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Book Review: Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier

By Kevin M. Hymel 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Amos Humiston did not lead an exceptional life. He supported his wife and children as a harness maker and whaler before moving to Portville, New York. But when the Civil War broke out, Humiston, urged on by his local pastor, joined the 154th New York Infantry Regiment and marched off to war. To his fellow soldiers, Humiston was a good corporal and sergeant, but it was not until days after the Battle of Gettysburg that he received any special attention, and even then it was not for battlefield heroics.

After he was wounded at Gettysburg, Humiston pulled out an ambrotype picture of his three children as he lay on the battlefield and died while looking at it. When he was found on the battlefield a few days later, still clutching the precious photo, Humiston's death caught the attention of the public. His story was published in newspapers throughout the Union, in hopes that this unknown soldier's identity could be discovered.

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Humiston's odyssey and the subsequent effects of his death on his family have been thoroughly chronicled by Mark H. Dunkelman in Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston (Praeger Press, Westport, Conn., $45). Dun-kelman researched many aspects of Humiston's life, including his careers in harness making and whaling, to put together a biography that also offers insights into the America of the 1850s and 1860s. A scholar of the 154th New York Infantry Regiment, Dunkelman provides a detailed portrait, relying on letters between Humiston and his wife, Philinda, regimental records and the letters of fellow soldiers.

The heart of the book focuses on Humiston's life as a soldier. He heard his first shots fired in anger in December 1862, when his regiment arrived at Fredericksburg just as the battle was ending. He next participated in Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's futile Mud March along the Rappahannock River. The mud, which Humiston described as "glue," hindered the army's movement and exhausted the men trying to march in it. The regiment spent the winter encamped at Falmouth and Stafford Court House, Va., waiting for the next campaign to begin. During the lull, Humiston wrote to his wife and even sent her some poetry. It was during those winter months that the 154th acquired the nickname the "Hardtack" Regiment, the result of a popular scheme of trading used coffee beans for hardtack.

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Humiston crossed the Rappahannock with his regiment, and they drove off Confederate skirmishers before bivouacking. The Hardtack Regiment would soon see more severe action. On May 2, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops attacked the Union right flank, held by the XI Corps. Humiston's regiment witnessed the mad retreat as panicked Union soldiers ran through the defense line of the 154th. Following close behind were the Confederate soldiers. The Hardtackers held the line for as long as they could before giving way to the enemy avalanche. Humiston wrote Philinda after the battle to re-assure her "that I am in the land of the living."

But Humiston's war was not over. On June 12, the 154th received orders to head north. They reached Gettysburg on July 1. Passing though the town, the Hardtackers went into the Union line in front of Kuhn's brickyard to defend against Maj. Gen. Jubal Early's at-tack from the northeast. They did not have to wait long. The Confederates crested the hill in front of the Union line, filling the defenders with awe. The Federals then opened fire, which the Rebels immediately answered, and Humiston's comrades began to fall.

The Confederates flanked the regiment to the 154th's right, and the Union line began to crumble. Humiston fled toward Cemetery Hill, followed closely by Confederate soldiers. That was the last anyone saw of the sergeant alive. Later that night, Captain Lewis Warner, who had been detached from the regiment to lead a scouting party, was shocked to learn that three officers and 15 men were all that was left of the 154th.

Amos Humiston's fame began a few days later, when a woman discovered the body of an unidentified Union soldier clutching an ambrotype of his three children. The picture eventually found its way to her friend, Dr. Francis Bourns, who submitted stories to various Northern newspapers. Each time he received an inquiry about the soldier, Bourns sent a carte de visite–an inexpensively duplicated photo–of the children to the writer, hoping that someone would be able to identify the unknown soldier. The story rapidly spread, and Humiston became famous as the "Unknown Soldier of Gettysburg."

When news of the unknown soldier reached Portville via newspapers, Philinda requested a carte de visite. When the photo arrived in November, Philinda saw her three children staring back at her and realized that her husband was dead.

The news that the unidentified soldier had finally been named was as big a story as the discovery of his body had been five months earlier. A poem and later a song, "The Children of the Battlefield," were published and widely distributed. Sales of cartes de visite of the Humiston children–Franklin, Frederick and Alice–soared. It seemed that everyone in the North wanted their images.

But the saga of Amos Humiston did not end with the discovery of his identity. Dr. Bourns and other Philadelphia residents founded the Homestead Association, a Gettysburg foundation to raise money for a home for the orphans of soldiers. After the war, Philinda and her three children traveled to Gettysburg to visit Humiston's grave and take up residence in the orphanage. Philinda worked there as a wardrobe mistress, making clothes for the children.

Dunkelman's book follows the lives of Philinda, the children and their descend-ants. Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier ends with the unveiling of the Amos Humiston Memorial at Gettysburg in 1993, the only monument to an individual enlisted man on the Gettysburg battlefield. One drawback in the book is the excessive amount of coverage that Humiston's grandchildren are given, but Dunkelman's thoroughness and attention to detail are commendable.

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier is a very human tale that can be enjoyed by historians and casual readers alike. Dunkelman weaves an intimate biography around a larger picture of late-19th-century America. In doing so, he has produced a very readable book.


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