The sergeant died just as the great titanic battle began, gazing at a picture of his children.
This is a sad story with a happy ending.
On the hot afternoon of the first day of July, 1863, the men of the 154th New York Infantry, double quicked through the streets of Gettysburg. Along with the 27th and 73rd Pennsylvania they were part of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, of the 11th Corps. They were rushing headlong to the front of the Union line which had begun to crumble under the weight of Confederate attacks, and threatened to drive the Union troops out of the town and turn the Union flank.
Amongst those who sweated in his woolen uniform that day was Sgt Amos Humiston a native of Portville, N.Y. Sgt Humiston's last act of his life would capture the heart of the nation and would engender a mystery which took 7 months to solve.
The 154th was made up of men from the southwestern area formed by Chautauqua and Cattaragus counties. Answering Mr Lincolns call for an additional 300,00 volunteers,after the failed Peninsula Campaign of 1862 the regiment contained older men in their 30's and 40's. Humiston was in his early 30's an harness maker by profession, with a wife, Phylinda, and 3 small children, Frank, 7, Alice 5, and Fredrick aged just 3.
The 154th NY was part of Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps and was present at the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. It took a beating there. Of the 590 men it started that battle, it found itself entering Gettysburg just a short month and a half later with 300 men(1).
As they took up their positions just northeast of the town, the 134th NY formed on their right, the 27th Pennsylvania on the left and the 73rd Pennsylvania taking up the reserve. Compelled to give way to Early's Division, they retreated through the town in an attempt the reach the Union Positions to the south on Cemetery Hill.
One of those who made that dash was Sgt Amos Humiston. As he reached the intersection of York and Stratton Streets, Humiston was shot in the chest, just above the heart. Soldiers in that conflict were particularly knowledgeable about wounds delivered by a .58 caliber rifled musket, and Sgt Humiston could have been no different. Realizing his wound was mortal he somehow gathered enough strength to a vacant lot between the rail road tracks and the home of one Judge S. R. Russell. Removing a small ambrotype from his pocket, he looked at the 3 children whom he would never see again and there died.
At the end of the day only 12 men and 3 officers of the 300 who started the day were able to answer the regimental roll call that night. Lieutenant Colonel Allen was not aware of the fate of Sgt Humiston.
After 2 additional days of intense fighting the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee, withdrew from Gettysburg, unhindered by a Union Army of the Potomac too tired to pursue with much vigor.
For any one who travels to Gettysburg today it is hard to imagine the tranquil village as anything more than a quiet burg in the rolling countryside of southern Pennsylvania. It remains thus either purposely or by happenstance very close to what it appeared in 1863 when two armies met and fought over this road junction.
A history of the Battle of Gettysburg may be found elsewhere, suffice it to say the during the three day battle, the Confederates were triumphant the first day, the armies fought to a draw on the the second day, and the Union won the third day. By then Sgt Humiston had been dead for two days.
The carnage of this battle can not be imagined; the heat of mid-summer made the bodies of the dead men and horses putrefy almost immediately. The dead were everywhere. The smell of rotting flesh of both horse and man gave the air a sickly sweet odor. The wounded who were in some cases laying on the ground two days where they had been shot were in indescribable agony. Teams of soldiers from the union army scoured the battle field for survivors. Makeshift hospitals remained in the area until at least November 1863 and the wounded in them lay in shelter half's in the weather. It rained the day after the battle.
At some time soon after the battle the body of Sgt Humiston was found, still glazing with vacant eyes upon the picture of the three children. Someone, touched by the sight of this pitiful scene removed the picture and searched the body. No identification could be found. Sgt Humiston was buried near the spot upon which he fell. His marker read, "Unknown".
As it did for many of the 51,000 casualties his story could have ended there. It did not. Dr John Francis Bourns of Philadelphia came to the battlefield to assist in caring for the wounded. It is not exactly known how the photograph and the story of how it was found came into the possession of Dr Bourns, but it did. Dr Bourns became intrigued and determined to ascertain who the soldier was.
In order to accomplish this he had copies of the ambrotype made into the popularcartes de visite and had them distributed in the north. The interesting story caught the interest of journalist who wrote articles about the photo in newspapers. In the 1860's it was not possible to copy pictures into newspapers so a detailed description was placed in each paper.
The story appeared in the American Presbyterian. In November 1863 Phylinda Humiston heard of the story and recognized the details of the ambrotype. She had heard nothing of her husband since Gettysburg and did not know whether he was killed, or captured. Sending a letter to Bourns telling him of her suspicions, Bourns replied by sending a copy of the picture to her. As she looked at it she realized immediately what had befallen her husband.
In January 1864 Dr. Bourns traveled to Porterville to return the ambrotype to Phylinda. Dr Bourns had hoped to raise money to assist the 3 children by selling copies of the photo, however at a charity meeting he changed his plans to assist the great number of children orphaned in the war. The American Presbyterian aided in in this effort and sponsored a poetry contest. The winning entry was submitted by James G. Clark of Danville N.Y. who set the poem to music. The sale proceeds of this sheet music went to benefit war orphans.
As 1865 turned into 1866 and the war a fading memory for many an orphanage was established in Gettysburg. Phylinda Humiston was offered a job there as matron which she accepted. The building was within sight of her husband's grave in the National Cemetery. He lays in repose in the New York section, Grave 14, Row B.
In 1869 Phylinda Humison remarried and removed once again to Massachusetts.
Today a marker marks the spot where Sgt Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Infantry died. It is engraved with a plaque bearing the likeness of Sgt Humiston and his three children whom he loved so dearly that his last thoughts were of them. Dedicated on July the 3rd 1993 it is work of Cindy Stouffer and Mary Ruth Collins two present day Gettysburg citizens.
What may we learn from this? We may learn that each defender of our country is not an automoton as many would have us believe. That there are things worth fighting for and yes, dying for. Sgt Humiston acts as a reminder that it is still the common soldier who does the work of freedom, and there have been and still are thousands just like him.
Dieu le Roy>
(1) Regiments were formed up of 1000 men, the number 300reflects causualties, missing and men detached to other duties; However 300 men reporting to the colours meant that the 154th was only 30% of its original strength. It was not alone, either in the north or the south. Primary sources at the end of the war refer to the brigades being the size of regiments, and the colours being too close together. In this way CW reenactment units are extremely accurate.