View Full Version : Black Gettysburg

01-21-2011, 12:03 AM
One of the last things many of the 1-7 million visitors who come to Gettysburg every year see as they finish their tour of the 6,000-acre National Military Park is a tiny, two-story white house with a shingle roof.

Peek in one of the windows and you will see that the first floor consists of two rooms, a wooden floor, and a brick fireplace. Across Hancock Avenue and about 20 yards west of the house is a white clapboard barn, and beside it a statue of a soldier from the lllth New York Infantry. The bronze Yankee is facing west, toward what were once the Rebel lines on Seminary Ridge.

This is a busy spot. Cars and tour buses steadily move past on Hancock. They are heading for the parking lot and visitors' center just beyond the white house. Few people stop, get out, and read the bronze plaque on the house.

If they did, they would discover one of the more piquant ironies of the Civil War. This house belonged to Abraham Brien, and the plaque says that "his property was thus under fire in the midst and thickest of the battle"-specifically, Pickett's Charge, the doomed attack of 12,000 Confederates on July 3, 1863, often called the "high-water mark of the Confederacy."

The assault was repulsed about 100 yards directly south of Brien's barn, at a low stone wall near a dump of trees.

That land, the climactic point of the three day battle of Gettysburg, was purchased by another farmer, Basil Biggs, after the war. A third farmer (and blacksmith), John Warfield, has given his name to the ridge whence Confederates launched their bloody assaults of July 2. Yet another farmer, John Fisher, also owned land here.

All four of these men were black;

the Confederacy's famous high-water mark crested and eddied about the farm of a free Negro. So it is that this best known of all Civil War battlefields holds encoded another momentous history, that of the everyday struggle of African-Americans. Yet few people who visit Gettysburg know about the black history of this famous American town. And few African Americans come here.


01-21-2011, 12:14 AM

But no matter what the black residents did or did not do before the Battle of Gettysburg, one thing we know for certain: They got the hell out of town as soon as they heard that Gen. Robert E. Lee was moving into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.

They had good reason to flee. One thousand Confederate cavalry troopers who spearheaded the drive north under Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins were seizing blacks and sending them south into slavery. Nobody knows exactly how many were kidnapped this way. But most black residents of Gettysburg did not wait around to see strangers in gray or butternut approach.

And approach they did. Rebel infantry passed through town for the first time on June 26, five days before the battle, but kept going north and east. A 15-year-old white girl, Tillie Pierce, described in her journal the flight of black residents. "I can see them yet; men and women with bundles. . . children also. . . The greatest consternation was depicted on all their countenances as they hurried along. . . toward the woods on Culp's Hill."