Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier

A comment on a recent posting over at Distant Temple Bell resulted in a whole new line of inquiry, some reconnections with old acquaintances, and the making of a new friend.  It's a small world, made even smaller by these happy serendipitous encounters on the internet. Wonderful stuff.

The comment was in response to my post about Memorial Day, specifically General Orders #11, issued from the Headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, marking May 30th as the official observance of the day--"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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land." 

The commentator pointed me in the direction of a series of posts by Errol Morris, an Academy Award winning film director, on his New York Times blog. "Whose Father Was He?" is a five-part inquiry into a photograph of three children found on the body of a Union soldier, Amos Humiston, who died on the first day of the Battle Of Gettysburg.

As I noted in my earlier post "A Harvest of Death," the new technology of photography brought home the mayhem and violence of the battlefield. But more often the opposite occurred. After a battle, images from home were sometimes found alongside corpses. On the field at Gettysburg, the body of a Yankee soldier was found with an ambrotype of three children "tightly clasped in his hands." 

By happenstance, the ambrotype came into the possession of a tavern keeper who, in turn, passed it on to a Philadelphia physician whose wagon had broken down on his way to tend the wounded on the Gettysburg battlefield. The physician published a description of the photograph and the identity of the soldier was established. Morris goes on to retell the tale, a tale of lost and found, of light and dark, of altruism and greed.

Morris' narrative itself relies on the meticulous research of Mark Dunkelman in his book Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston. Morris interviews Dunkelman, who narrates a compelling story of happy serendipity as he uncovers more and more about the life of the soldier who died far from home and the legacy of a photograph that became the inheritance of a nation.

Denied the presence of kin at the hour of death, soldiers like Humiston removed photographs from haversacks or cartridge boxes and spent their last moments gazing upon images of loved ones.

In his interview with Morris, Mark Dunkelman mentions having had dinner with two clergy colleagues of mine, one of whom was pivotal in providing an invaluable lead that led to further contacts with Humiston family members. Having read "Whose Father Was He?," I contacted Mark to put in a plug for My Morbid Obsession and to inquire further about my colleagues. I found Mark to be gracious and engaging. I heartily commend his books, and his website on the 154th New York, "The Hardtack Regiment."

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