03 April 2009

Home Again: Whose Father Was He? Part 5

This is the New York Times' final installment of Erroll Morris's interesting look at the case of Amos Humiston, for which he has extensively interviewed author Mark Dunkelman and Humiston family relatives. This installment also offers many photographs, documents and letters.

There is historical information on the battle at Gettysburg, descriptions of the aftermath of war on battlefields, and of the monument to Humiston, bearing a bronze plaque with a depiction of both Amos and his children. Dunkelman says it is "The only monument to an individual enlisted man on the Gettysburg battlefield.”

The ending paragraphs are compelling to family historians who have photographs of their ancestors - with names and without. Those images represent a real person with a past and, as genealogists, we really want to recreate our past, our families. Sometimes we can connect with that particular person in the image, often we simply can't and can never identify the individual.

At the heart of this is the dream of defeating time and thereby achieving immortality, creating a past that can live on after we die. Mark Dunkelman and David Humiston Kelley were inspired by their grandfather’s stories and spent a considerable fraction of their adult lives sifting through evidence and compiling genealogies. They are placing themselves in the arc of first being inspired by the past and then creating their future place in it. But not everyone is like this. Ironies abound. What about the other Humiston descendants? David Humiston Kelley was obsessed with history, but Allan Cox, who inherited the letters, was much less interested in the past. Mark Dunkelman found the letters, but how many Mark Dunkelmans are there in our futures? How many future historians to lovingly research and recreate our past?
Morris writes:

Perhaps more than any other artifact, the photograph has engaged our thoughts about time and eternity. I say “perhaps,” because the history of photography spans less than 200 years. How many of us have been “immortalized” in a newspaper, a book or a painting vs. how many of us have appeared in a photograph?

The photograph of Amos Humiston’s three children — of Frank, Alice and Fred — allows us to imagine that we have grasped something both unique and universal. It suggests that the experience of this vast, unthinkable war can be reduced to the life and death of one man — by identifying Gettysburg’s “Unknown Soldier” we can reunite a family. That we can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches and touches people, that communicates something undying and transcendent about each one of us.
The original ambrotype is still missing. Where could it be?

Dunkelman hopes that his book would draw attention to the story and someone would find the ambrotype. Writes Morris:

Perhaps it is displayed on a mantle or in an antiquarian’s shop or in an eccentric, personal collection of Gettysburgiana (like Edward Woodward’s poem).Where is it?Where is the ambrotype? The readership of The Times is respectfully asked to join in the quest. The promise of its return still remains unfulfilled.
Read the complete article at the link above.

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