U.S. Memorial Day observances reflect story of abused Union orphans

Reuters News
Posted: May 26, 2014 5:55 PM

By Jeffrey Roth

GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - School children scattered flowers on war veterans' graves at Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Monday in a 147-year-old Memorial Day tradition started by orphans of dead Union soldiers.

Holiday observances at one of the nation's oldest Memorial Day commemorations honor the fallen but also reflect the tragic story of the orphans whose treatment at the hands of the orphanage's matron became a national scandal in the 1870s, said Walter Powell, executive director of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and formerly a long-time Gettysburg resident and historian.

Soldiers' graves have been covered with blossoms each Memorial Day since 1867, when General John Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed it a 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."

During that first observance, Philinda Humiston and her three children, whose father, Union Sergeant Amos Humiston, died during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, marched to the cemetery to decorate graves of Union soldiers.

The Humistons were among the first residents of the National Soldiers Orphans' Homestead in Gettysburg, which also housed widows. The home's founding in 1866 was inspired by the discovery that a dying Sergeant Humiston clutched an ambrotype image of his three children, Frank, Freddie and Alice, in his hand, Powell said.

The flower-strewing tradition by orphans was repeated each subsequent Memorial Day - once known as Decoration Day - until the orphanage closed in December 1877 amid a national scandal. The home's matron, Rosa Carmichael, was accused of physically abusing the children and was later convicted of aggravated assault.

It was then that the school children of Gettysburg carried on the flower tradition, which took place again on Monday after a parade that retraced President Abraham Lincoln's ride to the cemetery.

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In a speech to the crowd, Major General Tony Cucolo, commander of the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pa., said that each time a soldier under his command died in combat, he visited the field hospital where the body was brought and remembered the soldier with a moment of silence.

"Each time I walked out of that hospital section and made that lonely trek back to my command post, I was left wondering if I was personally worthy of my soldier's sacrifice - and I found myself recommitting to live my life worthy of it… worthy of their sacrifice," he said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)