51,000 men. That’s the number of American soldiers who were missing, wounded, and those met their demise on the battlefield in Gettysburg, PA on July 1-3, 1863. By today’s standards, these losses are the equivalent of 6 million men in three days. Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost one-third of his army during this battle. It was a grueling and iconic battle of the American Civil War for it marked the turning of the war in favor of the Union armies. It was also one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and probably the most hallowed and, dare I say, haunted ground in the country.
Today marks the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. What better way to honor the brave men who fought at Gettysburg than sharing stories from the battle?
The first day of the battle did not go well for the Union troops. A minor skirmish started in the northwest of Gettysburg around 10 am. Major General John F. Reynolds and his troops attempted to hold the Confederates at bay, but Reynolds was struck and killed. (Read “Star-Crossed Loves of Gettysburg” for more of Reynolds’ tragic story.) By 4 pm, the Federal troops were retreating through Gettysburg towards Cemetery Hill. Several troops were cut off from their units and killed in the retreat. One of those soldiers was the source of a battlefield mystery of a Union soldier who died during the retreat.
The unknown soldier’s body was discovered after the battle by the daughter of Benjamin Schriver, a local tavern keeper. The soldier had died in a secluded area near the intersection of Stratton Street and York Street. He was clutching a glass-plate ambrotype photograph of his three children. The photograph was taken to the girl’s father, who posted it in the tavern. Philadelphia physician John Francis Bourns took it upon himself to discern the identity of the soldier and return the photo to the deceased’s family.
The following article ran in papers in the north. (This particular article was from the The Weekly Perrysburg Journal):
Whose Father was He?
After the battle of Gettysburg. A Union soldier was found in a secluded spot on the field, where, wounded, he had lain 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 the dying father looked was the image of his children, and as he silently gazed upon them his soul passed away. 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. 1,104 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 youngest of the three. The youngest boy is sitting in a high chair, and on each side are his brother and sister. The oldest boy’s jacket is made of 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. –Philadelphia Inquirer.
The tragic story of the soldier dying as he gazed upon the faces of his children was passed from newspaper to newspaper until the story made its way to Portville, New York. There a copy of the story was passed to Mrs. Philinda Humiston. She realized the description of the photograph was similar to a photograph of her children– eight-year-old Franklin, six-year-old Alice, and four-year-old Frederick– which she had sent her husband in the months prior to Gettysburg. She had heard nothing from her husband since the battle of Gettysburg.
The poor woman contacted Dr. Bourns, who returned the photograph to the family. Dr. Bourns also presented the widow with money which was obtained from the sale of copies of the photograph.
Mrs. Humiston eventually traveled to Gettysburg to claim the body of her husband and resolve the great and tragic mystery of the soldier who had died thinking so fondly of his family.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the Battle of Gettysburg and learning more about Amos Humiston, I encourage you to watch the newest History Channel Video of the Battle of Gettysburg (Warning- Gore & Violence):
* (Under Select Miscellany) “Whose Father Was He?” The Weekly Perrysburg Journal. 2 Dec 1863: 1.
* Amos Humison’s Children – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.34514/
* Amos Humiston – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b27260/
I was planning on segueing into the story of the haunted orphanage, which was founded because of the compassion people felt for orphans of the war– highlighted by the picturesque scene of the unknown soldier found clutching a photo of his three children… Alas, I ran out of time. But, it was my wedding anniversary and I had to prioritize my time! Perhaps I’ll write that haunted orphanage story up another night and link it.
Also, I’m pleased to say that the motion to build a casino on the Gettysburg battlefield (in the part that isn’t a national park– through Pickett’s Charge) was defeated in April 2011! Woo! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nubs99Vz_yg