Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Memoriam

Although the birthplace of Memorial Day (Waterloo, NY) was not officially declared until 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson, and the holiday itself was not made official until 1971 by an act of Congress, Memorial Day traditions had already been celebrated across the land since the end of the Civil War.  Each community has its own traditions for the celebration of this important day, and Gettysburg is no exception.  To really appreciate the traditions we uphold in our town today, it would be prudent to take a look back at those bloody days in 1863.

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:
 This Memorial Day, Monday, May 30th at 2:00 pm, people will line Middle and Baltimore streets to view the annual parade as it makes its way to the Baltimore Street gate of the National Cemetery.  A group of injured war veterans from Walter Reed Hospital will be honored during the parade and consequent program at the cemetery.  Flags will be flying, marching bands will be piping out beautiful, patriotic tunes, and school children will be carrying armfuls of flowers to decorate the graves of those who so valiantly gave their lives to secure the freedom of our nation.

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


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