Thursday, October 04, 2007

Solomon D. Biggs

Solomon D. Biggs, also known as “Briggs”, was born 1833 in Jackson (?), New York, possibly the son of Jeremiah (b. 1781) and Elizabeth (b. 1795).

In 1840 there was one Jeremiah Biggs living in Salem, Washington County, New York. By 1850 Solomon was probably working as a laborer for a wealthy farmer named Freeman Fuller and living with his parents Jeremiah and Elizabeth and two older siblings in Salem, Washington County, New York.

Solomon eventually left New York and headed west, settling in western Michigan.

He was 25 years old and living in Berlin (now Saranac), Ionia County when he married 15-year-old Julia A. Woodworth (1844-1919) on August 18, 1859, in Ionia (probably in Berlin). They had at least two children: Harriet E. (b. 1860) and Charles A. (b. 1864). Curiously, Julia is listed as Julia A. Woodworth and living with her parents Benjamin and Mary in Ionia County in 1860; no mention of Solomon is noted.

Solomon stood 5’6” with gray eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion and was a 29-year-old farmer probably living in Ionia County, Michigan. when he enlisted in Company D on February 5, 1862, at Saranac, Ionia County for 3 years, and was mustered the same day. (Company D was composed in large part of men who came from western Ionia County and Eaton County.)
Solomon testified in March of 1863 that he had been wounded on May 31, 1862, at the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia. He claimed to have been “shot through the right leg near the ankle -- breaking the fibula [causing] partial anchylosis of the ankle.” In fact, he had been treated for remittent fever from April 14-29, and then for bilious fever around August 5, and suffering from dropsy around August 10. He was admitted on or about August 13 or 31 to the general hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained at least until around October 10.

In October he was reported absent sick in the hospital, and in fact he was admitted to a ward at the hospital in West Philadelphia on October 10, suffering from “granular lids”, an opthomological problem.

While in the hospital in Philadelphia Solomon apparently attempted to procure a discharge any way he could. According to Dr. E. Dyer, surgeon in charge of the ward where Solomon was a patient, Biggs apparently feigned blindness in his right eye. However, Dyer had developed a “foolproof’ method for detecting suspicious cases of soldiers who were suddenly struck blind in one eye. Using a small prism, Dyer performed a simple test using a long object. On January 31, 1863, Dyer explained that

The following case of feigned blindness of one eye is noted inasmuch as there are so many physicians who have been called from private practice and who are not expecting the deceptions of soldiers, to examine recruits, persons claiming exemption from draft and soldiers seeking discharges from the service. Every kind of imposition is attempted and in many instances the unsuspecting surgeon is deceived. The following method is so simple and . . . so exact in discovering . . . blindness in one eye, that it may be worth while to lay it before army surgeons. It can never fail, and by this plan I have seen cases exposed in the Prussian army which had withstood all conceivable attempts to detect [feigned blindness, such as] sudden darting of knives at the eye, leading them through holes, unexpected blows, etc, in which a sharp man on his guard can anticipate the object of the surgeon and frustrate his experiments.
The idea of the method is based upon the principle that a prism of glass bends a [ray of light] and consequently the image of an object towards its base. The most convenient prism for use in these cases is one in which the two sides form with each other an angle of about 14 degrees each side about 1 1/2 in [length] which is large enough to handle with ease (see diagram [in file]). If such a prism be held before one eye with the base downwards, and any long object like a gun . . . be held horizontally before the eye, the rays from such an object will not coincide with the proper axis of vision, but will be bent downwards and strike the retina at a point before the macula lutea; consequently the object will be projected upwards. The patient in this case actually sees the object 2 or 3 inches above its real position, and if asked to strike it suddenly will pass as much above it.

Dr. Dyer then went on to explain how he tested his method for detecting feigned blindness on one of his patients. He noted that Solomon Biggs, of Company B, Third Michigan infantry,

came into my ward on Oct 10th 1862 with granular lids, for which he was treated for three or four weeks, during which time he sought his discharge on account of some private business. To show that he was anxious for it the fact is mentioned that he offered $25.00 for it. After being in the ward three or four weeks he told me suddenly that he was totally blind in his right eye. I at once suspected the truth of this statement, but he was willing to swear that when his left eye was closed he could not . . . distinguish the windows in the ward, and denied that he had any perception of sight whatever. I closed the left eye and held up my hand, but he affirmed that he could not see it. I then took such a prism as has been described and holding a pen horizontally and at the same time placing before the right eye the prism with the base downwards asked him if he did not see two pens; he said he did; I asked how they were related to each other; he said one was above the other. The explanation was simple enough: the axis of vision most always remained in the same horizontal plane; and the macular lutea were on the same line. . . . Of course if the right eye had been blind no image would have been recognized by the right eye -- and the pen would not have been seen double. . . . To place the affair beyond all doubt, I closed the left eye securely with . . . plaster, and a thick bandage, and left [orders] that the patient should be watched. I learned that he ate his meals and walked through the ward avoiding the chairs and stove, etc. with perfect facility and also played cards with the assumed totally blind eye. The same deception has never been attempted in the ward.

To confuse matters, however, it was also reported by Dr. William Thomas in Philadelphia that Solomon had in fact been shot in the lower third of his left leg, fracturing the fibula.
In any case, Solomon was discharged on January 5, 1863, at West Philadelphia hospital for general debility.

After he left the army Solomon returned to Saranac, and in late March of 1863 applied for a pension (no. 15956), again apparently trying to work yet another deception, this time regarding his alleged wounding in May of 1862. (Interestingly, one of those to witness his testimony was Edward Simmons, who would eventually marry Solomon’s widow.) In any case, the certificate was never granted and the claim abandoned. By early 1864 Solomon may have been living in Grand Rapids.

He reentered the service in the Second company of sharpshooters attached to M (?) company, Twenty-seventh Michigan Infantry on February 26, 1864, at Grand Rapids for 3 years, and was mustered the same day, giving his residence as Grand Rapids but crediting Berlin (Saranac). Biggs was promoted to Sergeant and reported missing in action on July 30 at Petersburg, Virginia. He may have been held prisoner briefly, and if so, was soon exchanged. It is also possible that he was sick in a hospital and simply unaccounted for.

Either way, Solomon died of chronic diarrhea on November 3, 1864, in the First Division general hospital at Annapolis, Maryland, and was buried at Annapolis: original grave no. 150, presently section J, grave no. 47 of Annapolis National Cemetery.

His widow applied for and received a pension (no. 39988) but in 1867 Julia married Edward Simmons (d. 1901), presumably in Ionia County. Subsequently a pension was filed on behalf of a minor child and granted (no. 109789). After Simmons’ death in 1901 Julia refiled for a pension, drawing $25 per month by 1919. She was living with her son Charles in Lowell, Kent County when she died in May of 1919, and was buried in Alton cemetery, Vergennes Township.


Shantell said...

I am very interest in Solomon, but also his wife Julia. I am researching Civil War soldiers from the Alton (Vergennes twp) area, especially those in our cemetery. Your post has SO much information! Can you tell me where everything is from? What are the sources? Is Solomon included in a book somewhere, or is there a descendant with this detailed information? I would love to be able to use this information, with permission and giving credit where due. Please let me know!
Thank you!
Shantell Ford

Steve said...

Hi Shantell,

I'm glad you're interested in your local history -- that's where everything begins!

Anyway, all of the information in Solomon's biographical sketch came from census as well as local and state records (available online at or in Lansing) and Solomon's pension and military service records (available at the National Archives).

Happy holiday!