“Master of Ceremonies”: The World of Peter Biggs in Civil War–Era Los Angeles

This latest issue of the Western Historical Quarterly includes an article that I co-wrote with Professor Kendra Fields of Tufts University on Peter Biggs, a free African American man in 1850s and 1860s Los Angeles whose little-known biography illuminates a forgotten moment in the temporal and spatial history of American racial construction.

The former slave Biggs was arrested in Los Angeles for celebrating President Lincoln's assassination. He later described himself as the "The Black Democrat" in advertisements. Source: “Barber Shop and Bath House,” Los Angeles Weekly Republican, 14 December 1867.  

The former slave Biggs was arrested in Los Angeles for celebrating President Lincoln's assassination. He later described himself as the "The Black Democrat" in advertisements. Source: “Barber Shop and Bath House,” Los Angeles Weekly Republican, 14 December 1867.

 

Biggs was the subject of writings by William Tecumseh Sherman as well as three prominent diarists and memoirists of early Southern California. Newspapers verify his arrest for celebrating Lincoln’s assassination, and these same papers contain many advertisements for his barbershop and bath house. He was also party to a court martial, two civil cases, and one murder trial. Yet, while scholars of nineteenth-century California and the black West have made regular note of Biggs’s presence, none have mined the wealth of articles, court records, and other archival sources available on his life. 

Over the course of two decades in California, Biggs held numerous positions and identities—from enslaved soldier of the U.S.-Mexican War to free African American barber, from “Don Pedro,” the “Master of Ceremonies,” to “the Black Democrat.” Like most other ex-slaves throughout the antebellum United States, Biggs’s precarious experience of freedom was highly contingent upon kinship connections and social and economic networks. But Biggs’s experience was also shaped by geography—the collision of South and West that characterized Civil War–era Los Angeles. Our article suggests that Biggs’s economic and political capacity in slavery and freedom in the West depended upon his ability to mobilize his longstanding connection to and understanding of proslavery Southerners and the U.S. South.

You can read the full article here.

Deep LA: A UCLA/USC Graduate History Conference

Attendance on both days is free and open to the public! No reservation needed!

  1. Friday 10/2 (3-6) UCLA History Department conference room, Bunche Hall 6275
  2. Saturday 10/3 (8:30-5) Huntington Library, Ahmanson Classroom, Brody Botanical Center

Conference description and full schedule

Deep L.A. Conference Organizers
Celeste Menchaca, USC Department of American Studies and Ethnicity
Daniel Lynch, UCLA Department of History
Max Baumgarten, UCLA Department of History
Ryan Fukumori, 
USC Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

LA’s Connection to Gettysburg

Before he was a hero at Gettysburg, Winfield S. Hancock served as the Army Quartermaster in Los Angeles in 1861. While warning of a potential secessionist uprising in Southern California, Hancock allowed Southern-born officers to slip away to join the Confederacy. 

Before he was a hero at Gettysburg, Winfield S. Hancock served as the Army Quartermaster in Los Angeles in 1861. While warning of a potential secessionist uprising in Southern California, Hancock allowed Southern-born officers to slip away to join the Confederacy. 

As we witness a turning point in popular opinion regarding the Confederate battle flag, today is a good day to remember the military turning point for the Confederacy itself. The Battle of Gettysburg began exactly 152 years ago on July 1, 1863. Over the course of three days, Union forces fighting in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, turned back a daring northern offensive that the Confederates would never be able to repeat.

General Winfield S. Hancock was instrumental in holding the Union line at Gettysburg, and his war hero status would lead to his nomination as the Democratic Party presidential candidate in 1880. At the outset of the war, Hancock was stationed in California. Writing from Los Angeles in 1861, he warned a superior in San Francisco about the risk of a Southern California uprising, which he feared might start with pro-Confederate Anglo Americans before spreading to native-born, Spanish-surnamed Californios. “When once a revolution commences,” he wrote, “the masses of the native population will act.” Although concerned about the possibility of a local “revolution,” the staunch Unionist with pro-slavery views did nothing to stop his fellow officers from leaving Los Angeles to join the Southern rebellion. According to the memoir of his wife, Almira, the Hancocks actually hosted “a never-to-be-forgotten evening” to say goodbye to those officers before they started “upon their overland trip to the South.” The guests, she recalled, included the soon-to-be Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston as well as three men later “killed in front of General Hancock’s troops” at Gettysburg.

In this interview for KPCC’s Air Talk, which aired on July 3, 2013, during the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, UCLA Professor Joan Waugh and I discuss the battle and Southern California’s Civil War connections. Unfortunately for us, history intervened that day and the host had to break away mid-interview to cover the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Professor Waugh discusses the significance of Gettysburg in the first part of the recording. My discussion of Civil War California can be found at 6:15 and again at 13:55.