Gettysburg Connection is pleased to publish the second in a series of articles called The Black Influence. The series focuses on the African American experience in and around Gettysburg, traveling back to the 1780s and expanding to the present time, each article providing descriptions of local African American people and events that shaped Gettysburg and Adams County.
This week’s article is by Gettysburg Connection contributor Jenine Weaver. The article has been peer reviewed for accuracy by local historians Andrew Dalton of the Adams County Historical Society, Jane Nutter of the Gettysburg Black History Museum, and local historian Debra Sandoe.
At the end of the article, there is a list of references that more deeply explore each individual and event.
As always, we welcome comments, questions, additions, and corrections. You may leave your thoughts in the comments section of this post or contact the author directly by emailing [email protected].
In 1847, John “Jack” Hopkins was a custodian at the Gettysburg College. He was hired making only $15 a month. This was the normal wage for a free Black man in Pennsylvania. He was held in high esteem by the faculty and students. It is said that he helped freedom seekers during their passage in the underground railroad.
Hopkins went on to purchase a home on South Washington Street from Abraham Brian in 1857. Abraham bought a farm on Cemetery Ridge that ended up being a major point of battle during the war a few years later. The Hopkins home and two of the Cemetery Ridge buildings were reconstructed by the U.S. National Park Service.
Jack and his wife, Julie Ann Hopkins, moved to a home on the college campus but kept their home on South Washington Street. The same year, 1860, the couple hosted the “Grand Fancy Dress Ball”. The Ball was most likely held at the home on South Washington Street. The Star and Sentinel is quoted saying the ball was “attended by all the colored aristocracy of the town, with specially invited guests from York, Harrisburg, Columbia, and Chambersburg.”
In 1858, Margaret Devitt, later known as Mag Palm, was attacked by a group of men. They attempted to kidnap her. She fought with her hands bound and it is rumored she bit off the thumb of one of her assailants. She eluded the kidnapping. The picture on this page shows Mag Palm presenting how her hands were bound during the attempted kidnapping. Her strength and pride illuminates in her smirk.
While reviewing this article, Jane Nutter, Present of Gettysburg’s Black History Museum added, “I often heard of the Mag Palm story by elder members in my family. Also interesting to me is the story about the wagons. I have heard ghost stories about the wagons on Washington Street.”
Basil & Mary J. Biggs moved to Adams County in 1858 so their children could be educated. In 1863, when the confederates were invading Gettysburg, Basil sent his family away. When they returned, his farm was ruined. He put in a claim to the state for the damages. He was awarded over $1,300 but he never received payment.
Basil earned money by exhuming soldiers’ bodies and burying them in the National Cemetery. He went on to buy land on Cemetery Ridge and inherited the Frey Farm. He also bought a home on the corner of South Washington and High Street. He was well known for his veterinarian skills and was a respected community member. One might say his greatest accomplishment was aiding freedom seekers in the underground railroad. He also helped found and build the Asbury ME Church in Gettysburg.
In 1861, John Edward, son of John “Jack” Hopkins, served in Company F of the 25th US Colored Troop where he became a sergeant. Returning after the war, Edward suffered from a service-related illness that affected him for the remainder of his life. He lived with his wife and children at the home on S. Washington St. he inherited from his father.
With warning of the Confederates entrance in Gettysburg in 1863, most Black people left Gettysburg fearing the war and possible re-enslavement. Lydia Hamilton Smith left with a different story. She was an interracial woman who married a free Black man named Jacob Smith. They had two sons but they separated and she raised the boys on her own in Adams County until an acquaintance, Thaddeus Stevens, offered her a housekeeping position. Thaddeus was a known antislavery advocate and attorney. Lydia accepted the position and took her two children with her. She accompanied Thaddeus on his travels after he was elected to Congress. It is believed Smith and Stevens participated in the underground railroad at his home in Maryland.
Since Pennsylvania bordered slave states, kidnappings of African Americans were common. The number significantly increased as Confederates made their way to Gettysburg. Black people were categorized as either free, emancipated, or runaways called “contraband.” The Rebels kidnapped African Americans from each group without care to their status.
The number of kidnapped African Americans from Gettysburg is not known, but newspapers, personal journals, and letters mention raids of Black people being taken away. Most were women and children. They were bound and herded out of the town.
The kidnappings in Gettysburg were by guerillas, acting alone, as well as Confederate soldiers in General Lee’s army. Although it cannot be proved that General Lee gave the orders for his troops to “collect contraband,” the following passages suggest that the ranks knew of and possibly encouraged the cruel practices. (from the book, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, by James Paradis):
On July 1st…Lt. Gen. James Longstreet…instructed one of his division commanders, George E. Pickett, “The commanding general [Lee] desires you to come on this evening as far as this point.” In the same paragraph he instructs Pickett, “The captured contraband had better be brought along with you for further disposition.” (p. 36)
As with any leader, the generals in the confederate army should be held responsible for the war crimes their soldiers committed. Some of the kidnapped African Americans were born free in Gettysburg. Some were emancipated by their owners. Others were escaped slaves, but the Confederate soldiers did not care about their status. The Rev. Dr. Philip Schaff recorded, “I asked one of the riders guarding the wagons; ‘Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?’ He boldly replied that he felt very comfortable.” (p. 30)
Vermilyea, Peter C. (2005). “Jack Hopkins’ Civil War”. Volume 11, Article 3. Available at: https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=ach
Christ, Elwood W. (1999). “On the Trail of Sidney O’Brien: An Inquiry into Her Family and Status – Was She a Slave or Servant of the Gettys Family in Gettysburg? Was Her Daughter, Getty Ann, a Descendant of James Gettys?,” Adams County History: Vol. 5 , Article 4. Available at: https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/ach/vol5/iss1/4
Lee, Deborah A. (2009). “Honoring Their Paths – African American Contributions along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground”. (pgs 7-46) www-hallowedground-org.myshopify.com/products/honoring-their-paths-african-american-contributions-along-the-journey-through-hallowed-ground
McCauslin-Sandoe, Debra. (2007). For the Cause – Gettysburg History. http://www.gettysburghistories.com
Paradis, James M. (2005). “African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign”. www.books.google.com/books/about/African_Americans_and_the_Gettysburg_Cam.html?id=9IbaTYAFGKIC