As we see even now on our nightly news reports, there are always one or two heart-tugging stories that come out of the battle fray and really resonate with the civilians back home. This is exactly the sort of story that started sweeping the northern states after a Union soldier was found dead in Gettysburg, clutching an ambrotype image of his three young children. The story of the unknown father's devotion to his three little orphans caught the emotions and imaginations of the north, and through the efforts of Dr. John Francis Bourns of Philadelphia (who had been volunteering his medical services in Gettysburg during the battle), the widow of Sergeant Amos Humiston was found in Portville, NY in November 1863.
|Left to right: Frank, Freddie and Alice Humiston as seen in this copy of the ambrotype image held by Sgt. Humiston at his death -- Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette|
The popularity and overwhelming sympathy triggered by the story resulted in a successful publicity campaign that raised enough money to open an orphanage for children of Union soldiers. The National Soldiers Orphans' Homestead opened in Gettysburg in 1866. Philinda Humiston, the widow of Sgt. Humiston, accepted the post as the orphanage's headmistress, and moved to Gettysburg with her three children - Frank, Freddie and Alice. While Philinda was not happy in Gettysburg, and promptly moved away in 1869 after receiving a proposal of marriage, she did begin one tradition that is still observed each May in Gettysburg.
On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic officially proclaimed the existence of Memorial Day (often termed Decoration Day). He designated May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion" (as stated in his General Order No. 11).
And so, on this day, Philinda walked the orphans and her own children up the hill to what is now the Soldiers National Cemetery, and allowed them to put bouquets of flowers on the graves of their fathers. This tradition was repeated each year, and after the orphanage closed in 1877, Gettysburg school children continued to decorate the graves with flowers and petals each May.
|Sergeant Amos Humiston's grave in Soldiers National Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA -- Photo credit: www.gettysburgdaily.com|
Thank you to those who have served, and to those who are currently serving our nation. God bless, and Happy Memorial Day!
From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers,
Alike for the friend and the foe
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day,
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.
~from "The Blue and the Gray" by Francis Miles Finch
|For more information about the Humistons' story, please visit Gettysburg Experience or Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- Photo credit: Catriona Todd|