Share this article

print logo

Heroes from Home: WNY native's death at Gettysburg rivets a nation

A Philadelphia doctor, on the way to tend the wounded in the days following the Battle of Gettysburg, happened into a tavern, where the barkeeper showed him a touching photograph, below, that had been taken from the hands of a dead Union soldier. § All these years later, it’s unclear who first came upon this soldier and snatched the photo. More obvious was that the infantryman had died July 1, 1863, the first day of a three-day battle in which Confederate soldiers pushed outnumbered Union forces through Gettysburg, until they met greater resistance on the hills south of town. § In the midst of the chaos, this soldier surrendered his last breaths as he gazed into the faces of his three children. § But who was he?

It turned out he was from Western New York, but that didn’t become known for months after the battle.

This was a time before dog tags, so his identity – along with thousands of other dead soldiers still scattered across Gettysburg and the surrounding countryside – was unknown.

Dr. J. Francis Bourns convinced the barkeep to give him the rudimentary photo – called an ambrotype – so he could return to Philadelphia and try to find the family of the fallen soldier. There was no time to solve the mystery right away, as Bourns went on to deal with the immediate aftermath of one of America’s bloodiest battles.

Weeks later, Bourne returned home, this unknown soldier still fresh in his mind, and shared the photo and soldier’s story with his hometown paper. The Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story – under the headline, “Whose Father Was He?” – and the tale quickly spread in other publications across the North.

The story read, in part:

“He has finished his work on earth; his last battle has been fought; he has freely given his life to his country; and now, while his life’s blood is ebbing, he clasps in his hands the image of his children, and, commending them to the God of the fatherless, rests his last lingering look upon them.”

“There’s three human interest stories from Gettysburg that pretty much any Civil War enthusiast will know,” said Mark H. Dunkelman, an Amherst native, Civil War author and historian:

• That of John Burns, an elderly War of 1812 veteran who shouldered his musket and joined the Union battle line to fight the Confederate army.

• Of Jennie Wade – the lone civilian fatality of the battle – who was shot and killed by a stray bullet while baking bread for Union soldiers.

• And the story of the unknown soldier, which captured the hearts and imaginations of a war-weary public.

Despite its popularity at the time, the soldier’s story is unfamiliar to most Americans today as a grateful nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

It went viral, in 1863 terms, because of its great meaning.

Before the Civil War, Americans had long been comforted by what had become commonplace – watching most of their loved ones die a “good death” in peace, at home, surrounded by family and close friends. That changed after the war started in 1861, and the death toll climbed ever higher on far-off battlefields that included Fredericksburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville.

“The new technology of photography allowed this soldier to die with his family,” and gave comfort to a suffering populace struggling to preserve the Union, said Matthew Pinsker, professor of history and co-director of the House Divided Project at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa. “In the North, this was a well-known story, and it made a pretty big cultural impact.”

Newspapers had to be creative in recounting the story because they did not yet have the ability to reprint photographs. Journalists guessed the ages of the children, two sons and a daughter, Dunkelman said. They reported that the youngest boy was sitting in a high chair between his brother and sister, who both were wearing clothing cut from the same material.

In early November, four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the soldier’s wife would read a story in the Oct. 29 edition of the American Presbyterian, and conclude her husband had died in southern Pennsylvania. In the Nov. 12 edition – a week before President Abraham Lincoln would help consecrate the new Gettysburg National Cemetery with a historic address – the publication revealed the name of this unknown soldier:

Sgt. Amos Humiston, from Portville, in Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

Doomed mission

Humiston had died after he and fellow members of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment – a unit of soldiers culled from Southern Tier communities – were rushed from Cemetery Hill at the southeast border of Gettysburg as soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia began to enter the northern part of town.

Gettysburg had become an unexpected battleground early that hot July day, and a Confederate force superior in numbers attacked from the north and west. Some of the commanders with the Union Army of the Potomac watched from the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary as the battle began, and relayed word to gathering regiments south of town to prepare for a major engagement.

Thousands of Union soldiers on the roads further south of Gettysburg were quickly hastened to the town, while those already on hand took up positions on the ridges to the west, or covering the thoroughfares to the north of the vital crossroads community. The goal was clear for the western and northernmost soldiers on the Union side: Slow the Rebel advance as much as possible while the gathering Union force – some up to 30 miles away – scrambled to the battlefield in order to occupy higher ground just south of the town.

The 154th was thrown into the teeth of the Confederate onslaught, and met them head-on at the edge of town, at a place called Kuhn’s Brickyard.

“They were outnumbered by two Confederate brigades by about 3-to-1,” Dunkelman said. “It was really a forlorn hope. They were outflanked on both sides. They were driven from the brickyard.”

More than three-quarters of the regiment’s soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, among the highest casualty percentages of any unit in the battle. More than 60 would later perish at Confederate prisoner of war camps outside Richmond, Va., and at Andersonville, Ga.

Humiston, wounded, got away, “but he didn’t get far,” Dunkelman said. He collapsed about an eighth-mile away and died a short time later.

A simple life

Humiston was born April 26, 1830, in Tioga County and spent his early years apprenticed to be a harness maker, said Dunkelman, 65, author of “Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston,” published in 1999.

In late 1850, Humiston signed on for a 3½-year trip aboard a whaling ship, setting out from New Bedford, Mass., traveling around South America and spending considerable time in the Pacific. The ship arrived back in New England in April 1854, filled with whale oil.

“One trip was enough for Amos Humiston,” Dunkelman said. “He went back to harness making and he went back to Tioga County.” He met his wife-to-be, a widow named Philinda, and the two were married on Independence Day, 1854.

“Within a few years, they had started their family and moved to Portville. He started work as a harness maker, and that’s where he was when war broke out.”

As is the case with most Civil War history, there are gaps in Humiston’s story – exactly when he moved to Western New York, for instance. His homestead is long gone. Dunkelman was able to discover the couple’s third child, Frederick, was born in Portville in 1859.

Like many others, Humiston’s life changed two years later when Lincoln became president. First seven Southern states seceded, then four more after the new Confederate Army attacked and captured Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

It helps to have a former president in your region amid such turmoil, and Western New York did. Millard Fillmore led a rally outside his home in Niagara Square in Buffalo, and encouraged all men who were able to enlist in the Union Army.

Hundreds would heed his call in the coming weeks. And as hopes faded on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line that this new war would be a short one, tens of thousands more would join the Union and Confederate armies in the months and years to come.

His cause

Humiston wanted to enlist when the war broke out, Dunkelman said, “but because of his family, he didn’t.”

In a news story after Humiston’s identity was determined, a pastor from the Presbyterian church in Portville is quoted: “When he received assurance from responsible citizens that his family should be cared for during his absence,” Humiston enlisted at his first opportunity: Saturday, July 26, 1862.

“His motivation was never expressed by him in his letters,” Dunkelman said. “We can only assume that like many others, he wanted to maintain the integrity of the Union and put down the rebellion. When he enlisted, Abraham Lincoln had yet to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That happened just days before the 154th New York regiment was mustered in, in Jamestown.”

During the war, the name of this unknown soldier and the way he died had become widely known, but it wasn’t until Dunkelman – the historian for the 154th NY – discovered letters from descendants that a richer picture emerged of Humiston, the man.

“A lot of Civil War soldiers were reticent in expressing their love to their families,” Dunkelman said. “Amos was not. His letters are full of expressions of love for his wife and children.” One comes to Philinda in the months before Gettysburg, in which he tells her if he gets home he will lie closer to her “than bark on a tree.”

In another, with little punctuation and dotted with misspellings, he tells his wife in early May 1863 that he had a “very close call” in the recent battle at Chancellorsville, when the Rebels routed the Union, and a spent bullet glanced off his chest. He adds:

“I looked for a letter from you when I got back but did not [find one]. I am in hopes to get one to night I got the likeness of the children and it pleased me more than eney thing that you could have sent me how I want to se them and their mother is more than I can tell I hope that we may all live to see each other again if this war dose not last too long.”

It was not to be.

A soldier’s legacy

His love was another story. That continued to linger.

Dr. Bourns reproduced thousands of copies of the photograph of the Humiston children and sold them to raise funds for the Soldier’s National Orphanage, which opened in Gettysburg, near Cemetery Hill, after the war. Humiston was buried nearby in the New York section of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, in Grave 14, Section B. Nearby, in three sections of the cemetery, sit graves of unknown soldiers.

Philinda and the children moved to Gettysburg before the grand opening, but Humiston’s widow soon tired of the place, remarried and left Gettysburg with her family. Son Frank, the oldest of the Humiston children, became the “beloved town doctor” in Jaffrey, N.H., Dunkelman said. Fred became a traveling salesman out of Boston, Mass., and Alice held a variety of jobs across the country, settling in California. She lived the longest, until 1933.

The ¾-acre patch where Humiston and the 154th tangled with the Confederates is today the smallest section of Gettysburg National Military Park. Coster Avenue is tucked away at the foot of Pine Street, near Victor Street, in a residential section of town marked by red brick homes and well-tended lawns. It has become a popular stop where licensed battlefield guides take visitors, in part because of the mural Dunkelman, an alum of the Rhode Island School of Design, and a fellow artist painted in the 1980s to honor the 154th NY. A monument to the regiment also sits at the site.

A few blocks away along North Stratton Street, at the spot where Humiston died, a monument recounting the story of the famous photograph sits near the new town fire station.

Dunkelman, who has lived in Providence, R.I., since college, is married to a schoolteacher, Annette, and has made his living tending bar. The 154th remains his passion. He has amassed a collection of primary source material on the unit which rivals that of material collected on any regiment in the Civil War. Close to 1,200 descendants have shared more than 1,700 letters, 26 diaries and 250 photographs. His great-grandfather, John Langhans, a German immigrant, enlisted with the regiment in 1864 and marched with Gen. William T. Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Langhans returned after the war to the family farm in Ellicottville and lived there until 1929.

Dunkelman organized a 28th reunion of the regiment’s descendants for Saturday at the Chautauqua Institution. It will include a noontime talk on Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, a roll call of descendants and a brass band performance. “There are about 20 living Humiston descendants scattered from Maine to the Yukon,” Dunkelman said, adding he’s unsure if any will attend next weekend’s gathering.

The Humiston family, he said, has included eight grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, a dozen great-great grandchildren and at least 10 great-great-great grandchildren.

Humiston also lives on as part of the House Divided Project at Dickinson College. He is among two Western New York soldiers killed at Gettysburg who are among the focus of the project, which helps elementary and high school teachers from across the country teach children about the Civil War. Thousands of educators from across the country have visited the battlefield park in recent years and learned about Humiston and Bayard Wilkeson, a Union artillery commander who grew up in Buffalo and will be featured Monday in Part Two of this Buffalo News series.

“These are stories that transcend any particular place,” said Pinsker, project co-director, “but certainly Western New York can take great pride in them.”

Heroes from Home: Buffalo lieutenant gave his life for honor at Gettysburg