"If I ever live to get home you will not complain of being lonesome again or of sleeping cold for I will lay as close to you as the bark of a tree."
~ Letter of Amos Humiston to his wife, January 2, 1863
By Errol Morris, March 2009
The soldier’s body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification — no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary.
Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850s and 1860s) of three small children clutched in his hand. Within a few days the ambrotype came into the possession of Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper in the small town of Graeffenburg, about 13 miles west of Gettysburg. The details of how Schriver came into possession of the ambrotype have been lost to history. But the rest of the story survives, a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes.
. . . Four men on their way to Gettysburg were forced to stop at Schriver’s Tavern when their wagon broke down. They heard the tale of the fallen soldier and saw the photograph of the children. One of them, Dr. J. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia physician on his way to tend to the wounded from the battlefield, was intrigued. He convinced Schriver to give him the photograph so that he might attempt to locate the dead man’s family. Perhaps he was touched by the poignancy of the photograph — three children, all under the age of ten, now without a father. As a life-long bachelor he might have yearned for a wife or family of his own. On the other hand, perhaps he saw it as an opportunity for financial gain.
Dr. Bourns returned to Philadelphia with the ambrotype. He had it copied by several photographers, producing hundreds of inexpensive duplicates in the carte de visite format. The carte de visite photograph, roughly the size of an index card, could be printed in multiple copies, allowing for much quicker mass production of a single photographic image than ever before. Because there was no way of printing photographs in a newspaper, Bourns knew that he might need dozens if not hundreds of cartes de visite to put the image of the three children before the eyes of someone who knew them.
But the story had to be circulated as well, so the photographs were supplemented by a series of newspaper articles, the most prominent of which appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 19, 1863, a little over three months following the discovery of the ambrotype. It appeared under the heading, “Whose Father Was He?”
. . . And then, a woman in Portville, N.Y., was shown a story about the photograph that appeared in the American Presbyterian. She feared the worst, having not heard from her husband since the battle of Gettysburg. She asked the town postmaster to write to Dr. Bourns on her behalf and request a copy of the ambrotype. When she opened the letter from Philadelphia in late November of 1863, Philinda Humiston knew her husband, Amos Humiston, the father of her three children — Franklin, Alice and Frederick — was dead.
Franklin age 8,
Frederick age 4
and Alice age 6.
The Homestead Association was incorporated in 1866, three years after Amos Humiston's death. Its purpose was to establish an orphanage for the children of deceased soldiers. A house adjacent to the cemetery was acquired, a board appointed (which included James Garfield, a future president of the United States), and a superintendent hired. Dr. Bourns was the general secretary. Philinda, Amos’s widow, accepted a position as a housekeeper and Frank, Alice and Fred, the three Humiston children, came to Gettysburg to live at the Homestead, less than a mile from where their father had died. The orphanage opened with an elaborate ceremony that included the children singing “America.” It was celebrated in newspapers around the country. It was an attempt to give meaning to the terrible battle losses that had occurred at Gettysburg — to heal a wound that affected the entire nation.
. . . Dr. Bourns also provided a drawing of what the Homestead Orphanage would look like. It depicts a palatial domicile, complete with gables, arches, columns, and a mansard-roofed tower. The actual Homestead Orphanage, photographed on June 21, 1867, on the occasion of the first visit to Gettysburg by Ulysses S. Grant, is somewhat less impressive.
The caption on the card-mounted photograph says, “It is used until a more commodious and suitable structure can be erected to shelter its present fatherless inmates . . .” The use of the word “inmates” may simply be an anachronism or a forbidding harbinger of what was to happen next.
In 1870 Dr. Bourns hired Rosa J. Carmichael. The doctor wrote in his recommendation, “As a teacher and disciplinarian, Mrs. Carmichael has few equals, and she is a most assiduous and faithful worker, laboring often beyond her strength in school and out.” Indeed. She was the Cruella de Vil of the Homestead. Except she was no comic-book villain, she was the real thing. Rumors began that all was not well with the children. Locals noticed that they were no longer allowed to participate in Memorial Day activities like putting on a pageant and decorating graves. The orphans were instead forced to watch while “happy children” brought flowers to the various cemeteries around town. Edward Woodward, a local veteran, wrote, “They are kept like galley slaves, while strangers decorate their fathers’ graves.”
More stories began to circulate about strange goings-on at the Homestead. Little Lizzie Hutchinson and Bella Hunter were forced to wear boys’ clothes for more than two months as punishment for tearing their dresses. Mrs. Carmichael even conscripted one of the older children to serve as informant and stooge. John M. Vanderslice, a Philadelphia investigator, Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic, reported, “The boy beats and kicks in the most cruel manner little children of tender age and does it with the apparent delight of the matron and with her certain approval.” Vanderslice also made his strong opinions about Dr. Bourns evident. He called the Homestead “a summer resort of Dr. Bourns, where he is waited upon by the little inmates, whose fathers sleep in the adjoining cemetery.”
May 30, 1876, marked the beginning of the end. The nightmare conditions at the orphanage were finally exposed in a series of newspaper articles. The orphans had been denied food, clothing and schooling. Not only had they been beaten, but leg irons and hobbling chains were also used. Were these really necessary? Were the orphans behaving so badly that they needed to be hobbled?
In 1877, Dr. Bourns was charged with embezzling. The charge included “mismanagement, waste of property and violation of trust.” On Dec. 21, 1877, the Star and Sentinel (the local paper in Gettysburg) noted that the orphanage was “about winding up.” And on Jan. 18, 1878, the property was seized by the sheriff, and later that year its contents auctioned.
|Plaque for Amos HumistonThe monument to Amos Humiston is in Gettysburg |
beside the fire station, on Stratton Street between
York Street and the railroad
Near this spot on July 1, 1863 a Union soldier fell mortally wounded. When a local resident found the unidentified body, he also discovered a photograph of three children. News of this poignant find was soon widely covered by the press, and copies of the photograph were distributed and sold for charity. One of these reached Mrs. Phylinda Humiston of Portville, New York, who now realized that her husband, Sergeant Amos Humiston of Company C, 154th New York Volunteers, had been killed. The plight of the Humiston children - Frank, Frederick, and Alice - touched an outpouring of sympathy and donations from throughout the North, leading to the establishment of a Soldier's Orphan's Home in Gettysburg in 1866. Sergeant Humiston's body was removed from here to the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Amos Humiston: The Union Soldier Who Died at Gettysburg
Born in Owego, Tioga County, New York, on April 26, 1830, Amos spent his boyhood in that Susquehanna River town. Like his own children, he and his older brother and sisters lost their father while very young, Ambrose Humiston having died in 1837. Their mother Mary rewed, and the children grew up in the home of Philander Boice. Tragedy struck Amos again when his sister Maria drowned in a mill pond.
After attending the local school, Amos followed his brother Morris into an apprenticeship as a harness maker. For years, the Humiston boys studied the craft of cutting, finishing, and stitching leather to fashion harnesses. When Morris completed his apprenticeship in 1848, he opened a shop in the nearby town of Candor. Amos apparently finished his apprenticeship two years later, at age twenty. But when the younger Humiston pondered the prospect of spending the rest of his life as a harness maker, he had second thoughts. Instead of joining Morris's business or opening his own shop, Amos left Tioga County and embarked on his first great adventure.
In November 1850, he signed a whaleman's shipping paper in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and committed himself to sail as a 'green hand'–a man who had never been to sea–aboard Captain John Keen Hatheway's ship, Harrison. Amos and the ship's thirty other crewmen were among the approximately 19,000 seamen manning American whalers that year.
It was the golden age of whaling in the United States, and New Bedford was the trade's capital. Whaling ships sailed from the bustling port to all points of the compass, returning with the oil of sperm and right whales to light the country's lamps and lubricate its machines, and 'whalebone' to shape its hoops, umbrellas, and corsets. During two weeks in port before the Harrison sailed, Amos observed a town filled with the whaling industry's colorful characters, including the notorious 'landsharks,' who often impressed reluctant recruits into signing on to a ship.
The Harrison weighed anchor on December 12, 1850, and almost three-and-a-half years passed before she returned to her home port. Amos and his fellow crewmen endured month after month of bad food, raging storms, backbreaking labor, and the dangers associated with hunting whales. Days and weeks sometimes passed with nothing in sight but the boundless blue. Then came flurries of activity–encounters with other ships, sightings of whales, the lowering of whaleboats, and the chase: often successful, but sometimes resulting in smashed boats and injured men.
Following the typical pattern of New England whalers, the Harrison spent the summers cruising the whaling grounds of the North Pacific, and the winter months along the equator and in the South Pacific. Captain Hatheway and his crew had only moderate success until the summer of 1853, when the Harrison, passing through the Kuril Islands off Russia's eastern coast into the frigid Sea of Okhotsk, found a bountiful supply of bowhead and right whales. Amos and the rest of the crew took 18 whales between late May and early September. It was a summer of ice and fog and blood and oil, and the ship left the Okhotsk waters with a full load. After a final stop in the Sandwich Islands, as the Hawaiian Archipelago was then called, the Harrison and her crew sailed for home in November. They reached New Bedford five months later.
The Harrison's cargo of oil and whalebone was worth approximately $65,000, of which three-quarters went to the ship's owners. Captain Hatheway and his men divided the remainder, with lower ranks receiving lesser amounts and green hands getting the smallest shares. After various deductions, Amos Humiston's 'lay' probably amounted to about $200, or only 17 cents per day, for forty months of hard and often dangerous work.
One voyage aboard a whaler was enough for Amos: harness making no longer looked so bad. He pocketed his meager earnings and headed home to Tioga County. And soon after his return, he fell in love.
Philinda Smith was a year younger than Amos, and the two met when she was visiting with relatives in Morris Humiston's adopted town of Candor. Following a whirlwind courtship, Amos and Philinda were married on July 4, 1854, at Morris's house. Their three children arrived at regular intervals and seem to have marked the Humistons' movement westward. Franklin was born at Candor in 1855; Alice, about 60 miles to the west, at Adrian, New York, in 1857; and Frederick, in Portville, about 45 miles farther west, in 1859. Finally ready to settle down, Amos opened a harness shop in Portville with George W. Lillie, a boyhood neighbor from Owego.
'When the rebellion first took the form of open war upon the country, [Amos] was anxious to enlist,' Reverend Ogden later wrote, 'but his duty to his family seemed then to be paramount to his duty to his country.' However, in July 1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 three-year volunteers. Assured by townsmen that his family would be cared for in his absence, Amos set out on his second adventure when he became one of the first Portville men to respond to the president's summons, enlisting on July 26.
Amos Humiston was mustered in as a corporal in Company C of the 154th New York on September 24, 1862, and a few days later, he left with the regiment for the Virginia front, where it was assigned to the First Brigade, Second Division of the Eleventh Corps, Army of the Potomac. The 154th spent its first seven months with that command, making inconsequential movements in northern Virginia. Amos related his experiences to Philinda in letters that expressed both longing for his family and a willingness to meet the enemy in battle.
During an expedition to Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains that fall, Amos was one of many members of the 154th who fell ill. For weeks he languished with a fever, lying in a tent that he described as poorer than an old bird's nest. But with the support of his comrades of Company C, who 'have stuck to me like brothers,' he pulled through. 'I can die in battle like a man,' Amos declared, 'but I hate the idea of dieing here like a hog.'
By New Year's Day of 1863, Amos was encamped near the Rappahannock River at Falmouth, Virginia, in a log hut that 'rivles all modern architecture,' he boasted. Later that month, his regiment slogged along on the notorious 'Mud March,' when a planned offensive by the army became bogged down during heavy rains. Virginia mud was a formidable enemy, Amos noted: 'It is like glue.' A few days after returning to camp, on January 25, Humiston was promoted to sergeant.
The 154th New York moved its winter camp to the vicinity of Stafford Court House, Virginia, and by March 1863, Amos was sick again, suffering from chronic diarrhea, or 'the Virginia quick step,' as he called it. Although his friends cared for him, he could not shake the condition, and at the end of the month, he was admitted to the division hospital. There he recovered sufficiently to take part in the campaign that led the 154th New York across the Rappahannock River into an area known as the Wilderness, where the regiment fought its first battle.
On the evening of May 2, 1863, the Eleventh Corps was shattered by Confederate General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson's famous flank attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The 154th, in a forlorn and rather foolhardy attempt to cover the retreat of the corps, lost forty percent of its men as casualties. By a lucky accident of velocity and trajectory, Amos survived. During the fighting, he was struck in the ribs above his heart by a spent bullet. The close call 'made me think of home,' he confessed to Philinda.
Back in the dilapidated old camp near Stafford Court House after the failure of the campaign, Amos was delighted to get a special present from his wife. 'I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than eney thing that you could have sent to me,' Amos wrote to Philinda on receiving the soon-to-be-famous ambrotype. '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.'
Weeks later, the 154th broke camp and embarked on a series of grueling marches in choking dust and blazing heat northward through Virginia, then across the Potomac River into Maryland. On July 1, 1863, they crossed into Pennsylvania. That afternoon the tired troops arrived at Evergreen Cemetery, on a hill overlooking the town of Gettysburg. There they paused to eat lunch, clean and load their rifles, and enjoy a brief rest.
On the other side of town, a battle was raging. Amos and his comrades anxiously watched the billowing smoke and listened to the roar of musketry and artillery, wondering if they would be sent into the fight. Soon the suspense ended. The 154th was rushed to the northeastern outskirts of Gettysburg, where it was to help cover the retreat of the Eleventh Corps–the same dangerous role it had played at Chancellorsville.
The results were equally disastrous. The Federal brigade had barely been posted behind a fence in a brickyard when two large Confederate brigades attacked the position. Outnumbered three to one, the Union troops were sent reeling. Retreating from the center of the besieged blue line, almost all of the members of the 154th New York were surrounded and captured by the enemy. With the Southerners in close pursuit, the few Federals who escaped made a mad dash for the safety of Cemetery Hill.
Among them was Sergeant Humiston. He ran less than a quarter-mile before he met his fate.
After the picture of Humiston's children was identified, 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.
|Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier:|
The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston
by Mark Dunkelman
This is the account of how an ordinary soldier became the most famous enlisted man in the most famous battle of the Civil War. We immediately learn that the soldier was Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, along with many details of Humiston's earlier life. Briefly, Humiston began his career as a harness maker, but soon left home to find adventure as a whaler, then he married a young widow, Philinda Smith, and went back to harness making.
The story shifts to Dr. John Francis Bourns, traveling to Gettysburg to help treat the wounded at the battlefield. When he hears the story of the unknown soldier and the children's picture, Bourns seizes the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands. Bourns initiates what we would call today, a media blitz. He publicizes the story (and himself) widely, recounting the particulars to audiences throughout the North, convincing them that his only mission is to find this poor soul's loved ones!
The Humiston family's celebrity and exploitation began as soon as copies of the picture, related sheet music, and poems were sold with the intention to locate them and to support the orphaned children. Within a month, the soldier's wife and children were located. Philinda Humiston got some money, and eventually a home for war orphans was built. However, human nature being the same then as now, most of the money lined Dr. Bourns' pocket instead. A short ten years after the orphanage was founded it closed, due to mismanagement and alleged child abuse by the last administrator, Rosa Carmichael.
On the surface, this book tells an interesting and little-known story. The image of the dying Union soldier holding his children's picture as he breathes his last upon the battlefield captivates our imagination today, just as it did for people in the North 135 years ago. But on another level, the story is a basic study of human nature. Dunkelman uses 1863 headlines to reveal that this tale of grief, greed, and cruelty is not at all new. That's the bad news. The good news is that, in spite of the public spectacle and exploitation of the Humistons perpetrated by Dr. Bourns, the Humiston story provided much-needed solace during a war that was destroying thousands of families, and that nearly destroyed the nation.
On the day they arrived in Gettysburg, Frank, Alice, and Fred decorated their father's grave with flowers. Amos Humiston had been reinterred in Grave 14, Row B of the New York section of the Soldiers' National Cemetery–directly adjacent to the Baltimore Street orphanage inspired by his story. At the formal dedication of the National Orphans' Homestead, on November 20, the Reverend John W. Mears, editor of the American Presbyterian, held the audience spellbound with an account of the Humiston story.
When, in October 1869, Philinda Humiston married a Massachusetts minister named Asa Barnes, their descendants recalled, she and the children gladly left Gettysburg.
All three of Amos's children attended Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts. Frank continued his education at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He hung his doctor's shingle in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where he raised a family and practiced until his death in 1912, a popular and successful physician.
Alice never married and was somewhat of a nomad, working at a variety of jobs in New England and New York. She was living with one of Frank's daughters in California in 1933 when she met a tragic death, burned fatally when her dress caught fire from an open flame.
Fred raised a family and became a prosperous grain merchant in West Somerville, Massachusetts; he died in 1918. After Asa Barnes died in 1881, Philinda seems to have divided her time between Frank's and Fred's families. She died at Frank's home in Jaffrey in 1913.
The Humistons spent their later lives shunning the spotlight of celebrity, which had shined so brightly on them during the Civil War years. All three grown children and their mother were familiar to the townfolk of Jaffrey, but their storied past was generally unknown until one winter night, when, during the presentation of an illustrated lecture on the Battle of Gettysburg, a lantern slide of the 'Children of the Battlefield' was projected. The stunned audience recognized the children in the photograph to be their beloved doctor and his sister and brother.