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"Whose Father Was He?"

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Welcome to my 200th post!

Frank, Frederick and Alice, "The Children of the Battle-Field"

Here is a story for Father's Day. Since it began by a woman honoring her father who fought during the Civil War (read the post here), I thought it fitting to tell a story about another father who also fought in the Civil War and how he was remembered. Here is his story and that of his family (although it has no relation to mine).

On Monday, 19 October 1863, an article appeared on page 4 of The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was titled "Whose Father Was He?" Here is the article:

"After the battle of Gettysburg, a Union soldier was found in a secluded spot on the field , 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 upon this picture his eyes, set in death, rested. The last object upon which this dying father looked was the image of his children, and as he silently gazed upon them his soul passed away. How touching! how solemn! What pen can describe the emotions of this patriot-father as he gazed upon these children, so soon to be made orphans! Wounded and alone, the din of battle still sounding in his ears, he lies down to die. His last thoughts and prayers are for his family. He has finished his work on earth; his last battle has been fought; he has freely given his life to his country; and now, while his life's blood is ebbing, he clasps in his hands the image of his children, and, commending them to the God of the fatherless, rests his last lingering look upon them.

When, after the battle, the dead were being buried this soldier was thus found. The ambrotype was taken from his embrace, and has since been sent to this city for recognition. Nothing else was found upon his person by which he might be identified. His grave has been marked, however, so that if by any means this ambrotype will lead to his recognition he can be disinterred. This picture is now in the possession of Dr. Bourns, No. 1104 Spring Garden street, of this city, who can be called upon or addressed in reference to it. The children, two boys and a girl, are, apparently, nine, seven and five years of age, the boys being respectively the oldest and the youngest of the three. The youngest boy is sitting in a high chair, and on each side of him are his brother and sister. The oldest boy's jacket is made from the same material as his sister's dress. These are the most prominent features of the group. It is earnestly desired that all the 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 thoughts of their dying father was for them, and them only."

After the respective armies left Gettysburg, Graeffenburg saloonkeeper Benjamin Schriver somehow came into possession of the ambrotype of the dead soldier’s children. Graeffenburg was 13 miles west of Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Pike. He displayed it in his tavern, where it might have faded into obscurity but for a simple twist of fate in the form of a broken wagon axle.

The wagon in question was transporting Philadelphia doctor John Francis Bourns and three of his colleagues to Gettysburg in the wake of the battle. It broke down in front of Schriver’s inn, and the innkeeper showed the ambrotype to the visitors. Bourns offered to find the family of the fallen soldier if the innkeeper would give him the picture. Schriver agreed.

After helping treat some of the 21,000 Union and Confederate wounded, Dr. Bourns returned home to Philadelphia, but not before arranging for the unknown soldier’s grave to be marked more carefully, on the off-chance that he eventually would be identified. He realized the importance of the photograph as a single sad clue to the identity of the devoted father and his family.

In October 1863, Dr. Bourns initiated a wave of newspaper publicity about the unknown soldier and the image of the children. Because photographs could not be reproduced in newspapers at that time, a description of the photograph was given.

Dr. Bourns had carte-de-visite, hard-backed paper copies of the ambrotype made by area photographers in anticipation of responders seeking more information. He sent them to anyone who contacted him, mostly wives with missing husbands or soldiers with missing comrades. Moreover, if the soldier and his family were identified, he wanted to have copies to sell as part of an effort to raise money to support the three orphans. These copies, which presented the picture in vignette, sold in local shops to Philadelphians eager to help. Soon other papers across the North picked up the story as well.

Philinda Humiston (1831-1913)

Meanwhile, a woman in Portville, New York, had not received a letter fromher husband since the Battle of Gettysburg. A local townswoman passed the story along to Philinda Humiston, who immediately realized that the description exactly matched the ambrotype she sent Amos. She had the town’s doctor write to Dr. Bourns, who received the letter in November. He sent Philinda a carte-de-visite. When it arrived, she subsequently confirmed the image after Dr. Bourns sent her one of the carte-de-visites, recognizing it as the identical picture of little Franklin (eight), Alice (six) and Frederick (four), that she had sent to her husband. She knew then that she was a widow and that her children were fatherless.

A month after the article first appeared, the American Presbyterian reported to readers that the family had been found and explained somewhat sanctimoniously that while the widow was saddened by her discovery, "the severity of the blow was tempered by the dying affection of the father, by the tender romance of mystery which enveloped the facts and by the widespread interest the case had awakened in patriotic minds."

Amos Humiston (1830-1863)

The dead soldier finally had a name. It was Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York Infantry. He had been born on 26 April 1830 in Owego, New York, a town on the Susquehanna River near the Pennsylvania border.

Amos apprenticed to a harness-maker in Tioga County. After five years of study, he abruptly left to become a crewman on the whaling ship Harrison, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. For the next three years, Amos braved icy seas, giant mammals, and high winds from Hawaii to the Bering Sea off the northeast coast of Russia. For his troubles, he earned a grand total of $200, less than 18 cents a day.

He then returned to Tioga County and settled in Candor, where his older brother Morris had opened a harness and saddle shop. There he met his future wife, a young widow named Philinda Betsy Ensworth Smith, whose first cousin was married to Morris.

Amos and Philinda were married on Tuesday, 4 July 1854. This was her second marriage. Her first marriage, which lasted for 9 brief months, from 15 April 1850 to 10 January 1851, ended in widowhood with the death of her teen-aged husband, Justin H. Smith, from unknown causes.

The newlyweds moved to Portville, N.Y. where Amos opened his own harness shop with his boyhood neighbor, George Lillie. He and Philinda soon started a family. They had three children; Franklin, Alice, and Frederick, born four years apart.

Then things changed when the Civil War started. Amos felt a patriotic sense of duty to the United States of America, but held off serving in the war out of concern for the welfare of his wife and their three children.

At meetings in July 1862, in his adoptive village of Portville, New York, the citizenry raised money toward the support of enlistees' families and made assurances of continued assistance to affected families. The local pastor, I.G. Ogden, counseled Amos on the importance of the Union cause and promised to keep an eye on his family while he was gone.

So, on Saturday, 26 July 1862, Amos, feeling assured of his family's care in his absence or in his unthinkable death, finally enlisted, despite Philinda's wishes.

During the Battle of Chancellorsville, he escaped serious injury when he was hit in the chest by a spent bullet that glanced off his ribs. When he returned to camp near Stafford Court House after the battle, he received the ambrotype of his children. On 9 May 1863, Amos wrote to his wife, Philinda, "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."

Less than two months later, the ambrotype would be found clutched in his dead hands on the battlefield of Gettysburg.


It happened on the afternoon of 1 July 1863. Two brigades of Confederate soldiers had crested a slight hill above a wheat field and looked down on the blue clad Union soldiers waiting for them in the brickyard below. The Union lines fired a swift volley, dropping a number of the Rebels where they stood. The Confederates raised their rifles and fired back.

It was the first day of what would become the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Confederates were trying to force the issue before the Union army could gather its strength. It was there in John Kuhn’s Brickyard where Colonel Charles Coster’s brigade of Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers took a stand to cover the retreat of the Union 11th Corps. The men of the 154th New York Infantry, flanked by the 27th Pennsylvania on their left and the 134th New York on their right, held their ground just north of town between Harrisburg Road and York Pike. Facing eight enemy regiments, the Federals fought desperately, but they were outnumbered three to one.

The 134th New York was flanked first. Devastating fire poured into it as the unit began to flee the battlefield, leaving the 154th New York exposed. Realizing his unit's precarious position and not wanting to get captured, the regiment's commander, Major Daniel B. Allen, ordered a retreat to the left. But not everyone fled. Company C held its ground as Lieutenant Jack Mitchell shouted, "Boys, let's stay right here!" The few men who were beginning to back away returned to the firing line, a slight fence in front of a brickyard. When Mitchell saw that the rest of the unit was retreating, he changed his mind. "Boys, we must get out of here!" he shouted. Company C broke and ran along with the others.

Amos, joined his comrades in the headlong rush to the rear, where he saw that some of his fellow New Yorkers had already been captured by the Confederates. All around him soldiers were surrendering or being cut down, either by musket fire or saber thrusts from mounted officers. Amos took off as fast as he could down Stratton Street and across a railroad track. That was the last time anyone saw him alive.

Known as "the Brickyard Fight" it was not a peripheral skirmish with few casualties on the fringe of the battle, but a hard-fought action that cost the Union troops dearly in soldiers killed, wounded, and captured. Amos' regiment suffered one of the highest casualty rates endured during the war. The 154th New York started the Battle of Gettysburg with 265 men. It came out with 58, a loss of 78 percent.

Outnumbered and surrounded on multiple sides by the Confederates, Coster’s brigade took heavy casualties but helped to give the Union army time to prepare their defenses on Cemetery Hill. The remnants of the 154th made it to Cemetery Hill, where they spent the next two days under heavy Confederate artillery fire, holding fast until the battle ended two days later with a Union victory.

A few days after the battle ended, someone found Amos' body sprawled in a vacant lot on the corner of York and Stratton streets. He had been shot once in the chest, just above the heart. Realizing that his wound was mortal, Amos had staggered into the lot between the railroad tracks and the white clapboard home owned by Judge S.R. Russell. Exactly who found him, or when, has never been definitively determined. David Wills, the Gettysburg lawyer who led the efforts to establish a new national cemetery on the outskirts of town, and later invited President Abraham Lincoln to give what became known as the Gettysburg Address, had named 31-year-old granite cutter Peter Beitler or one of his three sisters-in-law as the person who discovered Amos' body. Beitler and his pregnant wife, Emma, were living in the vicinity of Kuhn’s brickyard, where the 154th New York made its doomed stand. At least one of Emma’s stepsisters, Jane, Anna, or Louisa Schriver, was staying with the Beitlers when the battle began.

At first it was impossible to identify Humiston’s body. Days of rain on the 4th and 5th of July had drenched the corpse, and there were no identifying letters, numbers, or badges on his uniform, no private papers or primitive dog tags. The only personal item found with the dead soldier was an object clutched tightly in his hand. His eyes were still open, staring at it. The object was an ambrotype, a picture on a piece of glass, of three young children, two boys and a girl. From his death pose, it was obvious that the man had spent the last moments of his life gazing at the photograph. The unknown soldier, still unidentified, was buried in an unmarked grave on Judge Russell’s property.


When Dr. Bourns visited Portville on 2 January 1864 he met with town officials and clergymen before being introduced to Philinda and her children and returning the original ambrotype she had sent her husband nine months earlier. Her hands trembled as she received the picture, stained with her husband’s blood. At Bourns’s suggestion, the party dropped to their knees and gave thanks for their good fortune and the divine providence that helped connect a faceless soldier to his family. Privately, Bourns gave Philinda the proceeds from earlier sales of the children’s photograph, stressing that the money was not charity, but rather "an expression of a felt obligation from many warm hearts that sympathized with her in her sorrow." She received the proceeds of $51, equal to almost four months worth of a soldier's pay.

Apart from the sums bestowed upon her during Dr. Bourns' visit, Philinda survived on work as a seamstress and charity from her neighborly villagers. On Wednesday, 8 June 1864, Philinda began her application for an army widow's pension. The slow process kept her waiting before certification of approval on Tuesday, 5 June 1866, over a year after the war ended. The pension payments of $8.00 per month were retroactive to Amos' death date on 1 July 1863.

The woodcut from Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

The dramatic story of the soldier who died looking at a photo of his children and the subsequent identification of his family spread like wildfire through the North, reaching a pinnacle with the publication in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of a rather fanciful woodcut of Humiston in his death pose. Amos' story even made it into a book, Christian Memorials of the War, which came out in 1864. The picture was also used to raise money for the Sanitary Commission. Sales of the picture were brisk and continued long after the war, as Northerners who identified with the story wanted a carte-de-visite for their scrap books. The story was told in innumerable poems and songs, including "The Unknown Soldier" and "The Children of the Battle Field." The latter work, written by popular balladeer James G. Clark, won a special contest sponsored by the American Presbyterian. Clark’s piece, set to music, sold thousands of copies throughout the North.

Subsequent editions 23 dated September 23 1865 and November 1867 carried an additional inscription: "The copies are sold in furtherance of the National Sabbath School effort to found in Pennsylvania an Asylum for dependent Orphans of Soldiers; in memorial of our Perpetual Union." This inscription marked a shift in funding from the Humiston family to the establishment of an orphanage.

After the Civil War, money collected from sales of the cartes-de-visite and the song was used to establish a home for orphans of the war at Gettysburg. Led by the American Presbyterian and Dr. Bourns, the money went to purchase a house on Baltimore Pike in Gettysburg that had been Major General Oliver O. Howard’s headquarters during the battle. Howard commanded the XI Corps, in which Amos served with the 154th New York.

General Grant with the boys and girls at the National Homestead orphanage, 21 June 1867

The "National Homestead at Gettysburg" opened on Baltimore Street on East Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg in October 1866, with Philinda Humiston as the institution’s wardrobe mistress, and Frank, Alice, and Fred among the occupants. Philinda and her three children arrived in Gettysburg on 25 October 1866. They visited Amos' Grave Number 14 in Section B of the New York State portion of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and the children covered his headstone with flowers. The cemetery which was adjacent to the orphanage, just a few yards outside the cemetery's eastern gate.

The Humiston family lived there for three years. Then, on Tuesday, 26th October 1869, Philinda became a wife for the third time. In a ceremony with about 100 attendees at the orphanage, Philinda married Asa Barnes, a twice-widowed, retired Methodist Episcopal minister, 24 years her senior. She had met him when he visited the orphanage. According to Humiston family lore, it was a marriage of convenience which offered an escape from the orphanage. After a ten-day honeymoon, the couple settled into Asa's home in Becket, Massachusetts.

The three children remained in the orphanage, where they numbered among 88 orphans. In 1871 the children relocated to their new home in Becket. On Tuesday, 2 May 1871, Asa became the court-appointed guardian of his stepchildren.

The Humiston Plaque

On 3 July 1993, a permanent memorial was dedicated to Amos Humiston on Stratton Street, at the traditional site of his death. The ceremony included a brass band, readings of Humiston-inspired poems, and a rendition of "ildren of the Battle Field." The event was highlighted by the introduction of Amos' descendants. The memorial, featuring a likeness of Amos and his children on a bronze plaque affixed to a five-foot-high granite block, is the only one dedicated to an individual enlisted man at Gettysburg.

On this Father's Day, Amos Humiston stands as an example of loving and devoted father and husband, whose last gesture was one of true affection for his family and a testament to the true power of a father's love.


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