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When you begin feeling like you're getting old think of John Burns, who when he was 70 years old fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John Burns, a cobbler and a veteran of the War of 1812, resided in Gettysburg. On 1 July 1863, he listened as the sounds of rifle and musket fire broke the stillness of the morning. Though he thought it only to be a skirmish between Union and Confederate forces he dropped what he was doing, donned a swallow tail coat and shouldered his flintlock musket. Following the sound of fighting he presented himself to the Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers of the Old Iron Brigade and asked to be attached to them. The following are firsthand accounts of Burns' exploits which earned him the status of a hero and the thanks of Abner Doubleday. The first is a letter written by Colonel Callis of the 7th Wisconsin and the second was told by B. D. Beyea who spent days looking for a fallen comrade.

The source of these accounts, www.secondwi.com/gettysbu.htm, is, unfortunately, no long on the Internet.

John Burns of Gettysburg

"Lancaster, April 14, 1885

Received your note of inquiry some days ago, but the changeable weather of this winter has so disturbed me that I have not been able to answer sooner, and now prevents my writing with pen and ink.

Old John Burns came to the Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers of the Old Iron Brigade at Willoughby's Run, west of Gettysburg, on the 1st of July, 1863, after we, the Iron Brigade, had captured Gen. Archer's brigade in the first charge in the morning about ten o'clock. The man came up and asked me if that was my regiment. I answered, yes.

He had and old flint lock gun in his hands and came to a present arms and said, " Can I fight in your regiment? I replied, "Old man, you had better go to the rear, you may get hurt." He replied, "Hurt, tut, tut, I've heard the whistle of bullets before." I insisted on his going to the rear. He insisted on fighting.

I then said, "Where's your cartridge box? He patted his pants pocket and said, "There's my bullets, and here's my powder horn," pulling and old-fashioned powder horn from his blue swallow-tail coat pocket,"and I know how to use them." "Well, old man, if you will fight, take this gun," and handing him a nice silver-mounted rifle we had captured with some of Archer's men, I gave him the cartridge belt.

He declined to wear the belt, but filled his pockets with ammunition. At this time nothing but skirmishing was going on in our front and he got restless, went toward the skirmish line and to it and fought nobly until I called the skirmishers in and made preparations to get out of that little end of a V, as we were flanked on right and left.

We fought our way out as best we could, and in this move John Burns was wounded three times and I lost sight of him and was shot my self, and John Burns and I were left on the battlefield badly wounded, where I lay forty-three hours.

Burns told me afterwards his friends took him off home after the rebels had advanced over him and through the town.

General John B. Callis

The Hero of Gettysburg

The following thrilling narrative was related by B. D. Beyea, who spent several days on the battle-field in search of the body of Captain C. H. Flagg, who fell in that terrible fight:

"In the Town of Gettysburg live an old couple by the name of Burns. the old man was in the war of 1812, and is now nearly seventy years of age; yet the frosts of many winters have not chilled his patriotism, nor diminished his love for the old flag under which he fought in his early days. When the rebels invaded the beautiful Cumberland Valley, and were marching on Gettysburg, old Burns concluded that it was time for every loyal man, young or old, to be up and doing all in hi power to beat back the rebel foe, and , if possible, give them a quiet resting-place beneath the sod they were polluting with their unhallowed feet. The old hero took down an old State musket he had in his house, and commenced running bullets. The old lady saw what he was about, and wanted to know what in the world he was going to do. "Ah," said Burns, "I thought some of the boys might want the old gun, and I am getting it ready for them." The rebels came on. Old Burns kept his eye on the lookout until he saw the Stars and Stripes coming in, carried by our brave boys. This was more than the old fellow could stand. His patriotism hot the better of his age and infirmity. Grabbing his musket, he started out. The old lady hallooed to him: ,Burns, where are you going? O, says Burns, I am going out to see what is going on. He immediately went to a Wisconsin regiment, and asked them if they would take him in. They told him they would, and gave him three rousing cheers.

The old musket was soon thrown aside, and a first-rate rifle given him, and twenty-five rounds of cartridges.

The engagement between the two armies soon came on, and the old man fired eighteen of his twenty-five rounds, and says he killed three rebels to his certain knowledge. Our forces were compelled to fall back and leave our dead and wounded on the field; and Burns, having received three wounds, was left also, not being able to get away. There he lay in citizen's dress and if the rebs found him in that condition, he knew death was his portion; so he concluded to try strategy as his only hope. Soon the rebs came up, and approached him saying: Old man what are you doing here? I am lying here wounded, as you see, he replied. Well but what business have you to be here? and who wounded you? our troops, or yours? I don,t know who wounded me; but I only know that I am wounded, and in a bad fix. Well what were you doing here?- what was your business? If you will hear my story, I will tell you. My old woman's health is very poor, and I was over across the country to get a girl to help her; and coming back, before I knew where I was, I had got right into this fix, and here I am. Where do you live? inquired the rebels. Over in town, in such a small house. They then picked him up, and carried him home and left him. But they soon returned, as if suspecting he had been lying to them, and make him answer a great many questions; but he stuck to his old story, and they failed to make anything out of old Burns, and then left him for good.

He says he shall always feel indebted to some of his neighbors for the last call; for he believes some one had informed them of him. Soon after they left a bullet came into his room, and struck in the wall about six inches above where he lay on his sofa but he don't know who fired it. His wounds proved to be only flesh wounds, and he is getting well, feels first-rate and says he would like one more good chance to give them a rip.

On 19 November 1863, President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address in dedication of the National Cemetery. Later that same day Lincoln wanting to meet Burns invited him to a patriotic rally held at the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church. After Burns' death members of the Iron Brigade decorated his grave and honored their volunteer aide.

Francis Bret Harte (1836-1902), in 1863, wrote the poem, "John Burns of Gettysburg".

I know this is a long post but I found something that you may find interesting. (Actually my husband, Tom, found it and read it to me. He reads to me a lot when he finds interesting things and that's how I learn a lot). Anyway, have you ever thought about the sounding of Taps at the end of the day? Where do you think it came from?

Brigadier Daniel Butterfield of the Fifth Corps was not happy with the standard call for lights out so he wrote some notes on a paper and called his brigade bugler to play them for him. Butterfield made some minor changes until he and the bugler agreed it was just right. That same night at lights out the haunting notes of "Taps" echoed throughout the encampment for the first time. "To the Gates of Richmond The Peninsula Campaign", Stephen W. Sears, copyright 1992 by Stephen W. Sears

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux