Near the Site of the Gettysburg Address, These Black Civil War Veterans Remain Segregated, Even in Death

Denied burial alongside Union soldiers killed during the Battle of Gettysburg, the 30 or so men were instead buried in the all-Black Lincoln Cemetery

A historic photograph of Lincoln Cemetery
Lincoln Cemetery was established in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. Courtesy of the Adams County Historical Society

At the edge of a busy emergency room parking lot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln Cemetery holds the remains of more than 450 Black Americans, including about 30 Civil War veterans. Many of these individuals’ stories are untold; 136 of them are buried in unmarked graves.

Lincoln Cemetery—established in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War—stands in easy walking distance from Soldiers’ National Cemetery, which President Abraham Lincoln designated as the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union troops killed during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Local Black civilians dug most of these soldiers’ graves. But Black veterans themselves were denied burial in the whites-only military cemetery.

“It’s ironic that Lincoln spoke about a new birth of freedom, in perhaps the greatest oration ever, … several hundred yards away from what would become this cemetery,” says Andrew Dalton, executive director of the Adams County Historical Society and its Beyond the Battle Museum. “Many [Black locals] enlisted right after the [November 1863] Gettysburg Address. Some were there that day to hear this message of hope and democracy and … then continued to face these obstacles even years later, after the war.”

Headstones at Lincoln Cemetery
In October 2023, the Lincoln Cemetery Project Association conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey of the graveyard. Kellie B. Gormly

The society is one of several local organizations working to renovate and restore Lincoln Cemetery, as well as research the stories of the African Americans laid to rest there. In collaboration with Gettysburg College, the Lincoln Cemetery Project Association (LCPA) and the Gettysburg Black History Museum, the society hopes to identify the individuals buried in the cemetery’s unmarked graves and erect headstones for each one. The joint effort includes an online community database with 443 records and counting.

The veterans buried at Lincoln Cemetery were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), a division primarily made up of Black soldiers. Members of the USCT faced discrimination from other Union troops and were often assigned to supporting noncombat roles; if captured by the Confederates, they were subjected to harsher treatment than their white counterparts.

None of the men interred at the cemetery fought at Gettysburg, but all were from Adams County and participated in other engagements during the Civil War. Archival sources offer a glimpse into some of these veterans’ lives. Samuel Stanton, who enlisted in the Navy and later joined the Army under an alias, died in 1912 and was “one of the best-known [Black] residents of Gettysburg,” according to his obituary. George Bolen, a man of mixed ancestry who enlisted in 1864 and spent time guarding Confederate prisoners, died in 1899. Isaac Buckmaster, who was wounded at the Battle of Olustee in Florida on February 20, 1864, died in 1882 in his 30s.

Jean Howard Green, president of the LCPA, looks back on this period of history, when segregation extended to the grave, with grief.

A historic photograph of Lincoln Cemetery
Locals are trying to identify the individuals buried in 136 unmarked graves at Lincoln Cemetery. Courtesy of the Adams County Historical Society

“It’s a sad moment, but that was just how it was. Those were the times,” says Green, a 72-year-old Black woman who grew up in Gettysburg. Her family traces its presence in the area back to 1890, and she has many relatives buried at Lincoln Cemetery.

Green points out that the USCT veterans “fought along with their [white] counterparts, but in the end, [they] still could not be buried with them.”

“It was a whole different world back then,” says Bernadette Loeffel-Atkins, a past chairperson of the LCPA and the author of Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th-Century America. “These soldiers fought for this country and came back and were mistreated.”

The cemetery’s gates are currently locked, with visits by appointment only. Green hopes to have the site open by the spring, most likely from dawn to dusk on the weekends, while Dalton, who also serves as an LCPA board member, hopes to one day host Memorial Day and Juneteenth events there.

Burials at the cemetery had mostly stopped by the early 2000s, with only a few more interments taking place before 2010. Because the cemetery is almost full, it’s generally closed to new burials, but family members can be cremated and interred in existing graves on top of older caskets.

In October 2023, the LCPA used ground-penetrating radar, which detects disruptions in soil, to identify 136 unmarked graves in Lincoln Cemetery. Some families lacked the money to buy a headstone for the deceased, Green says, but the high number of unmarked burials is also the result of the cemetery being neglected for many years.

In 1948, the town’s Memorial Day Committee, which had become the de facto caretaker of most Gettysburg graveyards, established the Colored Citizens Cemetery, an organization that cared for Lincoln Cemetery specifically, Green says. She recalls the cemetery falling into disrepair around the 1960s, when most of the people responsible for it moved away or died.

As part of the surveying project, workers placed orange flags on top of both marked and unmarked graves.

“It was really exciting for us to see all these flags and to know where all these people were buried,” says Dalton. “We knew they were there, but we didn’t know exactly where.” (Just 26 years old, Dalton is the youngest-ever president of the historical society. He got the job after graduating from Gettysburg College with a history degree in 2019.)

Unmarked graves at Lincoln Cemetery
The orange flags denote the locations of unmarked graves at Lincoln Cemetery. Kellie B. Gormly

Dalton has dedicated many hours to researching death certificates, obituaries and other public records linked to Lincoln Cemetery. The database is the result of this work, containing all of the information that Dalton and his colleagues have found about each burial.

LCPA members are drawing on historical books and other records that list detailed burial information for the town of Gettysburg to see if they can match the unmarked graves to people named in the texts. They will then use metal detectors to try to locate original markers in the ground.

“We’re going to make the best attempt to do this,” Green says. “In the event we cannot, a stone marked ‘unknown’ will be laid at the marker.”

Dalton remembers passing by the cemetery as a boy and sensing just how much history was waiting to be told. “There are so many stories in our community that haven’t seen the amount of the attention they deserve,” he says. “This is an incredible story. It’s a sad story. It’s an inspiring story. It’s a hidden story. [Green] has given all of us the motivation to make sure we include these stories in all the work we do.”

In Dalton’s opinion, “the worst thing that can happen is for someone to be forgotten.” He adds, “The cemetery is a way to at least make sure their names last. This is a resource in Gettysburg that has to be protected.”

Basil Biggs and his wife, Mary Jackson Biggs
Basil Biggs and his wife, Mary Jackson Biggs Courtesy of the Biggs descendants / Adams County Historical Society

Scholars have traced Gettysburg’s African American history back to a woman named Sydney O’Brien, who was reportedly the first Black resident of the town. She was enslaved by the Gettys family, who founded Gettysburg.

A favorite story that Green shares during tours centers on Basil Biggs, a town veterinarian and a founding officer of the Sons of Good Will, which established Lincoln Cemetery. Biggs was born a free man in the slave state of Maryland and later moved to Gettysburg, where his farm was ruined during the July 1863 battle. Biggs played a leading role in the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, assisting with the reburial of more than 3,000 bodies. He died in 1906 at age 86 and has many surviving descendants, some of whom live in nearby York County.

Green says many sites linked to the town’s Black history no longer survive. A Methodist church and the Franklin Street “Colored” School, for instance, were both torn down decades ago. The Agricultural Hall, where Frederick Douglass spoke in 1869, was razed in 1991.

“Lincoln Cemetery is the only really concrete evidence that there was an early Black community here in Gettysburg,” Green says. “We do not want to forget their contribution to the town of Gettysburg. … We want their stories to live on.”

She adds, “Each person in that cemetery has a story to be told.”

A group of Biggs' descendants at Lincoln Cemetery
A group of Biggs' descendants at Lincoln Cemetery Courtesy of the Biggs descendants / Adams County Historical Society

The burials at Lincoln Cemetery include several dozen bodies that were exhumed from the only other Black cemetery in town. Opened in 1828 at the corner of York Street and Third Street, this graveyard—which was unnamed but is identified as “Colored Cemetery” on old maps of Gettysburg—was abandoned in 1906. Today, a brick house stands at the site of the shuttered cemetery.

Rita C. Frealing, who was elected Gettysburg’s first Black and first woman mayor in 2021, lives near Lincoln Cemetery and enjoys walking to the burial ground to reflect on its history.

“It’s a very important part of our community, and it’s now becoming a prouder part of our community because of people putting effort into it,” says Frealing. Her mother’s best friend, Betty Dorsey Myers, author of the 2001 book Segregation in Death: Gettysburg’s Lincoln Cemetery, has been like an aunt to her. Myers played a key leadership role in the LCPA from 1998 until around 2022.

Frealing says, “[The cemetery is] just a part of my heritage, … and Jean Green is carrying on the tradition.”

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