Adams Sentinel, June 23, 1863, p 2.; Gettysburg Compiler, June 29, 1863.
[37] Dispatch from Thomas Maquire, Harrisburg, July 1, 1863, for the Boston Morning Journal, cited in Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, p. 150.
[38] Tillie (Pierce) Alleman, At Gettysburg: Or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle (New York: W. Lake Borland, 1889), p. 19.
[39] Fannie J. Buehler, Recollections of the Rebel Invasion and One Woman’s Experiences During the Battle of Gettysburg, (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Star and Sentinel, 1896), p. 11.
[40] Mary Warren Fastnacht, Memories of the Battle of Gettysburg, Year 1863 (New York: Princely Press, 1941), p. 3.
[41] McCurdy, Gettysburg: A Memoir, p. 6.
[42] “Obituary-Basil Biggs”
[43] Mary Elizabeth Montfort, “How a Twelve-Year Old Girl Saw Gettysburg, ACHS.
[44] Gladfelter, A Salutary Influence, p. 184.
[45] Harrisburg Telegraph, June 24, 1863, p. 1.
[46] “Afro-American History Interpretation at Selected National Parks” File, GNMP Library.
[47] Buehler, Recollections of the Rebel Invasion, p.11.
[48] Author’s interview with Ms. Jean Odom, April 13, 1994.
[49] In 1863, the town of Biglerville was known as Middletown.
[50] Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 177; “Historians Hear Early Histories of Jesuit Priests, Paper Mills and Other Industries,” Gettysburg Times, May 3, 1950.
[51] Tax Rolls of Butler Township, Pennsylvania, 1850-1872.
[52] Gettysburg Compiler, October 3, 1883.
[53] Author’s interview with Donald Hollobaugh, April 15, 1994; Civil War Border Raid Damage Claims, ACHS. By mapping where the people who filed claims lived, it is possible to obtain an approximate route of the Confederate army.
[54] Buehler, Recollections of the Rebel Invasion, p. 11; Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 198
[55] Clifton Johnson, Battleground Adventures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915), pp. 192-93.
[56] Salome (Myers) Stewart diary, USAMHI.
[57] T. W. Hebert, ed., “In Occupied Pennsylvania,” Georgia Review (Summer 1950: 104-5.
[58] United States Census, 1860; Johnson, Battleground Adventures, pp. 182-83.
[59] Johnson, Battleground Adventures, p. 189.
[60] McCreary, “Gettysburg: A Boys Experience of the Battle,” p. 14.
[61] Johnson, Battleground Adventures, p. 185.
[62] Charles Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles Wainwright, 1861-65, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962), p. 254.
[63] Gregory Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1995), p. 216.
[64] For the best history of the field hospitals after the Battle of Gettysburg, see: Gregory Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1-November 20, 1863 (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1988).
[65] Gregory Coco, Wasted Valor: The Confederate Dead at Gettysburg (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1988.) There were also Confederate dead buried in the Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg’s town cemetery.A town ordinance ordered that those bodies be removed.There are no records that the bodies of the Confederate soldiers buried in the AME cemetery were ever removed.
[66] Personal account of Leander Warren, ACHS.
[67] Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 9.
[68] Georgeanna Woolsey, “Three Weeks at Gettysburg,” pamphlet (1863) pp. 18-20.
[69] J. Howard Wert, “Lydia Smith,” Harrisburg Telegraph , August 6, 1907.
[70] Harry Bradshaw Matthews, “Revisiting the Battle of Gettysburg: The Presence of African Americans Before and After the Conflict,” paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 6, 1993, p. 8.For information on the hospital see: Coco: A Vast Sea of Misery, p. 27.
[71] Georgeanna Muirson Bacon, Three Weeks at Gettysburg (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1863), p. 18; New York Herald, July 10, 1863.
[72] McCurdy, Gettysburg: A Memoir, p. 6.
[73] See GNMP vertical files: 14-CF-8, Basil Biggs; 14-CF-14, Abraham Brien; 14-CF-15, Margaret Brown; and 14-CF-110, James Warfield. It is interesting to speculate as to whether the damage claims filed by African Americans were treated differently because of the race of the claimant. Unfortunately, because there were only four claims filed by blacks and over six hundred filed by white residents of Adams County, no definitive answer can be derived.However, the fact that Biggs and Warfield received the majority of the requests suggests that perhaps race was not a factor in the decision.
[74] Borough of Gettysburg 1864 tax roll. The tax roll included all men over the age of twenty-one and all women who owned real estate.By comparing the tax rolls with the 1860 and 1870 census, the number of residents in town in the fall of 1863 can be established. The 1863 Tax Roll, compiled in the fall of 1862, establishes the black population at the time of the battle at 91, whereas in the 1860 census the number is 186.This represents a discrepancy of 52 percent.Including this discrepancy the black population in the fall of 1863 would be 130. However, those most often missed by the tax collectors would be the transient workers (i.e. day laborers, domestic servants) that made up the bulk of Gettysburg’s African American population.
[75] Johnson, Battleground Adventures, pp. 192-93.
[76] Borough of Gettysburg tax roll 1864; United States Census 1860; United States census 1870. Only Thomas Rideout, who was a fifty-one-year-old day laborer in 1863, and his family would return to the town without owning real estate.
[77] Adams Sentinel, July 5, 1864.
[78] St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church minutes, in the possession Ms. Jean Odom, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
[79] Matthews, “Revisiting the Battle of Gettysburg,” p. 12; Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 187. One can only wonder how the battle effected enlistment in the army by Gettysburg’s African Americans.Blacks were not allowed to enlist in the army until the time of the battle, so there are no previous enlistment records with which to make a comparison. Unfortunately, no African American soldier letters or diary accounts have been found explaining why they enlisted.
[80] United States Census, 1860; United States Census, 1870 .The figures of seventy-four residents and thirty-one percent are maximums. There is no way of telling which women in the Gettysburg community in 1860 were living under a married name in 1870, and which had fled town. Announcements of black weddings did not appear in the local newspapers, and are not recorded in church records.
[81] Borough of Gettysburg Tax Rolls, 1864-1870, United States Census, 1870.
[82] Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 263.
[83] United States Census, 1860; Unite States Census, 1870.
[84] Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 333.
[85] United States Census, 1860, United States Census, 1870 .
[86] Bloom, A History of Adams County, p. 448.
[87] Johnson, Battleground Adventures, p. 185.
[88] McCurdy, Gettysburg: A Memoir, p. 6.
[89] Gettysburg compiler, September 22, 1896, p.3.