A harness-maker from Portville, N.Y., Humiston was torn between his duty to country and his family when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Assured by neighbors that his wife and three small children would be cared for in his absence, he enlisted on Sept. 24, 1862, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 three-year volunteers.
During the next nine months, Humiston related his experiences to his wife, Philinda, in letters that expressed his longing for their family. Hoping to offer some solace, Philinda, in June 1863, sent him a sentimental keepsake, an ambrotype of their children, Frank, Frederick, and Alice.
"The likeness of the children pleased me more than anything you could have sent," he wrote in what would be his final letter. "How I want to see them and their mother is more than I can tell. I hope that we may all live to see each other again."
Gettysburg dashed his hopes.
The battle marked a turning point in the Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had recently rallied his troops to a decisive victory at Chancellorsville, Va. But the need to gain supplies and the possibility of striking a final blow against the Union persuaded him to launch an invasion of the North.
Marching his troops across Maryland and into central Pennsylvania during the early summer, Lee, on July 1, met Union Gen. George G. Meade almost by accident in the small Pennsylvania town.
That same afternoon, Sgt. Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry and his comrades were ordered to help cover the retreat of a Union regiment on the outskirts of Gettysburg.
The 154th had barely posted behind a picket fence in a brickyard when two rebel brigades attacked. Outnumbered three to one, nearly all the New Yorkers were captured. Somehow Humiston escaped. But, as he made a mad dash for the safety of Cemetery Hill, he was gunned down.
As he lay mortally wounded, he removed the ambrotype of his three small children from his haversack and gazed upon it, a father's dying act of devotion and love for his family.
The small, glass-plate photograph turned out to be the only clue to his identity after he was killed. Freed from Humiston's frozen grip prior to his burial in an unknown soldier's grave, the ambrotype eventually found its way into the hands of John Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia physician who traveled to Gettysburg to treat wounded soldiers.
After hearing the story of the unknown soldier, Bourns, whose stated intention was to "find this poor soul's family," recounted the story to The Inquirer.
On Oct. 19, 1863, the newspaper carried the account under the headline, "Whose Father Was He?" The column gave a detailed description of the children based on the ambrotype, and requested that newspapers throughout the country spread the story.
Shortly after the Inquirer story, copies of the children's picture and related sheet music and poems cropped up across the North. They were sold with the intention of locating Humiston's family and supporting the orphaned children.
Finally, in early November, Philinda recognized the image as that of her children and contacted Bourns, who traveled to Portville to return the ambrotype, as well as to present her with the profits from the sale of hundreds of copies.
Humiston was later laid to rest in Gettysburg National Cemetery. In response to his heart-wrenching story, donations from sympathetic Unionists helped to found a Soldier's Orphan's Home in Gettysburg in 1866.
Amos Humiston was just one of the 23,049 Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg, a vicious and costly battle from which the Confederacy would never recover. His story offered much-needed comfort to thousands of families who lost loved ones in a war that nearly destroyed our nation.
William Kashatus is a historian and writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.