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Old Hero of Gettysburg: 1863

Old Hero of Gettysburg: 1863

July 1863. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. "John L. Burns, the 'old hero of Gettysburg,' with gun and crutches." Burns, born ca. 1793, was a 70-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 when he was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg, having volunteered his services as a sharpshooter to the Federal Army. He died of pneumonia in 1872. Wet-plate glass negative by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. View full size.


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U.S. Sanitary Commission

I just finished reading Mary A. Livermore's Civil War memoir "My Story of the War." Until the inception of the Sanitary Commission, men didn't have any medical care at all for the most part if they were wounded or sick.

The Sanitary Commission worked with the Army to set up ambulances; hospitals; hospital ward in the camps; arranged for nurses; inspected hospitals; ensured a steady stream of medical equipment, food (both regular and "invalid"), clothing, treats and gifts; and ran fund-raising drives... all to provide the best care possible for the fighting men.

In fact, it is the work of the Sanitary Commission which is responsible for the system that evolved into the modern medical care that not just the military men receive but much of what regular Americans receive. Until the SC set up the functioning ambulance corps, man often lay out on the battlefields until they died. She described one battle where the wounded lay out in sub-zero temperatures until they were frozen into the ground and had to be hacked out to be taken to the freshly set-up hospital ward.

Until the nurses arrived, the sick took care of the sick, often in barns with no heat and filthy, vermin-infested straw.

The Army resisted the efforts of the Commission at first but a combination of Presidential intervention, the tireless lobbying of the Sanitary Commission, and public opinion wore them down and they acquiesced. There were still commanders who fought against interference from the civilian medical personnel, and surgeons who put up barriers to good care simply because of ego.

Without the work of the Sanitary Commission, tens of thousands more men would have died or been permanently disabled by the end of the war.


Mr Burns's flintlock is at half-cock with the frizzen down, ready to ready to fire. I am a disabled veteran, and have received appropriate care from military hospitals and the VA system. My experiences and opinion are unlikely to change another's, but are offered to counter Maharg's opinion below.

Man's Best Friend

Sitting with his trusty flintlock cocked and within reach.

Not a weenie

Methinks it takes an anti-military weenie to know one. Seriously, tho, I'm a veteran of the U.S. Army, Vietnam Era. Not exactly the most military guy I know, but surely not a weenie. I stand corrected on Mr. Burns' service. When I commented I wasn't aware he was an independent fighter. Today's care for vets: Sure it's the best--most of the time--and in most places.

Earliest-born info

Thanks for the tip, Dave - that's exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to get started. Very handy that it's already done, ready for me to read!

Peripatetic rocker

The Wikipedia article about Burns referenced below includes a photo of him on the porch of his house. The house is a respectable size and has a flight of stairs to a large front door landing. In that photo Burns is in his rocker on the landing. Here he's been moved underneath the landing. You can see a support post on the left.

I've seen this photo before but never really noticed the rocker. It's a nicely made piece of furniture.

Anti Military Weenie Proven Wrong

So the person who made the comment about how he looked to have no been well cared for by the military, then threw in a dig about the current state of military medical care, was wrong on both counts.

There was no lack of care given to this old hero, because he wasn't in the army. He decided to go home.

The current US military enjoys some of the best medical care available in the world.

Photograph of the earliest-born person

Just had a thought -- is it known who is the earliest-born person ever photographed? This man was born in 1793 -- it boggles my mind to think that this is an actual photograph of somebody born in the 18th century. I know that photography was already a couple of decades old by the time of this picture, so surely there's got to be some photos of people born even earlier than 1793, wouldn't you think?

[There's more here on the interesting question of who is the person in a photograph with the earliest birth date. - Dave]

A bit musty!

Even by 1863 standards, it looks as if our Old Vet wasn't very well taken care of. A far cry from today's care--or is it?


Now that's one determined man. I bet no one ever won an argument with him. He must have had a wife around; look how neatly his shirt is pressed.

John B.

Must have been one tough SOB!

Cocked and ready

He's a tough guy. I wouldn't want to startle him from a nap!

Has his own monument on the battlefield

My daughter and I visited Gettysburg back in June and saw the John Burns monument on the northwest side of town where the first day's battles took place.

Tough old bird!

One week ago, seventy-two year old John L. Burns dropped everything to fight for his country in the battle of Gettysburg.

From his house, Burns could see the armies of the Union and the Confederacy locked in battle at Gettysburg. At first he stopped what he was doing and just watched. Then he grabbed his rifle and ran to fight when the 150th Pennsylvania came to reinforce the Union forces at the end of the first day.

Burns fought successfully on the second day, but he was wounded on the third, probably as he was defending the ridge against Pickett's charge. Even though wounded, he kept fighting until the battle was over. Since he was not a regular soldier, he simply went home at the battle's end and resumed his normal life.

But his life soon became anything but "normal." The story of his bravery quickly got out among his friends and neighbors and then spread all over the nation as his cobbler shop was visited by many reporters, myself among them. Burns was now a national hero, "the old hero of Gettysburg," as the press calls him.

-- From the "Gettysburg Gazette," a student project posted on the Library of Congress Web site.

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