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.

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