Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
 
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

John Burns of Gettysburg

M ORE than 160,000 men fought in the three days' battle of Gettysburg, and among them was John Burns, an old veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, who had volunteered for service at the outbreak of the Civil War, but had been rejected on account of his age. He was seventy years old in 1863.

John Burns had volunteered among the first in the War of 1812, and had fought at the battles of Plattsburg, Queenstown, and Lundy's Lane. He served through the Mexican campaign, and when he volunteered in 1861, had been told that he was too old, but was given work as a teamster. Finally he was sent back to his home at Gettysburg, where his neighbors made him the town constable. But his heart was set on fighting for the Union, and when the Confederates came to Gettysburg late in June, 1863, he made so much trouble for them that he was put under restraint. When the Confederates left the town he tried to arrest stragglers from their army by virtue of his office of constable.

When the actual fighting began on July 1st John Burns could not keep away from the battle. He borrowed a rifle and ammunition from a wounded Union soldier, and, marching to headquarters, volunteered for service. The Colonel of the Seventh Wisconsin Regiment gave him a long-range rifle, and he took up a position on a height from which he did sharpshooting with deadly effect during that day.

When the Union forces were driven back at sunset Burns was badly wounded and was finally captured by the enemy. He had a narrow escape from being hanged as a combatant in civilian's clothes. After the battle he was released, and returned to his home, where thousands of visitors came to see him later to hear his account of the great struggle.

Bret Harte took the incidents of John Burns' part in the battle, and made a stirring poem of the old man's unquenchable patriotism.

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 folks 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 répertoire:

"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!


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