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A Union sergeant was killed on the first day of fighting in Gettysburg. He was just one of more than 3,000 Union soldiers who died in the three-day conflict. When his body was found later that week, lying in a secluded spot in Gettysburg, he was holding a photograph -- and on it were the faces of his three children: 8-year-old Frank, 6-year-old Alice and 4-year-old Freddie. Somehow, this unknown soldier had managed to drag himself to this patch of ground after he had been wounded, and was looking at his children’s faces when he died.

This Union soldier might have faded into obscurity, because there was nothing on his body to identify him and the few soldiers from his unit who survived the battle had moved on before his body was found.

Somehow, the image of his children ended up in the possession of Dr. John Francis Bourns, a 49-year-old Philadelphia physician who helped care for the wounded at Gettysburg. Months after wrapping up his volunteer work there, he decided to try to find out the identity of the children’s father.

His efforts produced a wave of publicity that swept the North and became the People magazine cover story of its day. On Oct. 19, 1863, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story under the headline: "Whose Father Was He?"

The article stated, "After the battle of Gettysburg, a Union soldier was found in a secluded spot on the battlefield, where, wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands, tightly clasped, was a picture containing the portraits of three small children ... and as he silently gazed upon them his soul passed away. It is earnestly desired that all papers in the country will draw attention to the discovery of this picture, so that, if possible, the family of the dead hero may come into possession of it. Of what inestimable value will it be to these children, proving, as it does, that the last thought of their dying father was for them, and them only."

When the article appeared, newspapers were not able to publish photographs, and so the story, reprinted in dozens of newspapers and magazines throughout the North, had to rely on a detailed description of the children. The eldest boy, it said, was wearing a shirt made of the same fabric as his sister’s dress. The younger boy in the middle was sitting on a chair, wearing a dark suit. It estimated their ages at 9, 7, and 5.

One of the reprints appeared in the American Presbyterian, a church magazine. That is where Philinda Humiston, living in Portville, N.Y., first saw word of the picture and the dead soldier. She hadn’t heard from her husband since weeks before Gettysburg. When she saw the description of the children, she...

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