Sunday, June 1, 2008

John Burns: citizen soldier at the Battle of Gettysburg

One of the more remarkable stories to come out of the first day of Battle at Gettysburg is the tale of John Burns, a 70 year old who heard the firing, grabbed his rifle, and asked permission to join the fight.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, was present as Burns approached the Union soldiers. He writes:

An incident which occurred about mid-day did much to create good feeling and stimulate the courage of the regiment. While watching and waiting, the attention of some of the men was called to an individual of rather bony frame and more than average stature who approached from the direction of the town, moving with a deliberate step, carrying in his right hand a rifle at a "trail". At any time his figure would have been noticeable, but it was doubly so at that moment, both on account of his age, which evidently neared threescore-and-ten, and the peculiarity of his dress. The latter consisted of dark trousers and waistcoat, a blue "swallow-tail" coat with brass buttons, and a high black silk hat, from which most of the original sheen had long departed, of a shape to be found only in the fashion-plates of a remote past. Presumably on account of the heat, no neckwear of any kind relieved the bluish tint of his clean-shaven face and chin. As his course brought him opposite the rear of the left battalion, he first met Major Chamberlin and asked, "Can I fight with your regiment?" The major answered affirmatively, but, seeing Colonel Wister approaching, added, "Here is our colonel; speak to him".

"Well, old man, what do you want?" demanded Colonel Wister.

"I want a chance to fight with your regiment."

"You do? Can you shoot?"

"Oh, yes;" and a smile crept over the old man's face which seemed to say, "If you knew that you had before you a soldier of the war of 1812, who fought with Scott at Lundy's Lane, you would not ask such a question".

"I see you have a gun, but where is your ammunition?"

For answer, he slapped his disengaged hand on his trousers pockets, which were bulging out with cartridges.

"Certainly you can fight with us", said the colonel, "and I wish there were many more like you".

He then advised him to go into the woods on the left, to the line of the Iron Brigade, where he would be more sheltered from sun and bullets, with an equal chance of doing good execution. With apparent reluctance, as if he preferred the open field, he moved towards the woods, and history has written the name of John Burns - for it was he - in the roll of the nation's heroes, and his deeds of that day are inseparably linked with the glories of Gettysburg!

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