Saturday, June 05, 2010

Amos Humiston at Greenfield

While we were at Greenfield, Civil War Remembrance was in full swing, an event that attracts some hundreds of reenactors to the museum for encampments, parades, demonstrations and a simulated battle or two (I hope so anyway, but I didn't see it on the schedule). Considering everything else going on at Greenfield, it was gilding the historic lily for us, and I couldn't persuade anyone else in my party to spend much time watching the reenactors, especially in the hot sun, though we did wander through some of the sales tents that provide the participants their props. I suppose they would insist on being called sutlers.

In one of the museum's larger halls was a temporary exhibition of Civil War artifacts that everyone found interesting enough to spend some time with. It included mostly what you'd expect: weapons and other soldier equipment, models of artillery and warships, period clothing both military and civilian, scary field hospital implements, photos and drawings, letters and books, and so on.

Plus a large display of Civil War era sheet music. I don't think I've ever seen such a large collection of sheet music from the period before. Or any larger collection of sheet music from any period; there were probably hundreds of sheets. Many of them were flat in long display tables under glass, but some were displayed upright. One of the upright ones that caught my eye was music for the funeral of Sen. Stephen Douglas. I would cite the title and composer, but I took lousy notes on this trip. That is, no notes.

"You know who that is?" said a middle-aged fellow, about as round as I am, standing behind the display cases. I said I did. He told me anyway that Douglas was one of the candidates for president in 1860.

"What would have happened if he'd won the election?" the fellow continued. "But he didn't. Lincoln won and Douglas was dead by 1861."

I agreed that that was food for thought, and mentioned that I'd been to Douglas's tomb recently in Chicago. (See April 13.)

He probably didn't hear too many people make that claim, so it didn't process. "You mean Lincoln's tomb in Springfield?"

"I've been there too."

Then he showed us music for a song about the orphans of Sgt. Amos Humiston. As the publisher's description of the book Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier says, Humiston "was found dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, an unknown soldier with nothing to identify him but an ambrotype of his three children, clutched in his fingers. With the photograph as the single, sad clue to his identity, a publicity campaign to locate his family swept the North. Within a month, the bereaved widow and children were located in Portville, New York... The Humiston story touched deep emotions in Civil War America, and inspired a flood of heartfelt prose, poetry, and song."

There in front of us was a bit of that long-ago flood of prose, poetry and song. By this time I realized that this was a private collection of Civil War sheet music, and that the fellow telling us about it was the collector, and eager to tell anyone who would listen about it. I think the Humiston song sheet music was the pride of this man's collection. Good for him. The world needs people who pursue unusual hobbies.

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