John Burns – The old man at Gettysburg
Most details of Burns early life are unknown, but we know that he was born in Burlington, New Jersey, 1793. He fought in the War of 1812, and was present at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
After the war, Burns lived and had several different occupations in Gettysburg. He lived a calm life until the Civil War broke out in 1861.
At the age of 70, Burns once again wanted to take up arms, he tried to enlist in the Union Army but was rejected combat duty due to his age. He was accepted to serve as a teamster for a short while until he was ordered home.
On July 1, 1863, Burns watched from his house as the Battle of Gettysburg began to unfold nearby. He knew exactly what he had to do.
Grabbing his old flintlock musket and powder horn in hand, Burns made his way to the Union lines.
As he drew near, Burns met two wounded Union soldiers and pretty much proceeded to give them shit for being out of the fight, saying “your guns are needed over yonder, but you are bleeding and too weak to carry them; give one to me.”
When asked what he’d do with the rifle, his reply was: “Shoot the damned rebels,” Burns said, according to Bates’ account.
Accounts mention that he dressed in clothing he’d worn 40 years ago: trousers and a blue “swallow tail” waistcoat with brass buttons and a tall black silk hat.
Maj. Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry and his regimental commander Col. Langhorne Wister allowed Burns to join the fight near the McPherson farm as a sharpshooter.
The aging would-be warrior was sent to the woods where the trees and brush might give him some cover and keep the old man from getting killed.
As the Confederate forces moved on their position, Burns was hit multiple times, once in his arm, once in his leg, and sustained minor wounds to the rest of his body. As the enemy neared, the Union soldiers fell back, leaving Burns behind.
Knowing he’d be executed if he was captured — the penalty for being a bushwacker, aka a non-uniformed combatant, was severe — Burns ditched his borrowed rifle and quickly buried the last of his ammunition.
He managed to convince them he was trying to find help for his invalid wife.
Their doctor bandaged his wounds and Burns found shelter in the cellar of a nearby house, and later, at home.
After the battle, news of Burns’ actions spread, and he was hailed as a hero.
When President Abraham Lincoln arrived to deliver the Gettysburg address, he even met with the aging veteran.
And at the Gettysburg National Military Park is a statue to Burns, an old stubborn warrior, who saw a fight unfold from his porch and leapt into the fray.