Midpoint of the War: May to July 1863

Gettysburg: The First Day

Who was John Burns?

His story is so incredible that we tend to doubt it on the first hearing, but it was verified enough times—by the man in question and his neighbors—that we have to take it as true. John Burns had lived in Gettysburg a long time—he was seventy—but he had grown up in New Jersey. After a short spell as a militiaman during the War of 1812—the only time he was ever properly measured, he claimed—Burns wandered for a number of years before settling in Gettysburg, where he married and raised a family. Even so, he had to win his fight with the bottle before winning respectability: once that was accomplished, he served for several years as a constable. Sometime on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Burns saw a member of one of the Union regiments leave his musket, and seized by a sudden inspiration, he stole it and tagged along with the younger men. He must have made quite a sight, the old man with the youths, but his sharp shooting skills were soon made apparent, and the colonel of the regiment handed him a rifle and told him to make good use of it. Burns was in the midst of doing so when a panic seized the regiment, and in its quick retreat he was both wounded and cut off. He lay on the field that night, wounded in no fewer than four places!


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