John Burns, the True Story of the Old Man Who Fought the Confederates at Gettysburg

John Burns with his gun and crutches in July 1863. Image Source: Library of Congress.

On July 1, 1863, civilian John Burns joined Union soldiers and fought against the invading Confederate Army in the Battle of Gettysburg. Burns, a resident of the town, was a veteran of the War of 1812 and 69 years old. He fought the Confederates in Herbst Woods with the famous Iron Brigade. Burns survived the battle and met President Abraham Lincoln during his visit to Gettysburg in November 1863 to dedicate the national military cemetery to the Union soldiers.

John Burns Fights the Confederates at Gettysburg

This short story about John Burns is from The Civil War in Song and Story: 1860–1865 by Frank Moore. In this version of the story, Confederate troops find Burns wounded on the battlefield and they return him to his home.

The following thrilling narrative was related by B.D. Beyea, who spent several days on the battlefield in search of the body of Captain C.H. Flagg, who fell in that terrible fight:

In the town of Gettysburg live an old couple by the name of Burns. The old man was in the War of 1812 and is now nearly seventy years of age, yet the frosts of many winters have not chilled his patriotism, nor diminished his love for the old flag under which he fought in his early days.

John Burns, with Musket and Bayonet, LOC
Burns with his musket and bayonet. Image Source: Library of Congress.

When the rebels invaded the beautiful Cumberland Valley, and were marching on Gettysburg, old Burns concluded that it was time for every loyal man, young or old, to be up and doing all in his power to beat back the rebel foe, and, if possible, give them a quiet resting-place beneath the sod they were polluting with their unhallowed feet.

Read The Rest of the Story: The Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.

The old hero took down an old State musket he had in his house and commenced running bullets. The old lady saw what he was about, and wanted to know what in the world he was going to do. 

“Ah,” said Burns, “I thought some of the boys might want the old gun, and I am getting it ready for them.”

The rebels came on. 

Old Burns kept his eye on the lookout until he saw the Stars and Stripes coming in, carried by our brave boys. This was more than the old fellow could stand. His patriotism got the better of his age and infirmity. 

Grabbing his musket, he started out. The old lady hallooed to him: “Burns, where are you going?”

“ Oh.” says Burns, “I am going out to see what is going on.”

He immediately went to a Wisconsin Regiment and asked them if they would take him in. They told him they would, and gave him three rousing cheers.

The old musket was soon thrown aside, and a first-rate rifle given him, and twenty-five rounds of cartridges. The engagement between the two armies soon earns on, and the old man fired eighteen of his twenty-five rounds, and says he killed three rebels to his certain knowledge. 

Our forces were compelled to fall back and leave our dead and wounded on the field; and Burns, having received three wounds, was left also, not being able to get away. There he lay in citizen’s dress and if the rebs found him in that condition, he knew death was his portion; so he concluded to try strategy as his only hope.

Soon the rebs came up and approached him, saying:

“Old man, what are you doing here?”

“I am lying here wounded, as you see,” he replied

“Well, but what business have you to be here? and who wounded you? our troops, or yours?”

“I don’t know who wounded me, but I only know that I am wounded, and in a bad fix.”

“Well, what were you doing here? — what was your business ?”

“If you will hear my story, I will tell you. My old woman’s health is very poor, and I was over across the country to get a girl to help her; and, coming back, before I knew where I was, I had got right into this fix, and here I am.”

“’Where do you live?” inquired the rebels. 

“Over in town, in such a small house.” 

They then picked him up and carried him home, and left him. But they soon returned, as if suspecting he had been lying to them, and made him answer a great many questions; but he stuck to his old story, and they failed to make anything out of old Burns, and then left him for good.

John Burns, Cottage, Gettysburg, NA
Burns and his wife at their home in Gettysburg. Image Source: National Archives.

He says he shall always feel indebted to some of his neighbors for the last call; for he believes someone had informed them of him. Soon after they left, a bullet came into his room, and struck in the wall about six inches above where he lay on his sofa; but he doesn’t know who fired it.

His wounds proved to be only flesh wounds, and he is getting well, feels first-rate, and says he would like one more good chance to give them a zip.

Who was John Burns, the Hero of Gettysburg?

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses John Burns, the Gettysburg resident who joined the fight on July 1, 1863., the First Day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Facts About John Burns and the Battle of Gettysburg

  • John Lawrence Burns, a prominent figure in Gettysburg, and a citizen who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
  • Burns’ grave was vandalized due to his contentious nature and local enemies, prompting the Gettysburg chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic to erect a new stone in his honor in 1904.
  • An American flag was placed at Burns’ grave in 1917, and it continues to fly there 24 hours a day.
  • Burns gained fame for his involvement on the First Day of the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was the only civilian to join the fighting west of the town. He was wounded but survived.
  • Burns met Abraham Lincoln, who visited him at his house and attended a political rally together at the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church.
  • He was also depicted in an illustration by N.C. Wyatt, featured in a poem by Francis Brett Hart, and had pictures taken by Matthew Brady.

John Burns Historical Marker

This historical marker was erected in 1903 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

John Burns, Historical Marker, Gettysburg
John Burns Historical Marker at Gettysburg. Image Source: The Historical Marker Database.

The marker text is:

“My thanks are specially due to a citizen of Gettysburg named John Burns who although over seventy years of age shouldered his musket and offered his services to Colonel Wister One Hundred and Fiftieth Pennsylvania Volunteers. Colonel Wister advised him to fight in the woods as there was more shelter there but he preferred to join our line of skirmishers in the open fields when the troops retired he fought with the Iron Brigade he was wounded in three places.”

Gettysburg report of Maj. Gen. Doubleday.