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John Burns of Gettysburg

By Bret Harte 
Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: May 19, 2008 
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John Burns of Gettysburg

HAVE you heard of a story that gossips tell
Of Burns of Gettysburg? No? Ah, well:
Brief is the glory that hero earns,
Briefer the story of poor John Burns:
He was the fellow who won reknown,–
The only man who didn't back down
When the rebels rode through his native town;
But held his own in the fight next day,
When all his townsfolk ran away.
That was in July, sixty-three,–
The very day that General Lee,
Flower of Southern chivalry,
Baffled and beaten, backward reeled
From a stubborn Meade and a barren field,

I might tell how, but the day before,
John Burns stood at his cottage-door,
Looking down the village street,
Where, in the shade of his peaceful vine,
He heard the low of his gathered kine,
And felt their breath with incense sweet;
Or I might say, when the sunset burned
The old farm gable, he thought it turned
The milk that fell like a babbling flood
Into the milk-pail, red as blood!
Or how he fancied the hum of bees
Were bullets buzzing among the trees.
But all such fanciful thoughts as these
Were strange to a practical man like Burns,
Who minded only his own concerns,
Troubled no more by fancies fine
Than one of his calm-eyed, long-tailed kine,
Quite old-fashioned and matter-of-fact,
Slow to argue, but quick to act.
That was the reason, as some folks say,
He fought so well on that terrible day.

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And it was terrible. On the right
Raged for hours the heady fight,
Thundered the battery's double brass,–
Difficult music for men to face;
While on the left–where now the graves
Undulate like the living waves
That all the day unceasing swept
Up to the pits the rebels kept–
Round-shot ploughed the upland glades,
Sown with bullets, reaped with blades;
Shattered fences here and there,
Tossed their splinters in the air;
The very trees were stripped and bare;
The barns that once held yellow grain
Were heaped with harvests of the slain;
The cattle bellowed on the plain,
The turkeys screamed with might and main,
And the brooding barn-fowl left their rest
With strange shells bursting in each nest.

Just where the tide of battle turns,
Erect and lonely, stood old John Burns.
How do you think the man was dressed?
He wore an ancient, long buff vest,
Yellow as saffron,–but his best;
And, buttoned over his manly breast,
Was a bright blue coat with a rolling collar,
And large gilt buttons–size of a dollar,–
With tails that the country-folk called "swaller."
He wore a broad-brimmed, bell-crowned hat,
White as the locks on which it sat.
Never had such a sight been seen
For forty years on the village green,
Since old John Burns was a country beau,
And went to the "quiltings" long ago.

Close at his elbow all that day
Veterans of the Peninsula,
Sunburnt and bearded, charged away;
And striplings, downy of lip and chin,–
Clerks that the Home-Guard mustered in,–
Glanced, as they passed, at the hat he wore,
Then at the rifle his right hand bore;
And hailed him, from out their youthful lore,
With scraps of a slangy repertoire:
"How are you, White Hat?" "Put her through!"
"Your head's level!" and "Bully for you!"
Called him "Daddy,"–begged he'd disclose
The name of the tailor who made his clothes,
And what was the value he set on those;
While Burns, unmindful of jeer and scoff,
Stood there picking the rebels off,–
With his long brown rifle, and bell-crowned hat,
And the swallow-tails they were laughing at.

'Twas but a moment, for that respect
Which clothes all courage their voices checked;
And something the wildest could understand
Spake in the old man's strong right hand,
And his corded throat, and the lurking frown
Of his eyebrows under his old bell-crown;
Until, as they gazed, there crept an awe
Through the ranks in whispers, and some men saw,
In the antique vestments and long white hair,
The Past of the Nation in battle there;
And some of the soldiers since declare
That the gleam of his old white hat afar,
Like the crested plume of the brave Navarre,
That day was their oriflamme of war.

So raged the battle. You know the rest:
How the rebels, beaten and backward pressed,
Broke at the final charge and ran.
At which John Burns–a practical man–
Shouldered his rifle, unbent his brows,
And then went back to his bees and cows.

That is the story of old John Burns;
This is the moral the reader learns:
In fighting the battle, the question's whether
You'll show a hat that's white or a feather.

         Bret Harte
 


2 Responses to “John Burns of Gettysburg”


  1. 1
    Carolyn says:

    Good poem about a real patriot. John Burns was 69,
    lived in Gettysburg, Pa., and a veteran of the War of 1812. He joined in the Gettysburg battle more or less uninvited due to his age but younger Union soldiers admired him as he was a good shot. He was wounded and unable to walk so he was treated and taken to his home where he recovered from his wounds. When Lincoln came there he requested to meet with John Burns.
    A statue of him was erected on the battlefield in 1903.

  2. 2
    James Burns says:

    John H. Burns, age 89, died on August 15th, 2008 at 6:05 a.m. in Blessing Hospital.
    He was born December 18, 1918.
    John was a Staff Sergeant in the US Army's Anti-Tank Company, 129th Infantry Regiment, 37th Ohio Infantry Division during WWII.
    He served 30 months in combat in campaigns in the Fiji Islands, New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Luzon in the Phillipine Islands.
    He was a leader of a squad of ten men and was as tough as nails. On 24 March, 1944, on Bougainville, he attacked a Japanese pill box and dropped in two hand grenades killing the enemy. His soldiers admired him because he never asked them to do more than he would do himself.
    His decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.
    When I read this account about 69 year young John Burns fighting in the Civil War I thought of him. It was something he would have done. Even till the end of his life he was a "crack" shot with a rifle and a very brave man.
    In the end, he was felled by community pneumonia after taking chemo-therapy for Cancer.
    How do I know all this?
    He was my Dad.



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