Saturday, February 14, 2009

In defense of John Burns, citizen soldier of Gettysburg

The story of John Burns, "citizen soldier" of the Battle of Gettysburg, is such a compelling one that it was even the subject of a poem by Bret Harte. The Pennsylvania Board of Commissioners on Gettysburg Monuments was so impressed with Burns's heroics that they saw fit to commission a monument of him on the Gettysburg battlefield (pictured here). Over the years some have come to doubt the actual role Burns played in the battle. Was the story of the old volunteer fact or fiction? Here, in A Califonia Tramp, and Later Footprints, author Thaddeus Stevens Kenerdine believes the latter as he quotes Sergeant George Eustis of the 2nd Wisconsin. Eustis states:

"If any of those who think that the old man took no part in the battle of Gettysburg had seen him on the 1st of July, 1863, they would change their opinion. I can't tell just what time he came up to us, having left my watch at home on the bureau that morning, but it was after we had captured Archer's Brigade, and while we were lying down in the timber to protect ourselves from the shot and shell flying around, about noon, say, that I saw a little old man coming up in the rear of our company, F. I remember him well. He had on a swallow-tail coat, with smooth brass buttons. We boys commenced to poke fun at him, thinking him a fool to come up where there was so much danger. I wanted to put a cartridge box on him to make him look like a soldier, telling him he couldn't fight without that. His reply was, slapping his pockets, ' I can get my hands in here quicker than in the box; I am not used to them new-fangled things.' More... In answer to a question as to what made him come up there, he said the rebels had either milked his cows or driven them away, and he was going to be even with them. All this while the shells were screaming and bursting over the protecting timber. About this time the " rebs " began to advance. Bullets were whistling around pretty lively. We hugged the ground closer and the old man got behind a tree. He surprised us all by not taking a double- quick to the rear, but he was just as cool as any veteran among us. We soon had orders to move a hundred yards to the right, and were shortly engaged in one of the hottest fights I was ever in. Foot by foot we were driven back. We made our last stand at the Seminary, where we did good work for a while and then retreated through the town to Cemetery Ridge. I never saw John Burns after we moved to the right. From some cause he did not follow, and we left him with his gun behind the tree. I learned afterward he was wounded in three places. General Callis was wounded and left for dead on the field."

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