Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ties to the Past: Amos Humiston--The Unknown Soldier of Gettysburg

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time
be utterly lost;

That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly
wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:

... For my enemy is dead -- a man as divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I
draw near;

I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in
the coffin.

                                                                   --WALT WHITMAN, Reconciliation

Sgt. Amos Humiston, 154th New York Volunteers

     During the research for this new book the most important discovery was learning that the the unknown soldier of Gettysburg, Amos Humiston, was born in my hometown of Owego, New York. As a writer, it just made the connection to my subject that much stronger. 

     The story is quite famous. As the Gettysburg townspeople began burying the dead, the body of a Union soldier was discovered tucked off a street where he had crawled, mortally wounded, to die. His jacket had no badges, no signs of rank or unit, and his pockets contained nothing to identify him—no letters or diary. Yet in his hand he grasped a small photo of three young children. The last act of his life had been to gaze upon their faces.

Franklin, Frederick and Alice Humiston

No name — but a soldier brave, he fell.
We shall find her, without a name;
This picture, sometime, will tell whence he came.

— Emily Latimer, “The Unknown"

     The photo came into the possession of Dr. J. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia doctor on his way to help the wounded from the battlefield. He hoped to locate the mother of the children in the photograph by publishing a detailed description of the children in all the local papers. A major story ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 19, 1863, entitled, “Whose Father Was He?” As the story grew in fame and as the photo of the children was printed onto thousands of small post cards, the nation waited in suspense. Would anyone identify the children?

     Dr. Bourns soon received a letter from a woman in Portville, New York, who had not heard from her husband since the battle of Gettysburg. She requested a copy of the photograph. When she received it in the mail she looked upon the faces of her three children—Franklin, Alice, and Frederick—who were now fatherless. The woman’s name was Phylinda Humiston. Her fallen husband was Sergeant Amos Humiston of Company C, 154th New York Volunteers. Sergeant Humiston came to symbolize the thousands of missing men at Gettysburg and other battles, whose widows and orphaned children waited for them in vain.

The following is a poem he wrote to his wife a few months before his death:

To My Wife

You have put the little ones to bed dear wife
And covered them over with care
My Frankey Alley and Fred
And they have said their evening prayer

Perhaps they breathed the name of one
Who is far in southern land
And wished he too were there
To join their little band

I am very sad to tonight dear wife
My thoughts are dwelling on home and thee
As I keep the lone night watch
Beneath the holly tree

The winds are sighing through the trees
And as they onward roam
They whisper hopes of happiness
Within our cottage home

And as they onward passed
Over hill and vale and bubbling stream
They wake up thoughts within my soul
Like music in a dream

Oh when will this rebellion cease
This cursed war be over
And we our dear ones meet
To part from them no more?

March 25th 1863

     Three years after the battle, an orphanage was established at Gettysburg—called The Homestead Association—for the benefit of children whose fathers had been killed in the service of their country. Mrs. Humiston and her children were among the first to reside at the home. James Garfield, future president of the United States, was on the board of trustees. Dr. Bourns served as the first general secretary. The founding of the orphanage was reported nationwide for a citizenry still trying to understand the meaning of the great sacrifices made during the Civil War.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound. 

No comments:

Post a Comment