John Burns, Civilian Hero of Gettysburg

 John Burns was an elderly resident of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who became a popular and heroic figure in the weeks following the great battle fought there in the summer of 1863. A story circulated that Burns, a 69-year-old cobbler and town constable, had been so outraged by the Confederate invasion of the North that he shouldered a rifle and ventured forth to join much younger soldiers in defending the Union.

The Legend of "Brave John Burns"

Gettysburg hero civilian John Burns photographed by Mathew Brady depicted on stereoview card.
Library of Congress

The stories about John Burns happened to be true, or were at least strongly rooted in truth. He did appear at the scene of intense action on the first day of the Battle of Gettyburg, July 1, 1863, volunteering beside Union troops.

Burns was wounded, fell into Confederate hands, but made it back to his own house and recovered. The story of his exploits began to spread and by the time the famed photographer Mathew Brady visited Gettysburg two weeks after the battle he made a point of photographing Burns.

The old man posed for Brady while recuperating in a rocking chair, a pair of crutches and a musket beside him.

The legend of Burns continued to grow, and years after his death the State of Pennsylvania erected a statue of him on the battlefield at Gettysburg.

Burns Joined the Fighting at Gettysburg

Burns was born in 1793 in New Jersey, and enlisted to fight in the War of 1812 when he was still in his teens. He claimed to have fought in battles along the Canadian border.

Fifty years later, he was living in Gettysburg, and was known as an eccentric character in town. When the Civil War began, he supposedly tried to enlist to fight for the Union, but was rejected because of his age. He then worked for a time as a teamster, driving wagons in army supply trains.

A fairly detailed account of how Burns became involved in the fighting in Gettysburg appeared in a book published in 1875, The Battle of Gettysburg by Samuel Penniman Bates. According to Bates, Burns was living in Gettysburg in the spring of 1862, and the townspeople elected him as constable.

In late June 1863, a detachment of Confederate cavalry commanded by General Jubal Early arrived in Gettysburg. Burns apparently tried to interfere with them, and an officer placed him under arrest in the town jail on Friday, June 26, 1863.

Burns was released two days later, when the rebels moved on to raid the town of York, Pennsylvania. He was unharmed, but furious.

On June 30, 1863, a brigade of Union cavalry commanded by John Buford arrived in Gettysburg. Excited townspeople, including Burns, gave Buford reports on Confederate movements in recent days.

Buford decided to hold the town, and his decision would essentially determine the site of the great battle to come. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Confederate infantry began to attack Buford’s cavalry troopers, and the Battle of Gettysburg had begun.

When Union infantry units appeared on the scene that morning, Burns gave them directions. And he decided to become involved.

His Role In the Battle

According to the account published by Bates in 1875, Burns encountered two wounded Union soldiers who were returning to the town. He asked them for their guns, and one of them gave him a rifle and a supply of cartridges.

According to recollections of Union officers, Burns turned up at the scene of the fighting west of Gettysburg, wearing an old stovepipe hat and a blue swallowtail coat. And he was carrying a weapon. He asked officers of a Pennsylvania regiment if he could fight with them, and they ordered him to go to a nearby woods being held by the “Iron Brigade” from Wisconsin.

The popular account is that Burns set himself up behind a stone wall and performed as a sharpshooter. He was believed to have focused on Confederate officers on horseback, shooting shooting some of them out of the saddle.

By the afternoon Burns was still shooting in the woods as the Union regiments around him began to withdraw. He stayed in position, and was wounded several times, in the side, arm, and leg. He passed out from loss of blood, but not before tossing aside his rifle and, he later claimed, burying his remaining cartridges.

That evening Confederate troops looking for their dead came across the strange spectacle of an elderly man in civilian dress with a number of battle wounds. They revived him, and asked who he was. Burns told them he had been trying to reach a neighbor’s farm to get help for his sick wife when he had gotten caught in the crossfire.

The Confederates didn’t believe him. They left him on the field. A Confederate officer at some point gave Burns some water and a blanket, and the old man survived the night lying out in the open.

The next day he somehow made his way to a nearby house, and a neighbor transported him in a wagon back into Gettysburg, which was held by the Confederates. He was again questioned by Confederate officers, who remained skeptical of his account of how he had gotten mixed up in the fighting. Burns later claimed two rebel soldiers shot at him through a window as he was lying on a cot.

The Legend of "Brave John Burns"

After the Confederates withdrew, Burns was a local hero. As journalists arrived and spoke to townspeople, they began hearing the story of “Brave John Burns.” When photographer Mathew Brady visited Gettysburg in mid-July he sought out Burns as a portrait subject.

A Pennsylvania newspaper, the Germantown Telegraph, published an item about John Burns in the summer of 1863. It was reprinted widely. The following is the text as printed in the San Francisco Bulletin of August 13, 1863, six weeks after the battle:

John Burns, over seventy years of age, a resident of Gettysburg, fought throughout the battle of the first day, and was wounded no less than five times -- the last shot taking effect in his ankle, wounding him severely. He came up to Coloner Wister in the thickest of the fight, shook hands with him, and said he came to help. He was dressed in his best, consisting of a light blue swallow-tailed coat, with brass buttons, corduroy pantaloons, and a stove pipe hat of considerable height, all of ancient pattern, and doubtless an heirloom in his house. He was armed with a regulation musket. He loaded and fired unflinchingly until the last of his five wounded brought him down. He will recover. His little cottage was burned by the rebels. A purse of a hundred dollars has been sent to him from Germantown. Brave John Burns!

When President Abraham Lincoln visited in November 1863 to deliver the Gettysburg Address, he met Burns. They walked arm and arm down a street in the town and sat together at a church service.

The following year author Bret Harte wrote a poem titled, “Brave John Burns.” It was anthologized often. The poem made it sound as if everyone else in town had been a coward, and many citizens of Gettysburg were offended.

In 1865 the writer J.T. Trowbridge visited Gettysburg, and received a tour of the battlefield from Burns. The old man also provided many of his eccentric opinions. He spoke caustically about other townspeople, and openly accused half the town of being “Copperheads,” or Confederate sympathizers.

Legacy of John Burns

John Burns died in 1872. He is buried, beside his wife, in the civilian cemetery at Gettysburg. In July 1903, as part of 40th anniversary commemorations, the statue depicted Burns with his rifle was dedicated.

The legend of John Burns has become a treasured part of Gettysburg lore. A rifle which belonged to him (though not the rifle he used on July 1, 1863) is in Pennsylvania’s state museum.

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McNamara, Robert. "John Burns, Civilian Hero of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). John Burns, Civilian Hero of Gettysburg. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "John Burns, Civilian Hero of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).