The Power of a Picture: The Burial of Amos Humiston

... I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than eney thing that you could have sent me how I want to se them and their mother is more than I can tell I hope that we may all live to see each other again if this war dose not last to long.

 The likeness of Humiston's three children helped identify his body for burial in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

The likeness of Humiston's three children helped identify his body for burial in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

This was the last letter Philinda Humiston received from her husband Amos, fighting with the 154th New York; the likeness he mentioned became part of a story that has captivated for almost 150 years.  On July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg, the “Hardtack” Regiment was overwhelmed in Kuhn’s Brickyard.  Wounded, he managed to drag himself to a secluded spot near York and Stratton streets where his body was found later in the week.  In his hand was clutched an ambrotype of his three children; presumably he was looking at his family in his last moments of life.

Amos’ identity was initially unknown; there was no identification on the body and his regiment had already moved on, so no comrades could identify him.  The children were the only clue to who he was.  Philadelphia physician, John Francis Bourns, who had spent time helping the wounded, decided to use the image to try to find the father’s identity.  On October 19, 1863, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the story with a description of the children and a plead to other newspapers to also publish the information.  “Whose Father Was He?” asked the headline.

 Amos Humiston

Amos Humiston

Inquiries came pouring in from families who were worried about loved ones and Bourns sent out copies of the photo to each family, but none were the right one.  When he received an inquiry from Philinda Humiston, he answered it as he had all the others.

Philinda had seen a reprint of the story in the American Presbyterian, a church magazine.  She had not heard from Amos since weeks before Gettysburg and the description of the children matched her own; she awaited the reply anxiously.  That reply came in mid-November with confirmation that she was again a widow with fatherless children.  The picture was of her six year old daughter Alice and two sons, eight year old Frank and four year old Freddie.  Because of this confirmation, Amos was able to be reburied under an identified marker in the New York section of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, instead of as an unknown.

 A monument to Humiston and his story stands on Stratton Street in Gettysburg, near the spot he was killed.

A monument to Humiston and his story stands on Stratton Street in Gettysburg, near the spot he was killed.

Bourns used the story it in a campaign to raise money for an orphanage in Gettysburg to house the children of Union soldiers. Philinda and her children spent some time there during the Homestead’s short life, but then they moved on.  The “Children of the Battlefield” grew up, had families, and lived their lives.  They never mentioned the celebrity of their childhood, they put that behind them.  But the story of their father’s love and the struggle to identify his remains when so many went unknown, continues to resonate today.

For more on Amos Humiston check out Mark H. Dunkelman’s Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: the life, death and celebrity of Amos Humiston.

 

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.