Finding a Fallen Soldier’s Family (Article 80)

“Whose father was he?” – Headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer

After the battle at Gettysburg, in July 1863, the body of a soldier was found by a young girl within the city in a location removed from the main battles. He wore a blue Union private’s shirt, but otherwise carried no identification, not even a unit insignia. He was, however clutching a small glass plate image, called an ambrotype, of three children, which he had probably removed from his pocket for a final look before dying of his wounds.

But who was he?

The girl notified one of the many burial details around the small community which were moving bodies of fallen soldiers to a central area for identification before burial. Unfortunately, determining the name was not always possible. In the Civil War era, identifying dog tags, which are so ubiquitous today, did not exist; so, the process of recording the names of war dead was more happenstance. Some soldiers carried personal information in a pouch or folder as a means of identification. If survivors of a unit were still in the immediate area, they could help provide names and even important information such as the home state or home town. Officers and senior Sergeants would check-off the soldiers still alive after a battle and often could record in official records, the names of those who had died. But in the chaos of battle, there were soldiers who remained unidentified and were simply buried with a marker as “unknown” or, even more tragic, in a mass grave.

The burial detail she summoned permitted the young girl to keep the plate image of the three children, to whom she now felt a connection. Her father ran a small tavern and boarding house in a village nearby, and the girl placed the picture in a prominent location as a way to honor the unidentified soldier. Patrons would note the display and soon people came into the tavern just to see the image and ponder the sad circumstances. It was not unusual for Gettysburg artifacts to be on display in businesses and homes in the area, as the great battlefield was littered with weapons, hats, badges, and other paraphernalia carried by soldiers. But this item struck a chord with most who saw it.

The girl had asked the burial detail to inter the soldier’s body in an individual grave, marked with the date and location where his body was found, and the words “A Father” added as a reminder. A local resident provided a plot, and they all hoped that someone, somehow, sometime would eventually provide a name.

Within a few days, one person, who just happened upon the tavern and saw the display, decided to try and identify the family.

John Bourns, a physician from Philadelphia was on a volunteer mission to Gettysburg to help care for the several thousand wounded who were still near the battlefield. Dr. Bourns asked the tavern owner if he could take the image and show it to some of the wounded men in the hope that the unusual item might be recognized. Unfortunately, he found no one who recalled the image.

However, Dr. Bourns did not give up. First, he located the grave, which had been marked as requested, and placed a more permanent sign explaining the image held by the dying soldier. Then, when he returned to Philadelphia, he had copies printed on small cards with his contact information and, began to hand out the cards and sent them to various publications.

On October, 29, 1863, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a letter, not from Dr. Bourns, but from someone who had received one of the cards. The Inquirer re-printed the letter with the image on the front page. The caption read, “Whose Father is He” and continued with, “How touching, how solemn.”  The writer then went on to tell the story he had heard about the soldier’s dying effort to see his children’s faces and added, “What pen can describe the emotions of this patriot-father as he gazed upon these children, so soon to be made orphans!” The writer then encouraged all who might see the letter and the image to contact other newspapers and magazines throughout the north in an effort to locate the family.

Within days, the image and the story were appearing all over Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and throughout New England. At a time with no radio, no TV, and no internet, this story had quickly captured the attention of an entire region.

On November 3, the publisher of the “American Presbyterian” was preparing to mail out the periodical and, at the last minute, made room to include the article from the Inquirer. However, the newsletter did not have the capability of printing an image so the editor tried to describe the picture of the three children as best he could. The American Presbyterian newsletter was circulated throughout the Northeast and a copy went to a subscriber in Portville, New York, who reprinted it and circulated copies to other parishioners and churches in the area. One recipient took the letter to Mrs. Philinda Humiston, the mother of three small children, whose husband had not been in contact with her for months. Of course, she feared the worst, but had heard nothing from the Union army and knew that many Union soldiers were held as prisoners by the Confederacy. After reading the description of the image of the three children, Mrs. Humiston said that she had sent a similar picture to her husband the previous May and that she had received a letter from him acknowledging the gift, in which he wrote, “I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than anything thing that you could have sent to me. How I want to see 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 does not last to long.”

Dr. Bourns was contacted and he quickly had a copy of the one of the cards delivered to Mrs. Humiston. When she finally saw a copy of the glass image, she knew that her husband would not be coming home and that her children would never again see their father.

Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, had died in the service of his country, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, nearly four months earlier.

The only image of Sgt. Humiston was taken before the war. Artists later added a beard and uniform.

As it turned out, most of Sergeant Humiston’s 154th New York Regiment had been captured by Confederate forces on the day he was killed, so no one who knew him was available to identify his body. Therefore, without a young girl’s compassion, and Dr. Bourns’ willingness to devote time to the effort, Sergeant Humiston’s family would never have had closure and his sacrifice would not have been honored.

And, he has been honored. In addition to his grave, which visitors can visit today, a commemorative plaque can be found near the place where he fell. Sergeant Humiston may still be the only enlisted soldier with an individual memorial at Gettysburg.

Postscript: Dr. Bourns raised several thousand dollars selling the cards he had made and gave   a portion, as well as the original ambrotype, to Mrs. Humiston.  He then used the rest of the proceeds, plus fees from the sales of a poem about the story, to build a orphans’ compound in Gettysburg. Sergeant Humiston’s family was the first to live there.

Contact the author at  gadorris2@gmail.com and see other articles under Blogs at the website  www.alincolnbygadorris.com

A Gathering of Old Foes (Article 79)

“The hatred is gone, but it took some time.” –  An eighty-year-old former Confederate Private

“I seen things I can’t forget and it’s been more than fifty years and I’m near eighty.”  – Former Union soldier

“You don’t look so frightening now as you did then” –  A former Union soldier, smiling at a former Confederate in 1913.

“You are the man” – A Confederate soldier who found the Union soldier who had saved his life.

The Civil War finally ended. Soldiers went home and began to reconstruct their lives. Some did well, but others did not. But most of them were grateful to have survived, because they knew nearly a million others did not get the chance to go home.

There were numerous reunions in the fifty years following the Civil War, many sponsored by the two most prominent veterans’ groups of that time; the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans. However, smaller units, particularly if represented by one state, would hold regimental gatherings where attendees had served together and had formed a special bond to one another. But, generally, reunions were almost always limited to soldiers who fought together and the concept of bringing former Union and Confederate soldiers to one reunion was rarely proposed or implemented. Occasionally, groups from both sides might appear at the same site, but interaction, if any was minimal. Over time, some former Union and Confederate soldiers found themselves serving together in state legislatures, or on committees and boards for the good of their communities; but that hardly constituted a reunion.

Over the first fifty years after the Civil War, veteran groups frequently gathered at the battle fields, which they considered hallowed grounds, but usually the Union and Confederate groups held separate ceremonies. But, in 1913, at the largest veterans’ reunion ever held, the old soldiers embraced their former foes. Well, most of them did; as there were some who could still not forgive.

The largest, most memorable, and well photographed reunion of former Confederate and Union soldiers was held from June 30 through July 4, 1913 at Gettysburg to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous battle. Over 45,000 veterans attended, with most from the Union but nearly 9,000 former Confederate soldiers attended as well. At least 20,000 of the men had actually fought at Gettysburg. Counting some family members, and active duty soldiers and Boy Scouts who helped with the ceremonies, almost 58,000 people descended on Gettysburg, which had a population of only about 7,500. The logistics for the event were staggering for the time. Thirty-four special trains were scheduled, over 5,000 housing tents were erected and one massive auditorium tent was designed and constructed that would seat 13,000 people. Electric lines were erected and the entire campground was lighted at night, a spectacular sight for outside observers. For four days, this throng had to be fed and also cared for as many of the attendees were in their seventies and eighties (and a few in their nineties). One speaker said, “Once again this field trembles under the tread of a mighty host, not now in fear, but in joy.”

On July 3rd, 120 former Confederate soldiers who were part of the deadly, and futile, battle of Picket’s charge, faced an equal number of elderly former Union soldiers across the same field; but as one wrote, “not with rifles and bayonets but with canes and crutches.” They then assembled on Cemetery Ridge and shook hands. Joshua Chamberlain, the Union hero and Medal of Honor recipient for his leadership and valor at Little Round Top, attended and said, “It was a radiant fellowship”

And, author Stephen Crane labeled these gatherings “The meetings of a mysterious fraternity” noting the respect shown to former adversaries.

Almost all of the nearly fifty thousand veterans were able to appreciate the newly found camaraderie with their former enemies. However, a very few let long-simmering grudges surface. In one case, several former adversaries found themselves eating at a common mess tent when an argument began and a brief fight ensued between two old men; one Union and one Confederate. But this time, they only waved forks at each other. One witness said that, before others could break-up the skirmish, the Union soldier, who had escaped unharmed in the original battle at Gettysburg, was slightly wounded in the hand by a fork in, what the writer called, “The Gettysburg Battle of 1913.”  (Note: This incident is often confused with a more serious confrontation at the Hotel Gettysburg on June 30 where, as reported in the Pittsburg Progress, eight men were stabbed by W.B. Henry who was not a veteran himself, but claimed to be son of a veteran. That incident occurred when someone made a loud slur about Abraham Lincoln and a Union veteran threw a goblet at the inciter. Henry then became enraged and pulled a knife and began his attacks. None of the wounds were serious and, while the attacker spent a few nights in jail, otherwise, it appears he escaped further punishment.)

But those were exceptions as almost all who attended were able to set aside resentments. Two old veterans who knew each other before the war but who chose opposite sides, renewed their acquaintance at the reunion. In a gesture that must have meant so much to each of them, they went into town and purchased a hatchet – and buried it, unmarked, somewhere on the grounds at Gettysburg. At a separate event, one Confederate was asked to recreate the famous, and always frightening, Rebel yell. He declined saying he could not as it was, “Impossible unless made in great fear, at a dead run, full charge against the enemy; and (it would be) worse than folly to try to imitate it with stomach full of food and a mouth full of false teeth.”

On the Fourth of July, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to assembled crowd: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.

A New York times article from July 3rd described a special reunion of two men who fought in one of the ferocious battles at Gettysburg. A former Confederate soldier was telling a group that he had been shot while near a specific outcropping and would have died if a young Union soldier had not stopped to assist him by controlling the bleeding. He said, “I would have died then and there without him and I never forgot.”  An elderly former Union soldier overheard the conversation and said that he had helped a Confederate boy on that day. As the two former enemies began to compare their recollections, the old Confederate shouted; “But my God, that’s just what the Yankee did for me. There couldn’t have been two cases like that at the same time. You are the man!” 

There was also a seventy-fifth Gettysburg reunion in 1938 with about 2,000 veterans in attendance, but only twenty-five had actually fought at Gettysburg. So, soon, that great battle would no longer be an actual memory for any living soldier. The valor and sacrifice of all of those who were there, amid the horrific circumstances, both those who fell and those who survived, would be remembered and honored by subsequent generations.

Today, it is left for us to perpetuate the legacy of the Battle at Gettysburg in 1863; however, we should not forget that these most bitter foes ultimately came to a reconciliation during the remarkable reunion at Gettysburg in 1913.

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com or see other articles under BLOGS at the website  www.alincolnbygadorris.com