Sunday, April 18, 2010

John Burns, 71 years old, fought wearing a high silk hat at Gettysburg.

John Lawrence Burns was of Scottish heritage, born in Burlington, New Jersey. He fought in the war of 1812 and the war with Mexico. He was rejected for combat service in the Civil War because of his age. He was 67 when the war began.

The Battle of Gettysburg started July 1, 1863. Burns, now 71, walked to the scene of battle. He wore dark trousers, a waistcoat, a blue swallow tail coat with brass buttons, and a high black silk hat. Volunteering to fight, Colonel Langhorne Wister, sent the old man into the wood next to the McPherson Farm, where he would be sheltered from the sun and enemy bullets.

In the wood, he fought with the 7th Wisconsin Infantry and then joined the 24th Michigan fighting throughout the day. He was effective as a sharpshooter and in one case shot a Confederate officer from his horse. As the Union forces were been driven back to the Seminary, he was wounded in the arm and leg, had minor injuries to his chest and was left on the battlefield for dead. The old man crawled away from his gun, buried his ammunition, and surrendered. He convinced the Confederates that he was not a soldier, but had wandered on to the battlefield seeking aid for his invalid wife. He could have been shot as a non-uniformed combatant.

When Lincoln came to give his Gettysburg address, he requested to meet with Burns. He accompanied the President on a walk from the David Wills house to the Presbyterian Church, November 19, 1863. After the war he became a national hero.

Before his death, his mind began to fail and his friends were unable to keep him from wandering about the country. In December, 1871, he was found in New York City, in a state of destitution. Sent home, he died of pneumonia in 1872.

Burns is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg. His grave and that of Ginnie Wade are the only graves with permission to fly the American flag 24 hours per day. (Ginnie Wade was the only civilian killed during the battle.) Burns original gravestone was stolen, but the GAR replaced it in 1902. It says simply "Patriot."

In the field where Burns fought, a monument now stands. It shows Burns with clenched fist, carrying his musket in battle and placed upon a boulder taken from the battlefield. It was dedicated on July 1, 1903, the 40th anniversary of the battle.

Francis Bret Harte, wrote a poem about "John Burns of Gettysburg." Perhaps I will print a few verses tomorrow.

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