John Burns is a name most are familiar with in connection to the Battle of Gettysburg as it began on July 1, 1863. The gist of the story related to Burns is that he was an old gentleman of the local populace whose patriotism ran high that summer day in July when fighting had broken out north of the Gettysburg town. His story is usually prefixed with a brief mention of his service in the War of 1812, and how the very musket he used during that war, according to lure was the same musket he armed himself with as he walked towards McPherson’s Ridge to meet the rebel army.
This paints the picture that Burns was just an old man who was indignant that the war had come to his town. And while that does seem to be the case, Burns’ story of his involvement in the Civil War predates the Battle of Gettysburg, and has been overshadowed and forgotten by what happened in July 1863.
When the War began in April of 1861, it gripped the nation both north and south with such a tight hold that nothing else could be talked about. Excitement and patriotism ran high at fever pitch as men and women, young and old, sought ways to become involved in the war effort.
For the men, companies of troops were being raised daily throughout the northern states, in this particular story we’ll focus on Adams County in South Central Pennsylvania. Towards the latter part of May 1861, Governor Andrew G. Curtin personally implored Congressman Edward McPherson to raise a company of soldiers in his district to be absorbed into the states new “Reserve Corps of the Commonwealth” which had just recently been authorized by State Authority.
McPherson took it upon himself to raise this company, and join in the cause. He raised a company of Infantry which was later dubbed, the Adams Infantry and sent by rail to West Chester where it was to go into camp of instruction at Camp Wayne.
As per protocol, each company admitted to the camp of instruction was required to pass through a medical examination prior to being mustered, to ensure each soldier was in fighting trim.
Man after man stepped forward into the camp surgeon’s tent for inspection, and most would pass inspection except for a minor few. As the surgeon finished his inspection with one man, an older looking gentleman was next in the queue. Stepping before the surgeon, he was immediately rejected on account of his age, being 67 years old. This man was John L. Burns, of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After Burns and another recruit failed the examination, Capt. McPherson employed state transportation to have both sent back to Adams County and ultimately replaced with other recruits. Burns had no choice but to return home, and wait for the war to come to him. This story has long been forgotten, but exemplifies Burns’ commitment to his country long before war came to his doorstep at Gettysburg.