For the last few months I have developed something of an obsession with reading about the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh sure, I understand and can discuss most major Civil War battles with the best of them, but I have never really delved deep into the nitty-gritty of any one particular scrap. And this I have now set out to do…since Gettysburg is my favorite place to visit, discuss, write about, and analyze – I figured I would go after that one. Yeah…I have plenty of books to choose from – just to get started.
Most of us know that battles usually come with their own set of legends, and the case Gettysburg is no different. Being a memory guy, I love legends and all that comes with them. So I will start off my (sure to be many) series of posts about this battle by having a quick look at the battle’s most famous geezery civilian: John Burns. Many who visit the battlefield today learn about Burns, who along with Jennie Wade (the only civilian killed in the battle), number among the civilian notables in what could easily be called the Gettysburg express tourist package.
I have recently read Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The First Day and he included a handy index that tells the Burns story, just in case you have never had the pleasure of hearing it from a hit-and-run Gettysburg tour guide. Burns was well in to his 70s and claimed to be a veteran of the war of 1812. He was, shall we say, incensed by the Rebel invasion of his native state and decided to do something about it – he grabbed his weapon (described by various authors to be either a 1812 vintage flinklock or a more modern Enfield) and went out to meet the advancing foe.
As the story goes…around noon he arrived at the position of the 150th Pennsylvania near the McPherson farm. Burns discussed fighting alongside the Keystone regiment with the regiment’s major and colonel and was eventually given permission – although he was advised to go to the nearby McPherson Woods where he would find shelter from the sun and Rebel bullets.
There he met up with the members of the 7th Wisconsin where he impressed the regiment’s colonel by dropping a mounted Confederate with a rifle handed him by the officer. But that’s not all. From there he moved on down the line and joined the 24th Michigan – near the eastern edge of the woods. There he was wounded three times.
The Burns legend has grown over time – is it true that he fought in all the places he claimed (or that others claimed)? Did he really kill the Rebel horseman? It is hard to say with certainty – but he did fight on McPherson Ridge and he was wounded.
Burns died in 1872 and is buried next to his wife in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. If you are ever there – stop by a pay your respects to one ballsy Yankee. And try to remember this little anecdote. It’s stories like this that will impress your friends at parties – that is…it will if you hang out with people who are impressed by these types of things.