History in a can: Abraham Brian

Abraham Brian's house

Abraham Brian’s barn

Imagine that you’re a farmer in the mid-19th century, trying to make a go of it. You save up, buy a farm in 1857, you marry and have five children, and achieve some modest success. On your twelve-acre farm you grow wheat, barley and hay, and you have a small apple and peach orchard. Now imagine that you’re Abraham Brian*, an African-American farmer, one of 170 free black Americans living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and it’s the summer of 1863.

Gettysburg is the best known, most researched, studied,   video’d and written about, battle in the Civil War, probably in US history. A park ranger told us that to raise money for acquiring battlefield land you just have to put the word Gettysburg in the appeal and the money flows in. As a result, many people are pretty informed about the battle, or at least its highlights.

Gen. Gibbon's Brigade repelling Pickett's Charge

Gen. Gibbon’s Brigade repelling Pickett’s Charge

So you may already know the back story: after several decisive victories in Virginia in 1863, the brilliant strategist and risk-taking General Robert E. Lee decided that taking the fight into the north could change the course of the war. His goal was to attack Harrisburg and Philadelphia, PA, in the belief that victories there would destroy the northern army and demoralize the population, leading to an end of the war and recognition of the Confederacy. Hearing that the southerners were coming, Abraham Brian left Gettysburg with his family to avoid being captured and sent south into slavery.

Lee didn’t intend to fight at Gettysburg, but when elements of his army bumped into those of US General Meade’s army by chance, he had no choice. Over three July days, more than 165,000 soldiers in both armies fought ferociously here. (And 51,000 were casualties. 51,000—think about that.) Battle lines moved back and forth across the hills and once-pastoral farmland several times. Brian’s farm was directly in the path of the armies, in fact was in the center of the famous Pickett’s Charge, the Confederates’ ill-fated frontal assault the Union high ground on July 3rd that ended both the battle and Lee’s invasion of the North.

Abraham Brian's house

Abraham Brian’s house, in 1863 after the battle

When Brian returned after the battle, he assisted in the burial of Union soldiers and received $1 per body; these remains were reinterred in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. On his farm, he found walls filled with bullet holes, windows broken, and the furniture smashed; farm fences were gone, his crops were obliterated, and the trees in his orchard were useless. The government paid civilians for property damage—but only if you could prove the damage was done by Union soldiers. Brian filed a claim for $1,028; he received a check for $15.

Abraham Brian did rebuild his house and farm. He died in either 1875 or 1879—accounts differ—and he’s buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg, the town’s “colored” cemetery. But now, when you tramp the farm fields trampled in the course of the battle, you can see his simple house (it’s been rebuilt), read his story, and bear witness to the struggle and ultimate success of a man and his family who survived this terrible war.


*Sometimes spelled Bryan


  • Brian house in 1863: Wikipedia
  • Steroscope image: Wikipedia Commons
  • Contemporary Brian House photos © 2014 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.


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