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Gettysburg: Profiles in Courage / Amos Humiston

Union sergeant died as the battle began, holding a picture of his children

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Mark Roth, Post-Gazette Assistant Managing Editor

Amos Humiston is the only enlisted man at Gettysburg who has his own monument on the battlefield.

Union Sgt. Amos Humiston might have died in anonymity at Gettysburg had he not been found holding a picture of his children.

It wasn't because of his heroism in the battle. A Union sergeant in New York's 154th "Hardtack" regiment, Humiston was killed on the first day of fighting in Gettysburg, after Confederate troops overwhelmed his company at a spot known as Kuhn's Brickyard.

What earned him a permanent marker was his love for Frank, Freddie and Alice.

Humiston was just one of more than 3,000 Union soldiers who died in the monumental three-day conflict. But when his body was found later that week, lying in a secluded spot at York and Stratton streets in Gettysburg, he was holding an ambrotype -- an early kind of photograph -- and on it were the serious, round faces of his three adored children: 8-year-old Frank, 6-year-old Alice and 4-year-old Freddie.

Somehow, historians believe, Amos Humiston had managed to drag himself to this patch of ground after he had been wounded, and was probably looking at his children's faces when he died.

Even then, Humiston might have faded into obscurity, because there was nothing on his body to identify him and the few soldiers from his unit who survived the battle had moved on before he was found.

Somehow, though, the image of his children ended up in the possession of Dr. John Francis Bourns, a 49-year-old Philadelphia physician who helped care for the wounded at Gettysburg. Months after wrapping up his volunteer work there, he decided to try to find out the identity of the children's father.

His efforts produced a wave of publicity that swept the North and became the People magazine cover story of its day.

Frank, Freddie and Alice Humiston are pictured in the ambrotype carried by their father at Gettysburg.
Click photo for larger image.

It began quietly enough, on Oct. 19, 1863, when the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story under the provocative headline: "Whose Father Was He?"

"After the battle of Gettysburg," the article read, "a Union soldier was found in a secluded spot on the battlefield, where, wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands, tightly clasped, was an ambrotype containing the portraits of three small children ... and as he silently gazed upon them his soul passed away. How touching! How solemn! ..."

"It is earnestly desired that all papers in the country will draw attention to the discovery of this picture and its attendant circumstances, so that, if possible, the family of the dead hero may come into possession of it. Of what inestimable value will it be to these children, proving, as it does, that the last thought of their dying father was for them, and them only."

When the article appeared 140 years ago, newspapers were not able to publish photographs, and so the story, subsequently reprinted in dozens of newspapers and magazines throughout the North, had to rely on a detailed description of the children. The eldest boy, it said, was wearing a shirt made of the same fabric as his sister's dress. The younger boy in the middle was sitting on a chair, wearing a dark suit. It estimated their ages at 9, 7, and 5, only a year off the mark.

One of the reprints appeared in the American Presbyterian, a church magazine. That is where Philinda Humiston, living in Portville, N.Y., first saw word of the ambrotype and the dead soldier. She hadn't heard from Amos since weeks before Gettysburg, and when she saw the description of the children, she feared the worst.

But she couldn't be sure. So she contacted Bourns through a letter written by the town postmaster.

Bourns had printed copy upon copy of the children's picture to respond to inquiries, but so far, none of the people who had contacted him had turned out to be the right family. He replied to Philinda's inquiry as he had to the others.

And so it was that one mid-November day, four months after the battle, she opened the envelope from Philadelphia and knew for sure that she had been widowed for a second time, and that her children were fatherless.

The story might have ended there if it weren't for another idea Bourns had. He believed he could capitalize on the outpouring of sympathy toward the Humistons to raise funds for an orphanage in Gettysburg, to house the children of fallen Union soldiers.

And so a second publicity campaign began, appealing for donations.

Gifts came from the wealthy and the humble. Among the contributors was financier Jay Gould, one of the richest men in America. But Sunday school classes also pitched in to raise money, and, if they donated a sufficient amount, they could receive copies of a popular song called "Children of the Battlefield" by balladeer James Gowdy Clark, whose first stanza concluded with the lines, "and blame him not, if in the strife, he breathed a soldier's prayer: Father, shield the soldier's wife, and for his children care."

The orphanage became a reality in October 1866 and began with 22 soldiers' children ranging in age from 5 to 12. At its peak, the Homestead, as it was known, had just under 100 children.

Bourns even asked Philinda Humiston to move there with her children and help supervise the home, which gave her a means of support.

She agreed to the arrangement but loathed living in Gettysburg, according to Humiston biographer Mark H. Dunkelman. Possibly in order to escape, she accepted a marriage proposal from a retired preacher she had met only briefly as he passed through the town. She wed Asa Barnes in 1869 and moved to Massachusetts. Her children finished their schooling in Gettysburg and then joined her.

The orphanage itself would have a short, unhappy history. It closed just 12 years after it opened, crippled by two scandals.

The matron of Homestead, Rosa Carmichael, was accused of abusing the children and even shackling some of them in a dungeon she had created in the basement. And Bourns, the man who had made the Humistons famous and founded the orphanage, was accused of embezzling large sums of money from orphanage accounts.

Of the Humiston children, Frank was the only one to receive a higher education, attending Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania medical school. He became the honored town doctor of Jaffrey, N.H., had six children, and died at the age of 57 from complications of gallstone surgery.

Philinda, brokenhearted, died a few months later.

Fred Humiston became a traveling salesman and was the most carefree and peripatetic of the children. His home was in the Boston area, where he married and had two daughters, but his sales work took him from Canada to Florida. In his 50s, he began to suffer from heart disease, and he died in 1918, at age 59.

Alice lived with her mother for several years, ran a chicken farm for a short while, then began to move almost constantly. Finally she settled in Southern California, living near a namesake niece. In 1933, at the age of 76, Alice was sweeping her rooms in a Glendale home and talking with a neighbor when her skirt caught fire from an open heater. She was badly burned from ankles to waist and died two days later.

For whatever reason, the Humiston children almost never mentioned their childhood celebrity, and most of those who knew them had no idea they were once the "Children of the Battlefield."

Dunkelman thinks their moment in history may have been too tragic for them to want to relive it with anyone. "They put this celebrity under a blanket when they reached their adult years," he said.

Yet their story continues to be told because of a father's love that has survived the centuries.

In his last letter to Philinda, two months before his death, Amos expressed those feelings with his own sense of spelling and punctuation.

"... 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."


This story was based on research by historian Mark H. Dunkelman, author of "Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: the life, death and celebrity of Amos Humiston." Information specialist Steve Karlinchak also contributed.


Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130.

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