Wednesday, May 23, 2012

America's Story (part 8) - Memorial Day, Gettysburg, and Amos Humiston

Humiston Children
Memorial Day had its genesis in the Civil War.

First known as Decoration Day, the holiday began by commemorating fallen Union soldiers. The event was inspired by how the Southern States had honored their dead, decorating Confederate graves, usually in the time frame of April through June.

The first observance in the North was May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery as well as other cemeteries in the Northern States. But after World War I, the North and South agreed on the same date (May 30th).  And Decoration Day was extended to all men and women, who died during any war or military action.  It would eventually be officially called and recognized as Memorial Day. (reference: Decoration Day, Memorial Day)

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was one of the first places to participate in Decoration Day. And the remembrance of the war dead was quite appropriate as the Battle of Gettysburg was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Likewise, the area was the setting of the immortal Gettysburg Address in 1863.

But Gettysburg was also the scene of tragedy and tenderness captured in ...

The Amos Humiston Story

Amos Humiston
During the Battle at Gettysburg, Union soldier, Sergeant Amos Humiston, was mortally wounded. He lingered perhaps as long as a day before he bled to death.

After the battle, a local girl found the sergeant's body clutching an ambrotype of three children - shown in the image at the top of the page. The unknown soldier's gaze was fixed on the picture of his family as he stepped into eternity.

The girl retrieved the picture and gave it to her father, Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper, who kept the image as an interesting conversation piece. Meanwhile the soldier was buried in an unknown's grave. And the story may have ended there if fate hadn't intervened.

Please feel free to check out parts of the Amos Humiston's story re-enacted in the following clips from the the History Channel.

(1) His story begins at the start of this video clip, then continues about 7 minutes in:

(2) The Amos Humiston story continues as he passes away from his wounds - about one and a half minutes into this clip:

(3) The  story of the girl finding the unknown sergeant's body begins about 2 minutes into this final clip:

Then Providence stepped in ...

It just so happened that a wagon, bearing four men, heading toward Gettysburg to help care for the wounded, broke down in front of Schriver's tavern. Philadelphia physician, Dr. John Bourns, heard the story of the unknown soldier, who died while clutching the picture of his children.   So moved, the doctor convinced the tavern owner to surrender the photo in an effort to find the identity of the man and his family. Inexpensive copies were made and the image and story were spread to newspapers.

The Philadelphia Inquirer carried such an account on October 19, 1863, under the headline, 'Whose Father Was He?' The article began by describing the final act of the unknown soldier. 'How touching! how solemn!' the anonymous writer declared. 'What pen can describe the emotions of this patriot-father as he gazed upon these children, so soon to be made orphans!' (reference: Amos Humiston: Union Soldier Who Died at the Battle of Gettysburg)

The clip below describes the events and scrolls the prize winning poem written about this soldier's final hours:

Mrs. Philinda Humiston, the mother of eight-year-old Franklin, six-year-old Alice, and four-year-old Frederick, finally received news of the article in the American Presbyterian in Portville, New York. She contacted Dr. Bourns, saying she had sent her husband the photo and had feared the worst as she had not heard of him since the Battle of Gettysburg.

Dr. Bourns sent a carte de visite to Mrs. Humiston in Portville, who confirmed the image as those of her three children. Sadly, she had acknowledged she was now a widow and her children fatherless.  The American Presbyterian broke this news on November 19, 1863–the same day that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Memorial Day tradition at Gettysburg

Gettysburg national cemetery

Famous for her grief, Mrs. Humiston took on a new task as headmistress of an orphanage in Gettysburg. The sales from the pictures of her children had helped raised the funds to start this orphanage after the war when widows and orphans were all too common in Pennsylvania.

May 30, 1868, on the first Decoration Day in Gettysburg, Mrs. Humiston started a tradition  as she allowed the orphans to lay flowers on the graves of their fathers.

To this day in the Gettysburg national cemetery, school children lay flowers on the soldiers' graves.  The story is told here:  A Man's Fate, A Town's Tradition.


The story of the dying soldier clutching the picture of his family resonates with the brave men and women in the armed forces as well as those in other occupations that put themselves in harm's way. Many men and women have pictures of their family as they serve their countries whether at home or abroad.

God bless them all and keep them safe!

The Amos Humiston story at Gettysburg and the origin of Memorial Day and its traditions are part of America's story
which is to be continued ....


Other posts in this series:

America's Story (part 1) - The Speech that redefined us, November 19, 1863 (2011)

America's Story (part 2) - Savages! (2011)

America's Story (part 3) - Over There - 1917, 1941 (2011)

America's Story (part 4) - Christmas 1944, when we said NUTS to the enemy (2011)

America's Story (part 5) - Amazing Grace (2012)

America's Story (part 6) - GI Joe Tuskegee Airmen (2012)

America's Story (part 7) - When Reagan was shot (2012)


Other posts on Memorial Day and soldiers:

Memorial Day - Do we know how much they suffered? (2010)

Welcome Home, Troops! (2010)


eCards from

* Remembering

* Those who served

* May we never forget ...


photo from Wikipedia Commons: Humiston Children, Amos Humiston, Gettysburg national cemetery

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