Civilian John Burns gained fame and some fortune—and the loathing of many neighbors—for fighting with the Union Army on July 1, 1863.
The nation had been at peace for only a few months when novelist and magazine editor John T. Trowbridge set out to explore the battlefields of the Civil War. In August 1865, during a visit to Gettysburg, he met John Burns, an elderly civilian who had gained national prominence after fighting for the Union on the first day of the epic three-day battle. “He rose to his feet and received me with sturdy politeness,” Trowbridge wrote of his meeting with the old hero, “his evident delight in the celebrity he enjoys twinkling through the veil of a naturally modest demeanor.”
Burns was nearly 70 on July 1, 1863, and his age only burnished his legend. In the years following the battle, newspaper articles, widely circulated photographs and even a poem by Bret Harte made him famous as “the old hero of Gettysburg.” Trowbridge found that neither fame nor the war’s end had mellowed the old warrior’s vehement opinions regarding Rebels and Southern sympathizers. “Gettysburg is the capital of Adams County; a town of about three thousand souls,” Trowbridge wrote, “or fifteen hundred, according to John Burns, who assured me that half the population were Copperheads, and that they had no souls.”
This choleric old man had experienced warfare before the Civil War began. Born in New Jersey in 1793, Burns had first served his country during the War of 1812. Whether he actually saw combat is unclear, but there are reports that he fought during the battles of Lundy’s Lane and Sackett’s Harbor. Some say he later participated in the Mexican War as well, but that appears unlikely.
For a time Burns was a heavy drinker. He told Trowbridge that he lived a “wandering and dissipated life” until he settled in Gettysburg and embraced temperance with a fervor that lasted until his death. He married, had an adopted daughter and worked as a shoemaker. He served as constable for a time, although not because of any innate abilities. “For years the Gettysburg constables were chosen much on the principle of giving the job to a man that had nothing else to do and who, having once been an active member of the community, ought in some way to be provided for,” noted one resident who knew Burns.
As constable, Burns commanded little respect. He was given to emotional rants on any issue that disturbed him, and he apparently lacked a sense of humor, characteristics that made him a perfect foil for practical jokes. Once a group of local men prodded the old man until he begin railing against secret societies. Then one of them whispered to Burns that everyone present belonged to such a society, and that they planned to kill him. “Burns believed what he was told, and became awfully serious,” said a Gettysburg Compiler article written in 1913 to mark the battle’s 50th anniversary. “He began to edge toward the door, through the intercepting crowd with the threatening looks.” One of the men threw open the door and urged Burns to run for his life. The old man took to his heels, followed by hoots of laughter.
“He was one of the most eccentric men of the town,” the newspaper reported. “It could not be said that Burns was batty….Old John Burns was in fact as picturesque a human as the most fastidious community for the unusual could desire.”
“Was he a hero or just a crazy old man?” asks Timothy H. Smith in his book John Burns—“The Hero of Gettysburg,” the only full-length biography of the iconic figure. “For Burns, there appeared to be no shades of gray; everything was black or white,” Smith wrote. “A person was his friend or his enemy. Over the years, his sharp tongue, coupled with his irrational belief that anyone with whom he disagreed was a sinner, a criminal or copperhead, made him very unpopular with a great many townspeople.”
There was, however, little doubt of his patriotism. When the Civil War started, Burns twice tried to enlist but was rejected as too old, and he instead served as an Army teamster before returning to Gettysburg. The war found him there. On July 1, Union and Confederate forces began fighting a desperate battle on the McPherson farm near the banks of Willoughby Run, west of town. Back at his home on Chambersburg Street, Burns could no longer stand waiting. He berated one of his neighbors for being “chicken-hearted,” then grabbed his own musket and headed off to shoot some “damned Rebels.”
Burns claimed he encountered two wounded Union soldiers and begged one of them for his rifle to replace the musket, and some ammunition, although there were conflicting accounts of how Burns obtained the gun he used in the battle that day. Burns later said he took the gun, put the cartridges in his pockets and made his way to the fighting. On the battlefield Burns encountered Major Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. “Can I fight with your regiment?” Burns asked, and Chamberlin directed him to the regiment’s colonel, Langhorne Wister. “Certainly you can fight with us,” Wister said, “and I wish there were many more like you.” Wister advised Burns to move into the woods where the black-hatted, battle-tested veterans of the Iron Brigade were waiting for the Rebels.
Given his age and his old-fashioned civilian attire— topped off with a tall, battered silk hat—Burns must have been an odd sight on the battlefield. “It must have been about noon when I saw a little old man coming up in the rear of Company F,” remembered a sergeant in the 7th Wisconsin Regiment, part of the Iron Brigade. “In regard to the peculiarities of his dress, I remember he wore a swallow-tailed coat with smooth brass buttons. He had a rifle on his shoulder. We boys began to poke fun as soon as he came amongst us, as we thought no civilian in his senses would show himself in such a place.”
The laughter soon died. The 7th Wisconsin came under heavy fire, and Burns, seeking a good firing position, moved over to a fence. There, the sergeant said, he started “shooting carefully but steadily showing no excitement, and apparently as cool as if standing in a field shooting at birds.” Confederate bullets filled the air, and it wasn’t long before Burns was slightly wounded twice, then felled by a third bullet in the leg. Knowing his life would be forfeit if the advancing Confederates learned that he was a civilian “bushwhacker,” Burns threw his rifle away and buried his remaining cartridges before he passed out. Awakened that night by some Confederates who were collecting the dead, Burns told them he had been seeking help for his sick wife when he got caught up in the battle. Later a Confederate sergeant gave Burns a blanket and some water. When he awoke again it was daylight. He crawled as far as he could before once again losing consciousness.
Some Rebel soldiers came across Burns, brought him into the town and left him with other wounded men. Neighbors recognized him and took him to his home, which was then being used as a hospital. Other neighbors—some of the Copperheads who Burns despised so much—supposedly tipped off the occupying Confederates about his battlefield activities. Before the Southern forces retreated from Gettysburg, two officers came to question him, and Burns confessed that he had fought with Union troops. Later that day, Burns claimed, two Confederate riflemen came to his house, then went next door and purportedly tried to execute him by shooting at him through his window from a neighboring house. The old man said he rolled out of bed and crawled into another room. “He is positive the rebel sharpshooters went outside and purposely fired in the direction of his cot,” noted a November 1863 account in a Lancaster paper. “If it is only an illusion of the old man it is a harmless one, and it [helps] add in the least to his undying hatred and contempt of the traitors of his country.”
Major General Abner Doubleday mentioned Burns when he made his report of the first day’s fighting. “My thanks are specially due to a citizen of Gettysburg named John Burns, who, although over seventy years of age, shouldered his musket, and offered his services to Colonel Wister, One hundred and fiftieth Pennsylvania Volunteers,” Doubleday wrote. “Colonel Wister advised him to fight in the woods, as there was more shelter there, but he preferred to join our line of skirmishers in the open fields. When the troops retired, he fought with the Iron Brigade. He was wounded in three places.”
Doubleday wasn’t the only one who took notice of the elderly Gettysburg volunteer. Burns’ story began appearing in newspapers. Photographer Mathew Brady reached town around July 15 and photographed the old warrior in a rocking chair in front of the house he was renting on Chambersburg Street, crutches and musket propped up behind him. Burns later visited Brady’s studio in New York City to pose for more formal portraits.
By that time Burns was regarded as a national hero. “Not the Generals who had conducted the battle were regarded with greater interest, nor was there a stronger desire felt to behold them,” wrote Samuel Bates in Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania (1875). “He was brought upon the platform at great public gatherings in Philadelphia, and other large cities, and he was made to pass in triumph like the heroes of old. On one occasion in Philadelphia, as he was being conducted through the crowd, an aged woman rushed forward, and grasping his coat, exclaimed: ‘Troth, mon, if I caan’t [sic] shake you by the hand I’ll shake your old coat.’” Burns became so famous, in fact, that he had a card printed up with what he called “John L. Burns’ Account of Himself,” which he could hand out to “save so much talk.”
When Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg in November 1863 to attend the dedication of the National Cemetery there, he made sure to ask to see Burns. “God bless you, old man,” the president told him when they met. Then the president and the elderly hero walked arm in arm to the Presbyterian Church on Baltimore and High streets for a ceremony. “The President was a tall man and Mr. Burns a small man and as they came along I was amused,” a resident wrote. “Lincoln took enormous strides and Mr. Burns could not take strides like that. He could not keep step with the President.”
Not everyone in Gettysburg shared Lincoln’s respect for the celebrity in their midst. The idea that the town eccentric had suddenly been elevated to heroic status certainly rankled a few locals, and Harte’s poem “John Burns of Gettysburg,” first published in 1864, only fanned the flames of resentment. Wrote Harte:
He was the fellow who won renown
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.
“There is a wide-spread, violent prejudice against Burns among that class of the townspeople termed ‘Copperheads,’” reported Trowbridge in 1865. “The young men, especially, who did not take their guns and go into the fight as this old man did, but who ran, when running was possible, in the opposite direction, dislike Burns. Some aver that he did not have a gun in his hand that day, and that he was wounded by accident, happening to get between the two lines.
“Some,” Trowbridge continued, “are eager enough to make money on his picture, sold against his will, and without profit to him, will tell you in confidence, after you have purchased it, that ‘Burns is a perfect humbug.’”
Trowbridge disagreed, saying that he found Burns honest but that his “temper causes him to form immoderate opinions and to make strong statements. He always goes beyant, said my landlord, a firm friend of his, speaking of this tendency to overstep the bounds of calm judgment.”
That tendency to overstep became apparent once again in January 1866, when a newspaperman writing a book about women in the war wrote Burns to ask about Jennie Wade, the only Gettysburg civilian to die during the battle. Wade had been struck and killed by a bullet that entered the house where she was baking bread. “I knew Miss Wade very well,” Burns wrote back. “The less said about her the better….I could call her a she-rebel.” Perhaps Burns really did believe Wade was one of the hated Copperheads, but he also may have resented having to share the limelight with her.
The limelight, after all, benefited Burns. Trowbridge’s words notwithstanding, Burns apparently did make some money by selling his own photograph. Both state and federal governments awarded him pensions, and for a time he served as an assistant doorkeeper at the state capitol in Harrisburg. He purchased a small farm before he died on February 4, 1872, at the age of 78, and he was buried in the town’s Evergreen Cemetery. In 1903 a statue of the old hero was dedicated on the battlefield, not far from where he shot at the “damned Rebels.”
Tom Huntington is the author of Pennsylvania Civil War Trails (Stackpole Books, 2007)
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.