Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier; the Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier; the Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston

Article excerpt

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston. By Mark H. Dunkelman. (Westport, Conn., and London: Praeger, 1999. Pp. xiv, 272. $45.00, ISBN 0-275-96294-6.)

Amos Humiston learned a trade. He married, apparently happily, and fathered three children. He patriotically responded to his country's call to arms. And like thousands of other men, Humiston died at Gettysburg. Yet by slipping into death while gazing at a photograph of his three children--eight-year-old Franklin, six-year-old Alice, and four-year-old Frederick--the New York sergeant would be rescued from an unknown soldier's grave. Shortly after the battle a sympathetic but self-promoting Philadelphia physician named J. Francis Bourns learned of the discovery of the unidentified man clutching a blood-stained ambrotype. Bourns mounted a successful campaign to find "The Children of the Battlefield."

Humiston's story was a sensation during the war, with dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, a number of poems, and a best-selling ballad written about it. Thousands of prints of the Humiston children's photograph sold to the public. The impact of the story continued for more than a decade after the war in the form of the National Homestead, a home for soldiers' orphans founded with the proceeds generated by sales of the photograph and sheet music. Unfortunately, like many highly publicized and romanticized tales, this one ended badly. The National Homestead closed in 1877 amid charges of corruption and abuse, while the family came to harbor ill-feelings toward Bourns because he allegedly misled and cheated them.

It is, of course, inherently interesting to flesh out a well-but-superficially-known tale. …

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