Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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BURNS, John, soldier, born in Burlington, New Jersey, 5 September, 1793; died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 7 February, 1872. He was of Scottish ancestry, and through his father claimed relationship with the poet. He was among the first to volunteer for the war of 1812 ; was present in the actions at Plattsburg, Queenstown, and Lundy's Lane, in which last-named engagement he was one of Col. Miller's regiment that captured the British battery in the centre and turned the tide in favor of the Americans. He volunteered promptly for the war with Mexico, and again for the civil war. For this last service he was rejected on account of his age by the United States mustering officer, but managed to go with the army as a teamster, and was always anxious to borrow a rifle and be in the ranks when the enemy was encountered. His age soon told against him, and, contrary to his will, he was sent home to Gettysburg, where his townsmen made him constable to keep him busy and contented. When the foremost Confederate scouts approached in June, 186;8, he went out with a party of volunteers to fight them, but was turned back by the national cavalry. When the Confederates under General Early occupied the town, 26 June, Burns had to be locked up for asserting his civil authority as constable in opposition to that of the Confederate provost guard. As soon as the enemy advanced toward York, Burns resumed his official functions and began to arrest Confederate stragglers, including a chaplain named Gwin, who bore dispatches. Two days later the National advance under General Buford arrived and relieved the veteran from his self-imposed duty of facing the Army of Northern Virginia single-handed. Shortly after the preliminary skirmishing of the battle of Gettysburg began, Burns met a wounded Union soldier, borrowed his rifle and ammunition, with which he went to the front and offered his services as a volunteer to Maj. Chaimberlain, of the 155th Pennsylvania regiment, he was referred to the 7th Wisconsin volunteers, near by, they being sharply engaged with the enemy. The old man proved himself such a skilful sharp-shooter that the colonel commanding the regiment sent him a favorite long-range rifle, which he used all day with deadly effect in the advanced line; but he was badly wounded in the afternoon, when the National troops were forced back. He told a plausible story to his Confederate captors, and got himself carried to his own house, where his wounds were dressed by the surgeons; and, after a narrow escape from execution as an un-uniformed combatant, he was left when the Confederates were in turn driven back and finally defeated. The story of his patriotic zeal aroused the greatest interest in the northern states; he was lauded as the "hero of Gettysburg," and after the war, as his home was on the battlefield, became an object of curiosity to visitors and accumulated a competence through their generosity. During the last two years of his life his mind failed, and his friends were unable to prevent his wandering about the country. He was found in New York City on a cold winter's night in December, 1871, in a state of destitution, and was cared for and sent home, but died of pneumonia.
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