Icon of Sorrow
One hundred and fifty years after the start of the Civil War, photographs related to the conflict continue to fascinate. An ambrotype of three young children found on the body of an unidentified Union soldier at the Battle of Gettysburg is one such image. After the battle, Dr. John Francis Bourns of Philadelphia, seeking to identify the dead soldier, had a description of the photograph published in newspapers throughout the Northeast.
Eventually, Philinda Humiston of Portville, New York, identified her children as the subjects of the portrait and her husband, Amos, of the 154th New York Volunteers, as the casualty. Dr. Bourns had the ambrotype reproduced for sale as a carte de visite, with proceeds dedicated to found an orphanage for the children of the fallen. Sheet music for a song about the photograph was sold for the same purpose. As one commentator wrote, “No other incident of the present fratricidal war is known to have so touched the heart of the nation.”
Historic New England is fortunate to have copies of both the carte de visite and the sheet music in its collection. The story of Amos Humiston and the children of the battlefield has been the subject of a book by Mark H. Dunkelman, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston, 1999; a four-part blog by filmmaker Errol Morris in the New York Times; and an article on Ancestry.com.
—Lorna Condon, Senior Curator of Library and Archives