The Legend of John Burns

People even vaguely familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg often know something about John Lawrence Burns, the citizen soldier and hero of the town, the man that Lincoln met personally to give his regards, the old soldier now memorialized with his own statue near the spot he fought on the McPherson Farm.

As the story goes, John Burns had fought in the War of 1812. Or maybe he was just in the army and never fought. In the Civil War, he tried to enlist twice with the Union but was rejected on account of age. Or maybe he tried to fight in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. Or maybe he tried to drive a supply wagon for the Union and was rejected. Or maybe he actually succeeded in becoming a teamster until he was sent home against his will.

War came to Gettysburg, and on the first day of battle, he dug out his old flintlock musket and powder horn, dressed in a blue swallowtail coat with brass buttons, a yellow vest, and a tall hat, and headed toward the sound of gunfire. Possibly to avenge Confederate mistreatment of his cows. In some versions, he begged a musket off of a wounded man; in others, he tried with two wounded men; in some, he got ammunition from the wounded; in others, the commanding officers gave him twenty-five rounds and some powder. In some, he was immediately assigned to the Iron Brigade. In others, he was referred to two or even three different officers. Multiple soldiers recalled his old-time apparel. Either way, he fought with the Iron Brigade. Maybe also with the 24th Michigan.

He killed a charging officer. Or maybe it was three officers. He was wounded. Depending on the version he told, Burns was hit anywhere between three and seven times. The Union soldiers had to leave him behind. He fainted from loss of blood on the field. Or he didn’t. He threw his musket away and buried his powder and ammunition. Or he did that just before passing out. Either way, he had to make sure he wasn’t found to be a bushwhacker because the Rebels could then execute him. When Confederates encountered him, he convinced them he had gotten caught in the crossfire while searching for his sick wife. Or maybe it was his missing cows.

He crawled or dragged himself to the Riggs property just across the road from the Widow Thompson’s place where some friends took care of him. He sent for his wife (whose brother in Hagerstown did something very similar to what her husband did . . . and died for it) to come pick him up, but she sent back that he was a damned fool, had told him not to get involved, and could find his own way home. Or maybe she said that she couldn’t get there because the roads were too clogged and it was too dangerous. So a friend going back through town gave him a ride in his wagon. Or the Rebels actually put him on a wagon and sent him into town and then friends recognized him and brought him home.

He recovered quietly for weeks in his home. Or the Copperheads in town sold him out to the Rebels who interviewed him, and he confirmed he had fought in the battle. Later that night, two Rebel sharpshooters tried to assassinate him but missed. Or maybe he made that up.

Months later, Lincoln came to town and insisted on meeting him. Lincoln exclaimed, “God bless you, old man!” Possibly. Lincoln was to attend a meeting of local Republicans at a church on Baltimore Street. He asked Burns to walk up Baltimore Street with him. Burns had to lean on the president for support because of his wounds, and the pair looked peculiar walking together. Or maybe they looked strange because Lincoln was tall and gangly and Burns was short and stout, and their strides could never match. At the church, as the meeting droned on, Burns fell asleep against Lincoln and snored loudly. Possibly.

And from there, Burns’s fame went throughout the United States. He was taken to big cities where he joined parades and gave speeches from a pamphlet he wrote about himself. A woman supposedly begged just to touch his coat.

The legend of Burns is not what Gettysburg residents saw. Burns bumped around among trades, ranging from boot and shoemaker to carriage salesman. He became town constable, though a local resident said the position was typically given to a man who had nothing else to do. In June 1863, when Jubal Early, Robert E. Lee’s “bad old man” and later the chief proponent of the Lost Cause, rode into town to requisition food and other stores, Burns confronted the Rebel leaders and asserted his civilian authority. He may have tried to arrest all five thousand men. Irritated by the irascible old man, Early had his men throw Burns in the local jail where he remained until they left town. Upon his release, Burns immediately began arresting Confederate stragglers.

A week later, when Burns got ready to fight, he asked a fellow citizen to join him. When the man wouldn’t, Burns damned him as “chicken-hearted.” After the battle, Burns regularly aggravated his fellow citizens. In Bullets and Bandages, historian James Gindlesperger noted, “The only citizen of Gettysburg to take up arms and fight in the battle, Burns had nothing but unkind things to say about his fellow townsmen, whom he considered cowards for not joining in the fray” (page 81).

Lest you believe the historian’s complaint is overstated, consider what Burns had to say about Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. When a reporter wrote to Burns about her in 1866, he wrote back:

I knew Miss Wade very well. The less said about her the better. The story about her loyalty, her being killed while serving Union soldiers, etc., is all fiction, got up by some sensation correspondent. The only fact in the whole story is that she was killed during the battle in her house by a stray bullet. Charity to her reputation forbids any further remarks. You can refer, if you choose, to C. Wills Esq. – Postmaster Buehler or any loyal citizen for the truth. I could call her a she-rebel.

In 1872, Burns’s health declined and he passed away. He is now buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

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