John L. Burns of Gettysburg

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 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 grabbed 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 joined the stand of 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:

John Burns of Gettysburg
By Bret Harte

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 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.
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.

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.

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on John L. Burns of Gettysburg  
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