The story of a patriot who refused to act his age.
On the morning of July 1, 1863, with the sound of the enemy's guns in his ears, John Burns of Gettysburg answered a personal call to duty. Just shy of seventy years, Burns tried to enlist twice but was rejected because of his age.
Very little is known of Burns' early life and because he became a folk hero, the stories differ. He was born in New Jersey in 1793. He likely fought in the War of 1812. By 1822 he was working as a boot and shoemaker in Gettysburg, and also served as the town constable.
When the Civil War broke out, he tried to enlist in the Second Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, but was turned away. He also tried to enter the Reserves, but "failed to pass the surgical examination on account of age..." The stubborn Burns refused to be left out of the war and as a civilian, rendered service as a teamster and policeman in an army wagon train.
On the morning of July 1, with Lee's army approaching Gettysburg and while most families hid in their cellars, Burns grabbed his old flintlock musket and a powder horn and ran to battle.
At some point Burns acquired a modern Enfield rifle-musket and ammunition from a wounded Union soldier and left behind his flintlock. When he arrived at the Union lines on McPherson's Ridge, he asked an officer in the 150th Pennsylvania if he could fight with the regiment. Major Chamberlain of the 150th described Burns as "dressed in a blue swallow-tailed coat, and high silk hat, rather worse for the wear, carrying a musket..." A Union soldier recalled that "his unique dress and temerity in venturing into so dangerous a place without occasion, seemed the act of an insane zealot, and invited the jibes of the men."
Burns was granted permission to fight in the cover of the adjacent woods where he would be less exposed to the enemy fire. He took a position behind a tree and reportedly fired 28 rounds at the attacking Rebels. He claimed that three of his shots found their mark.
In the process, Burns was wounded in his arm, thigh and leg. As the outnumbered and overwhelmed Union force retreated through Gettysburg, they left Burns lying on the ground for dead. He lay there until the next day when Confederates found him and took him home. He told them he was wounded while searching for stray cows.
After the battle ended, news of the momentous Union victory spread across the nation, as did the heroic story of the old soldier John Burns. He became the subject of wartime photographers, and publication of his picture catapulted him to fame. His bravery was celebrated in books, poetry, songs and monuments.
When Lincoln visited Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, to dedicate the new Soldiers National Cemetery, warmly greeted the local hero with the words "God bless you, old man." In 1865, he traveled to Washington and was received as a celebrity by, among others, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Burns died in 1872 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg. His simple gravestone bears the inscription "John L. Burns, The Hero of Gettysburg, Died Feb. 4, 1872."
Information for this section was contributed by John Zwierzyna.
Image Courtesy of Library of Congress
- Timothy H. Smith, John Burns: “The Hero of Gettysburg,” Gettysburg, PA, Thomas Publications, 2000.