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“Ticket to the Past:” A virtual reality tour about Basil Biggs

Newly opened in downtown Gettysburg at the beautifully preserved train station, the Gettysburg Foundation’s “Ticket to the Past: Unforgettable Journey” is a wonderful, mind-altering, virtual reality experience that may give visitors a glimpse into the future of museum visitors’ engagements with history.

“Ticket to the Past” feels more like a series of face-to-face encounters than a traditional exhibit-to-exhibit museum visit.

Gettysburg’s first virtual reality experience promises to stretch your imagination, awareness, understanding and empathy — and maybe even fire up your civic conscience, courage and involvement.

There, at 35 Carlisle Street, at the same train station where President Lincoln came to town from Hanover and Hanover Junction (Seven Valleys) on the Hanover Rail Corporation line in November, 1863 to deliver the world-famous Gettysburg Address, you come-face-to-face with one of three extraordinary individuals of that era.

You may choose either Basil Biggs, described as freedom fighter, facilitator for the fallen, and pursuer of unfinished work; Cornelia Hancock, soldier caregiver, hospital heroine, and dedicated social servant; or Eli Blanchard, teen volunteer, iron brigade band member, and amputation assistant.

Through virtual reality goggles, your character tells you his or her story leading up to, during and following the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.

I chose Gettysburg freedman, farmer, teamster (driver of a team of animals), a self-taught horse veterinarian, disinterment/exhumation specialist, civic leader and Underground Railroad conductor Basil Biggs (1819-1906), who also has ties to Hanover; a famous, one-of-a-kind photograph; and York County.

The performance by the actor portraying Mr. Biggs was intense and moving.

Biggs, an illiterate freedman born of mixed race parents in a Quaker settlement in Carroll County, Maryland, lost his mother when he was only four-years-old.

He was a master multi-tasker, a hard-working jack-of-all-trades. Throughout his life, Dr. Biggs, as he became known, made the best of each situation with relentless energy and perseverance.

Basil and wife Mary Jackson moved their growing family from Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state, to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1858 so their children could get an education and grow up in freedom.At that time, Blacks in Maryland — whether free or enslaved — were denied public education.

According to his 1906 obituary, while a tenant farmer at the Crawford Farm in Gettysburg, Biggs was an active agent in the Underground Railroad. According to historian Debra Sandoe McClausin, Biggs directed freedom seekers to Black freedman and Quaker Edward Mathews’ farm in Biglerville, Adams County.

As over 6,000 Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, the Biggs family fled northeast to the town of Columbia on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

When the family returned to town after the epic Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War, everything that Biggs owned was pilfered or destroyed except three assets: two horses and a cart. They also returned to find 45 dead Confederates buried in the fields they tended and tilled.

According to the National Park Service, “the Biggs family lost eight cows, seven steers, ten hogs, eight tons of hay, ten crocks of apple butter, sixteen chairs, six beds, and ninety-two acres of crops.”

After the battle, teamster Biggs’ salvaged cart, which could carry up to nine bodies at a time, came in handy as he embarked on a grisly, putrid and daunting endeavor.

Working for Gettysburg merchant Samuel Weaver to disinter more than 3,000 dead Union soldiers from their initial graves and relocate and rebury them in a central spot, Biggs played a major role in the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

From October, 1863 until March, 1864, Biggs made $1.25 for each corpse brought to its final resting place, including hauling Union corpses from Hanover, 14 miles away. As a famous photo from Hanover shows. Biggs hired several Black men from Gettysburg to get the job done.

Biggs used his earnings to purchase his own farm, the Peter Frey farm, which still stands on Taneytown Road, and about 120 acres of land. Some included the famous copse of trees, known as the high water mark of the Confederacy at Cemetery Ridge, a must-see visit for battlefield tourists.

In 1881, Biggs sold those witness trees and the seven acres around them to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association for $1,350.

Ironically, although Biggs played a prominent role in the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, he and other Blacks, including those 30 local Civil War veterans of the United States Colored Troops (organized in the summer of 1863), are not buried there.

As historian D. Scott Hartwig points out, “we now know that there are five burials of African American soldiers in the Civil War section of the Soldiers’ Cemetery [in Gettysburg], but four of those soldiers were Spanish American War veterans who were buried here because it was the closest National Cemetery.” Only one Black Civil War veteran, Henry Gooden of the 126th United States Colored Troops, who died after the Civil War in Carlisle in 1876 and was not interred at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery until 1884, is buried there today.

A founder and prominent member of the Sons of Good Will, formed to acquire land for Black cemeteries, Basil Biggs, along with local Black Civil War veterans, is buried in the cemetery that the Sons of Good Will established in 1866. Since 1906, the year Biggs died and was buried there, it has been known as Lincoln Cemetery.

It’s on the outskirts of town in Gettysburg’s third ward, where most Gettysburg African Americans in that era lived.

Your “Ticket to the Past” visit winds to its finale with a view of President Abraham Lincoln’s train steaming into Gettysburg from Hanover aboard a Hanover Rail train on November 18, 1863. The next day, in Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery that Biggs helped create, the nation’s 16th commander-in-chief proclaimed a “new birth of freedom.”

The narrator then ends your visit with an open-ended challenge to honor the fallen, the freedom-seekers, the healers and re-builders of that era in our lives today.

“Ticket to the Past” is a bold, family-friendly, state-of-the-art, immersive, patriotic, and call-to-service visitor experience that you don’t want to miss.

Warning! Don’t aim your virtual reality headset downward; your legs and feet will not be there! But if you take the tour, you are sure to be grounded in good history and a moving experience.

Sources, More To Explore and Special Thanks

  • Gettysburg Foundation’s Ticket to the Past: https:/www.gettysburgfoundation.org/exhibits-tours-events/exhibits-tours-events/ticket-to-the past%E2%80%94unforgettable-journeys
  • National Park Service/Wills House on Basil Biggs: Wills House Virtual Identity: Basil Biggs – Gettysburg National Military Park (U.S. National Park Service)
  • PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” Featuring Playwright Anna Deveare Smith: Wills House Virtual Identity: Basil Biggs – Gettysburg National Military Park (U.S. National Park Service)
  • Debra Sandoe McCauslin, Reconstructing the Past: Puzzle of the Lost Community at Yellow Hill (2005)
  • Betty Dorsey Myers, Segregation in Death (2001)
  • D. Scott Hartwig, A Burial in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery (2012):
  • Brandon Neely, Basil Biggs and America’s ‘Unfinished Work’: Basil Biggs and America’s “Unfinished Work” – The Gettysburg Compiler
  • Michael E. Ruane, After 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, a grisly but noble enterprise to honor the fallen – The Washington Post (2013)

Special thanks to historians Debra Sandoe McClauslin, Jim McClure, Scott Mingus, St., Samantha Dorm and Dominish Marie-Miller for reviewing earlier drafts, helping with fact-checking, and enlightening me. Thank you to friend Brian Shaffer of the Gettysburg Foundation for sparking my interest in “Ticket to the Past.”

Featured Image: Basil and Mary Biggs, in center of photograph, stand along the Taneytown Road in front of their post-war home south of Gettysburg. [Adams County Historical Society]

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Strategic planning, public policy and public relations consultant, Matthew Jackson is the chief editor and writer of The Heart of Hanover Trails and managing editor of the social media advocacy group, The Valley: For Good Change in the 717, Susquehanna Valley and Chesapeake Bay. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Lee University.

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