For Sergeant Humiston, the photo of his three children was more than a comfort in his dying moments. Had he not taken it with him into battle and died grasping it, in all likelihood Humiston’s tombstone in the Soldiers National Cemetery would have read “Unknown,” leaving Mrs. Humiston and her children to speculate as to how their soldier died. Instead, the Humiston family was given closure and could move forward with their lives. The families of 979 soldiers buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery were not as fortunate. One example of this is the tragic deaths of three brothers in Co. “B,” 142nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Adam, Enos, and Samuel Cramer each received a mortal wound while their regiment defended a line of battle directly west of the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary on July 1, 1863. When the 1st and 11th Corps were forced to retreat back through Gettysburg toward Cemetery Hill, these men, their commander, Colonel Robert Cummins, and many other Union casualties were left to the care of the jubilant Confederates. Adam and Enos died on the 1st, but Samuel, with his left arm and leg amputated, lingered for eight more days before succumbing to his wounds on July 9th. His brothers are buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in graves marked unknown, but when Samuel’s body was moved for burial, it was sent with a note detailing the death of his brothers and confirming his identity. (These men are distant relatives of the author of this post.)
Aside from the lucky break of finding a picture, letter, or Bible with the owner’s name scratched on the cover, burial parties were sometimes given other clues to help identify soldiers’ remains. Before going into battle, some men would purchase medallions with their name and unit inscribed on one side. Other men etched this information onto a piece of their accouterments. In some instances, the soldiers knew that a particular battle or single charge might result in heavy casualties. In one well-known example, before charging the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, Virginia in June 1864, many Union soldiers took the preventive measure of attaching paper notes to their jackets with their information so their bodies would not be interred in an unidentified or inaccurately marked grave.
Today, all members of the United States Armed Services are issued “dog tags” which provide specific information about the soldier, including his or her name and religion. This measure, taken to ensure that soldiers dead or incapacitated will not be treated improperly, has saved many lives and given closure to many comrades and family members. Following the battle of Gettysburg, the picture of Sergeant Humiston’s three young children galvanized sympathy for both the Union cause and for those who gave their lives for its perpetuation. For modern observers, this photograph should act as a reminder that the United States military did not always make soldier identification a priority. The result of this oversight was that thousands of servicemen now lay in unmarked or misidentified graves. In light of this sad fact, Amos Humiston was fortunate to have had a family that he cherished with his dying breath.
To see “the Children of the Battlefield” and other Civil War artifacts at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections and College Archives. To see other artifacts related to the Battle of Gettysburg search Musselman Library’s Civil War Era Collection.