This beautiful young woman was photographed somewhere in the antebellum United States in about 1852—a date I assign for two reasons. First, the fashions she wore, which include a distinctive corset type, ribbon choker, and an open-front bodice—all styles that were enormously popular in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Second, ambrotypes, which are produced by a wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, became commercially available in 1852, so the image cannot date any earlier.
The subject was surely not more than about 18 years old when photographed and she appears to wear a wedding ring, making it possible that this is a bridal image. At some point, a large curl of her thick brown hair, still as glossy as the day it was cut, was tucked behind the ambrotype packet between slips of newspaper. The text of the newsprint is largely advertising for several companies in northern states, but there is also a mention of the Union occupation of Memphis, Tennessee, which began in June 1862. Together, these facts make it likely the young woman belonged to a northern family.
Could this image and lock of hair have been carried by a Civil War soldier during his military tenure? Might he have opened the case often to recall his wife as she had been a decade earlier in the first heat of their attraction? This is a romantic flight of fancy, but not without tiny wings: Soldiers on both sides of the divide carried photographic images of loved ones and these pictures were frequently found with, on, or near their battlefield corpses.
In 2012, the Associated Press (AP) reported on several such images held in the collection the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, the museum released the photo below on the “admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found,” the AP noted. The article stated of the cased image, “Private Thomas W. Timberlake of Co. G, 2nd Virginia Infantry found this child’s portrait on the battlefield of Port Republic, Virginia, between the bodies of a Confederate soldier and a Federal soldier.”
Perhaps the most famous of familial photos found amongst the Civil War dead was the “orphans of the battlefield.” After the massive military engagement at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first week of July 1863, a local girl recovered an ambrotype of three children that was purportedly clasped by a dead Union soldier. The Philadelphia Inquirer of 19 October, 1863, both set the scene and described the image in detail: “Wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands…was an ambrotype containing the portraits of three small children…two boys and a girl…nine, seven and five years of age, the boys being respectively the oldest and youngest of the three. The youngest boy is sitting in a high chair, and on each side of him are his brother and sister. The eldest boy’s jacket is made from the same material as his sister’s dress … [It is] desired that all papers in the country will draw attention [so] the family…may come into possession of it.”
The image was reproduced around the nation and carte de visite copies of the ambrotype were sold en masse to help speed the identification and for the benefit of the dead soldier’s family. It was just a matter of time before a friend showed Philinda Ensworth Humiston of Portville, New York, the October issue of the American Presbyterian. “Philinda, stunned and heartsick, read the description of the picture and realized it matched exactly the features of the ambrotype she had sent to [her husband] Amos,” wrote Mark H. Dunkelman in Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston.
On 19 November, the very day President Lincoln gave his renowned address at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, the Presbyterian announced that the orphans of the battlefield had names: Franklin Goodwin, Alice Eliza, and Fredrick Roy Humiston. The dead soldier was their 33-year-old father, former sailor and harness maker Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. His decomposed body was later located where it was shallowly buried on a local farm. The remains were carefully coffined and transported to the new cemetery where he was laid in Grave 14 of New York’s Section B.
Dunkelman wrote in his biography of Amos Humiston that 2 January, 1864, the Reverend Isaac G. Ogden of the Portville Presbyterian Church “handed the bloodstained ambrotype to Philinda. Ogden noted, ‘her hands shook like an aspen leaf, but by a strong effort she retained her composure.’” The widow was also given all proceeds from the carte de visite sales. When, in October 1866, the orphans and widows’ National Homestead opened in Gettysburg, Philinda and her children lived there for three years until she married farmer Asa Baines and removed to Shirley, Massachusetts.
During the remainder of the war and in its aftermath, the story of Amos Humiston and the ambrotype he held during his final moments was never forgotten. Songs and poetry were writ, including one poem by a Scotsman of Dumfries, Steve Rady, that includes the lines: “A soldier lies in battle, face buried in the mud, a picture of his children there painted with his blood; Fighting for his freedom, he fought until his death; He kissed his children’s picture as he took his dying breath.” Rady read his poem aloud in Gettysburg on 5 July, 1993, at the unveiling of a monument to Humiston. Ω