On the Edge of Discovery: The Orphans of the Battlefield

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Originally posted May 15, 2012

The soldier fell beside the road; he knew he was mortally wounded. Taking his last breath he gazed at an ambrotype image of his three little children. "Oh if only….

The Battle of Gettysburg had taken its grim toll and the next day the soldier was found clutching the ambrotype. No time to figure out his identity, he and thousands of others needed to be buried and quickly.

The ambrotype was taken from the dead soldier by a tavern keeper’s daughter who discovered his body.  She took the ambrotype to her father who put it on display in the tavern. Dr. John F. Bourns, who stopped by the tavern on his way to assist with the wounded in Gettysburg, was intrigued by the image. He wanted to see if he could identify the soldier by publishing it.

 When Bourns returned to Philadelphia, he had photographer H. C. Phillips copy the ambrotype for publication as a carte-de-visite or photographic visiting card (CDV). He also had an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer October 19, 1863 describing the image and asking for information. The touching story was picked up by other newspapers around the north. The image soon became an iconic symbol of all the children who were orphaned by the war.

Although the technology was not available at the time to publish photographs in the newspaper, the description was good enough that one day Dr. Bourne received a letter. Philinda Humiston thought that the ambrotype sounded like one she had sent to her husband a few months ago.  She had not heard anything from him after the Battle of Gettysburg. Dr. Bourns sent her a copy of the carte-de-visite to verify the picture. There Mrs. Humiston saw the faces of her children, Franklin age 8, Frederick age 4 and Alice age 6. The fallen soldier was her husband, Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The CDV of the Humiston children became one of the most widely circulated images finding its way into many family albums. A ballad titled “The Children of the Battlefield” popularized its story. The copy of the CDV in CCHS collection is in an album from the Talbot/Jones family. 

The proceeds from the initial sale of the CDV were given to Mrs. Humiston who was struggling to support her family. Later, Dr. Bourns sold it as a fund raiser for the establishment of the National War Orphan’s Homestead in Gettysburg in 1866. The Humiston children attended the school, and Philinda Humiston found employment there.

 Today if you go to Gettysburg, you can see an historical marker and the grave of Sergeant Humiston whose story has touched so many.

 If you want to learn more about this story, Mark H. Dunkleman has done a masterful job researching this story in his book: Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston.  Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist