Born in 1793, John Burns had already fought in the war of 1812 and later volunteered for the Mexican-American War. By the time the Civil War started in 1861 he was already 68, but once again quickly volunteered. This time however he was rejected. A sad and empty Burns was sent home to quietly sit out the war in Gettysburg, until the war came to him.
On June 26th, 1863 he was jailed for resisting the invading Confederate army. When the battle of Gettysburg started on July 1st, the Confederates retreated from the town and Burns was released. He, then in turn, arrested several Confederate stragglers and continued to resist single-handedly until relieved by Union forces. Not to miss his opportunity, he grabbed his flintlock and powder horn and marched off to war.
After borrowing a modern rifle from a wounded soldier, he asked to fall in with the nearest regiment. He fought first with the 7th Wisconsin and later the 24th Michigan. Wounded both in the arm, and leg and with minor chest wounds, he was left behind during a retreat. Burns left his rifle and ammunition, crawled away and was found by the Confederates. Convincing them that he was a civilian that had been wounded looking for his invalid wife, he was treated and released.
After the battle he was received as a national hero. Upon arriving in Gettysburg several months later, Lincoln insisted on meeting Burns. The following year, Bret Harte (future associate of Mark Twain's) wrote this poem:
John Burns of Gettysburg
by Bret Harte
Have you heard the story that gossips tell
Of Burns of Gettysburg?--No? Ah, well:
Brief is the glory that hero earns,
Briefer the story of poor John Burns.
He was the fellow who won renown,--
The only man who didn't back down
When the rebels rode through his native town;
But held his own in the fight next day,
When all his townsfolk ran away.
That was in July sixty-three,
The very day that General Lee,
Flower of Southern chivalry,
Baffled and beaten, backward reeled
From a stubborn Meade and a barren field.
I might tell how but the day before
John Burns stood at his cottage door,
Looking down the village street,
Where, in the shade of his peaceful vine,
He heard the low of his gathered kine,
And felt their breath with incense sweet;
Or I might say, when the sunset burned
The old farm gable, he thought it turned
The milk that fell like a babbling flood
Into the milk-pail red as blood!
Or how he fancied the hum of bees
Were bullets buzzing among the trees.
But all such fanciful thoughts as these
Were strange to a practical man like Burns,
Who minded only his own concerns,
Troubled no more by fancies fine
Than one of his calm-eyed, long-tailed kine,--
Quite old-fashioned and matter-of-fact,
Slow to argue, but quick to act.
That was the reason, as some folk say,
He fought so well on that terrible day.
And it was terrible. On the right
Raged for hours the heady fight,
Thundered the battery's double bass,--
Difficult music for men to face
While on the left--where now the graves
Undulate like the living waves
That all that day unceasing swept
Up to the pits the rebels kept--
Round shot ploughed the upland glades,
Sown with bullets, reaped with blades;
Shattered fences here and there
Tossed their splinters in the air;
The very trees were stripped and bare;
The barns that once held yellow grain
Were heaped with harvests of the slain;
The cattle bellowed on the plain,
The turkeys screamed with might and main,
And brooding barn-fowl left their rest
With strange shells bursting in each nest.
Just where the tide of battle turns,
Erect and lonely stood old John Burns.
How do you think the man was dressed?
He wore an ancient long buff vest,
Yellow as saffron,--but his best;
And buttoned over his manly breast
Was a bright blue coat, with a rolling collar,
And large gilt buttons,--size of a dollar,--
With tails that the country-folk called "swaller."
He wore a broad-brimmed, bell-crowned hat,
White as the locks on which it sat.
Never had such a sight been seen
For forty years on the village green,
Since old John Burns was a country beau,
And went to the "quiltings" long ago.
Close at his elbows all that day,
Veterans of the Peninsula,
Sunburnt and bearded, charged away;
And striplings, downy of lip and chin,--
Clerks that the Home Guard mustered in,--
Glanced, as they passed, at the hat he wore,
Then at the rifle his right hand bore,
And hailed him, from out their youthful lore,
With scraps of a slangy repertoire:
"How are you, White Hat?" "Put her through!"
"Your head's level!" and "Bully for you!"
Called him "Daddy,"--begged he'd disclose
The name of the tailor who made his clothes,
And what was the value he set on those;
While Burns, unmindful of jeer and scoff,
Stood there picking the rebels off,--
With his long brown rifle and bell-crown hat,
And the swallow-tails they were laughing at.
'Twas but a moment, for that respect
Which clothes all courage their voices checked;
And something the wildest could understand
Spake in the old man's strong right hand,
And his corded throat, and the lurking frown
Of his eyebrows under his old bell-crown;
Until, as they gazed, there crept an awe
Through the ranks in whispers, and some men saw,
In the antique vestments and long white hair,
The Past of the Nation in battle there;
And some of the soldiers since declare
That the gleam of his old white hat afar,
Like the crested plume of the brave Navarre,
That day was their oriflamme of war.
So raged the battle. You know the rest:
How the rebels, beaten and backward pressed,
Broke at the final charge and ran.
At which John Burns--a practical man--
Shouldered his rifle, unbent his brows,
And then went back to his bees and cows.
That is the story of old John Burns;
This is the moral the reader learns:
In fighting the battle, the question's whether
You'll show a hat that's white, or a feather!