John L. Burns was an American original. Born on September 5, 1793, he enlisted in the War of 1812 in the United States Army and fought in numerous battles in that war. He volunteered for service in the Mexican War and at the beginning of the Civil War volunteered for service in the Union Army. At age 67, it is small wonder that he was rejected by the Army. Nothing daunted he served as a teamster for the Union Army, until he was sent home to Gettysburg where the tough old man was named town constable.
The War that he had attempted to fight in followed him home to Gettysburg. When the Confederates briefly occupied Gettysburg on June 26, 1863, Burns was briefly jailed by the Confederates for his insistence on upholding the authority of the Union as town constable. When the Confederates departed, Burns was released, and promptly began arresting Confederate stragglers.
When the battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, Burns picked up his flintlock musket and powderhorn and went off to join the fight. Running into a wounded soldier, he picked up from the soldier a new-fangled percussion rifled musket. Attaching himself to the 150th Pennsylvania, Burns fought in McPherson’s Woods. In the woods Burns attached himself to the Iron Brigade. The soldiers at first laughed at this grandfather who was so eager to fight, but their laughter turned to admiration as the old soldier turned out to be a sharpshooter, at one point shooting a charging Confederate officer off of his horse. Burns fought throughout the day, receiving wounds in an arm, legs and breast. Being left behind during the Union retreat, Burns was able to convince the Confederates that he was a noncombatant and had his wounds treated by one of their surgeons.
Burns found himself a national hero after the battle, Lincoln met with him when he came to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address for example, although Burns’ wife was unimpressed, calling him an old fool for risking his neck on a battlefield at his age. In 1864 humorist Bret Harte wrote a poem about Burns which is half mockery and half homage: (more…)