Friday, July 3, 2015

Gettysburg's Sgt. Amos Humiston -- A Man To Admire and Respect

Who was Amos Humiston? Well, we know that he was born on April 26th, 1830, in Owego, New York, and died on July 1st, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He was 33 when he died.

We know his wife was Philinda Humiston, and they had three children: Franklin, Alice, and Frederick. We know that Amos Humiston is buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery, NY, Section B, Grave 14. His nationality was American. His last occupation was soldier in the Union Army from 1862 to 1863. He rose to the rank of Sergeant, and was with Company C, 154th New York.

He fought in at least two large American Civil War Battles: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Yes, Union Army Sgt. Amos Humiston was a Union soldier who died in the Battle of Gettysburg. But though Sgt. Humiston was just one of thousands of Union soldiers who died in the monumental three-day battle, he is the only enlisted man at Gettysburg who has his own monument on the battlefield.  

Sgt. 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. His body was found later that week, lying in a secluded spot at York and Stratton streets in Gettysburg. Though gravely wounded, it is believed that somehow Sgt. Humiston had managed to drag himself to that spot and was probably looking at his children's faces when he died.

Yes, he was holding an ambrotype. A ambrotype was an early kind of photograph. In that picture were the somewhat serious faces of his three children. His 8-year-old Frank, 6-year-old Alice, and 4-year-old Freddie.
Frank, Freddie and Alice Humiston are pictured in the ambrotype carried by their father at Gettysburg.
As with many who died and were buried in the Civil War, he might have died in anonymity at Gettysburg. He may have been just one more of the thousands of unknown soldiers who died there. And frankly that may have been the case if he hadn't been found holding that picture of his children. A picture that his wife had mailed to him a few months earlier.

Fact is Sgt. Humiston might have faded into obscurity because there was nothing on his body to identify him. And really, by the time he was found, his unit or at least those left who survived the battle and who knew him, had all moved on. 

The story goes that a local girl found him and the image. Then later Dr. John Francis Bourns, a 49-year-old Philadelphia physician, saw it at the girl's father's tavern. Dr. Bourns helped care for the wounded at Gettysburg. After wrapping up months of volunteering to work there, Dr. Bourns helped determine the identity of Amos Humiston by publicizing the image of his children,

When the article appeared, please remember that was more than 150 years ago, newspapers and magazines of the time were not able to publish photographs. Subsequently, newspapers and magazines throughout the North which had circulated the story had to completely rely on a detailed description of the children. The reports all described the eldest boy as 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. Ages were estimated to be 9, 5, and 7.  And believe it or not, later it was found out that the ages given were only a year off from the description given.

The search to identify Sgt. Humiston began on October 19th, 1863. When the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story under the headline: "Whose Father Was He?"

The article read:

"After the battle of Gettysburg, 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."

-- end of article.

One of the magazines that reprinted the story was the American Presbyterian, which was actually a church magazine. And just so happens, it was where Philinda Humiston, then living in Portville, N.Y., first saw the story of her husband. 

She hadn't heard from her husband Amos for a few weeks before Gettysburg. Then when she read the description of the children, she knew it was him. But as with many military widows, those loved ones left behind by soldiers, those who depend on that one last letter that never come, Philinda Humiston feared the worse.

Recognizing the description of the children and the ambrotype, she contacted Dr. Bourns through a letter written by the town postmaster. Dr. Bourns replied to Philinda's inquiry as he had to the others by sending her a carte de visite copy of the children's picture. It was a method of printing copy upon copy of the image to respond to inquiries. And for Dr. Bourns, none of the people who had contacted him had turned out to be the right family.

Then by mid-November, four months after the battle, Philinda Humiston opened the envelope from Philadelphia and knew for sure that she had been widowed for a second time, and that her children were fatherless.

She immediately contacted Dr. Bourns. And after she was able to confirm the image, Dr. Bourns took the original image to Amos Humiston's widow.  

The story might have pretty much ended there, but Dr. Bourns had an idea that would mean his capitalizing on the outpouring of sympathy toward the Humistons to raise funds. His idea was an orphanage in Gettysburg, to house the children of fallen Union soldiers. Dr. Bourns appealing for donations during a second publicity campaign began, and donations poured in. Among the contributors was financier Jay Gould, who was one of the richest men in America at the time.

It is said that along with the wealthy, even Sunday school classes pitched in to raise money. And if people donated a sufficient amount, they were promised a copy of a popular song called "Children of the Battlefield" by balladeer James Gowdy Clark. The first stanza of the song read, "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 "National Homestead at Gettysburg" became a reality in October of 1866 and began with the children of 22 soldiers. The children ranged in age from 5 to 12. At its peak, the "Homestead," as it was known, had just under 100 children.

Supposedly Dr. Bourns asked Philinda Humiston to move there with her children and help supervise the home. Something which would gave her a means of support considering she had lost her husband. She agreed to the arrangement but supposedly hated living there.

In fact, it is said she didn't like living in Gettysburg so much, that she accepted a marriage proposal from a retired preacher she had met only briefly as he passed through the town. This was her way of escaping Gettysburg.

She wed Asa Barnes in 1869 and moved to Massachusetts. Her children finished their schooling in Gettysburg and then joined her. As for the orphanage "National Homestead at Gettysburg," it closed just 12 years after it opened because of two scandals.

The first scandal had to do with the matron of the orphanage, Rosa Carmichael. She was accused of abusing the children there. And ye, it was criminal abuse even at the standards of the 1860s because she was found to have shackling some of them in a dungeon she had created in the basement.

As for Dr. Bourns, the man who had made helped to identify Sgt. Humiston, a man who made the Humiston children famous, and founded the orphanage? Well, he was accused of embezzling large sums of money from orphanage accounts.

As for the Humiston children, Fred Humiston is said to have become a traveling salesman. His home was in the Boston area where he married and had two daughters. His sales job took him to all point up and down the East Coast from Canada to Florida. In his 50s, he began to suffer from heart disease. He died in 1918 at age 59.

Frank Humiston is said to be the only one to receive a higher education. He attended Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He became the town doctor of Jaffrey, New Hampshire. He married, and they had six children. Tragically he died at the age of 57 from complications of gallstone surgery.

His mother Philinda was said to be broken-hearted over Frank's death when she died just a few months later. Alice Humiston is said to have lived with her mother for several years before her mother passed on. It is said she 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 is said to have been 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.

And yes, for whatever reason, it is said that the Humiston children almost never mentioned their childhood celebrity status. It is also said that most people who knew Frank, Freddie and Alice Humiston had no idea they were once known as the "Children of the Battlefield."

Writer/Historian Mark H. Dunkelman, author of "Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: the life, death and celebrity of Amos Humiston," thinks their moment in history may have been too tragic for them to want to relive it with anyone. He is quoted as saying, "They put this celebrity under a blanket when they reached their adult years."

Their story continues to be told because of a father's love that has survived the test of time. In his last letter to his wife Philinda, just two months before his death, Sgt. Amos Humiston expressed those feelings.

"... I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than anything that you could have sent 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 dose not last too long."

Yes, Sgt. Amos Huniston is the only enlisted man at Gettysburg who has his own monument on the battlefield.  His marker is not there because of his heroism in the battle of Gettysburg, but instead because of his love for his children to the very end.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your fine work on this man's life, which I did not know before in such great detail. I am from a different branch of the Humiston family than Amos, but I discovered him as I was passing through Worthington, Minnesota and saw that the Humiston name marked US Hwy 59 going into town from I-90. As I dug deeper into why the road was named for him, I discovered this story's bare bones. Thanks again for all the background detail, including the outcome of the childrens' lives. It is truly a remarkable tale!


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