30 March 2009

Home again: A Civil War photograph

More than a century ago, the lack of technology didn't stop this Civil War photo from finding the family of a soldier who died at Gettysburg.

Forensic photography, newspaper history and the Civil War make for a good story. Filmmaker Errol Morris posted this in the Zoom section of the New York Times today. "Whose Father Was He?" is the first of a five-part series appearing on consecutive days.

Morris is a filmmaker whose "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" won the Academy Award for 2004's best documentary feature. He also directed "Gates of Heaven," "The Thin Blue Line," "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,""A Brief History of Time" and "Standard Operating Procedure."

A dead soldier was found at Gettysburg with no identification except an early photograph (called an ambrotype) showing three small children. Tavern keeper Benjamin Schriver in Graeffenburg, 13 miles west of Gettysburg, somehow acquired it. Philadelphia physician Dr. J. Francis Bourns, on his way to treat the wounded, stopped in when his wagon broke down. He convinced the tavern-keeper to give him the photograph to try to locate the soldier's family.

Back home, the doctor had several photographers copy it and ordered hundreds of copies printed in carte de visite format (similar to an index card) . Back then, newspapers could not print photographs and there was no way of easily and widely transmitting this photo.

Three months after the photo was found, the important Philadelphia Inquirer printed the story on October 19, 1863, under the headline, "Whose Father Was He?"
After the battle of Gettysburg, a Union soldier was found in a secluded spot on the field, where, wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands, tightly clasped, was an ambrotype containing the portraits of three small children, and upon this picture his eyes, set in death, rested. The last object upon which the dying father looked was the image of his children, and as he silently gazed upon them his soul passed away. How touching! how solemn! What pen can describe the emotions of this patriot-father as he gazed upon these children, so soon to be made orphans! Wounded and alone, the din of battle still sounding in his ears, he lies down to die. His last thoughts and prayers are for his family. He has finished his work on earth; his last battle has been fought; he has freely given his life to his country; and now, while his life’s blood is ebbing, he clasps in his hands the image of his children, and, commending them to the God of the fatherless, rests his last lingering look upon them.

When, after the battle, the dead were being buried, this soldier was thus found. The ambrotype was taken from his embrace, and since been sent to this city for recognition. Nothing else was found upon his person by which he might be identified. His grave has been marked, however, so that if by any means this ambrotype will lead to his recognition he can be disinterred. This picture is now in the possession of Dr. Bourns, No. 1104 Spring Garden [Street], of this city, who can be called upon or addressed in reference to it. The children, two boys and a girl, are, apparently, 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. These are the most prominent features of the group. It is earnestly desired that all the papers in the country will draw attention to the discovery of this picture and its attendant circumstances, so that, if possible, the family of the dead hero may come into possession of it. Of what inestimable value it will be to these children, proving, as it does, that the last thoughts of their dying father was for them, and them only.
The best the newspaper could do was the word picture in bold above.

The article includes close-ups of the cloth in the two garments showing they are the same.

Writes Morris:
In the traditional detective story, someone asks around: Do you know the identity (or the name) of the people in this photograph? Here, the identification is not made on the basis of recognizing the people from a photograph. But by first “translating” the photograph into words and sentences. The ages of the children were estimated — as it turns out not far from the truth — but the telling details were their respective positions in the photograph, the fact that there were three of them, and the shirt and dress worn by the brother and sister flanking the brother in the middle were similar.
At that time, writes Morris, family photos were not common. It involved a trip to a studio or waited for a traveling photographer to come by.

Today, we are able to seamlessly integrate words and pictures — captions and photographs — but the Humiston story allows us to see how this was done beforethere were means to easily put the two together in a newspaper or broadsheet.

In Portville, NY, a woman saw the American Presbyterian story about the photo. She wrote to Bourns and requested a copy.
When she opened the letter from Philadelphia in late November of 1863, Philinda Humiston knew her husband, Amos Humiston, the father of her three children — Franklin, Alice and Frederick — was dead.
Mark H. Dunkelman wrote “Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier,” to try to recover the man's identity.

Read the complete story at the link above. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.

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