On the weekend of the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I am posting this article from issue #28 of my ‘zine METANOIA.
One of my favorite Gettysburg historians, Tim Smith, has been all over my YouTube suggestion queue lately, which doesn’t bother me; I’m always happy to watch any video in which Smith displays his unique mix of battle expertise and his dry, irreverent sense of humor. Smith, a historian at the Adams County (PA) Historical Society, delves deeply into battle topics that other historians often only treat on the surface, if at all. Two recent in-depth video interviews showed him at his best, fascinating and funny, discussing two of his pet topics: the early days of the Gettysburg campaign in Adams County, and civilian battle celebrity John Burns.
The interview about the early days of the campaign revealed a potential family connection to me. While the battle itself began on July 1, the Confederates had already come into Pennsylvania two weeks before, making mischief from Chambersburg east to Caledonia (where they raided Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks).
On June 23, in Cashtown (about eight miles west of Gettysburg) a company of rebel cavalry chased a group of local militia into the woods. At the same time, in a Cashtown hotel, a local named Henry Hahn drunkenly announced “I’m going to shoot myself a rebel.” When the Confederate cavalry rode through, Hahn made good on his promise and shot and killed a cavalryman named Eli Amick, who was the first soldier killed in Adams County during the campaign. Hahn became known as “the bushwhacker.”
Far from feeling like a hero, Hahn went into hiding in the local woods for the next ten days (by military law, the Rebels could have executed him), and reportedly regretted this incident for the rest of his life. He still has descendants in Adams County, and the possible connection I found is in his last name, which is the same as my grandmother’s maiden name. I don’t know if there was any connection between the Adams County Hahns and the Hahns who settled in western Pennsylvania, but I’ll still investigate it sometime.
And if it’s not the same Hahn, maybe I can just do what Smith says John Burns did routinely: make up a story that sounds good.
Smith’s other interview was a discussion of his book John Burns: “The Hero of Gettysburg,” quotation marks employed because, according to Smith, that was how Burns referred to himself. It’s a fun book which explodes all of the mythology surrounding Burns, integrating newly-discovered primary source material from a pair of unfinished Burns bios by other authors, including first-hand accounts of townspeople and soldiers.
Burns was, to put it kindly, an unreliable source, especially concerning his own exploits. While he claimed to be a veteran of the War of 1812, Smith says that not only can that not be proven, but, in fact, it can easily be disproven by looking at muster rolls of units which fought where Burns claimed to have served, rolls on which his name is conspicuously absent. Aside from several terms as town constable, he drifted from job to job and was, if we are to trust contemporary accounts from other Gettysburg residents, seen as a humorless man and something of a local joke, if not an annoyance.
But Burns had one moment of glory, and that was on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863), when, at age 69, he grabbed his musket and went out to the field to join the fighting as a civilian volunteer, where he was wounded in action.
That Burns was wounded is beyond dispute; how many times he was wounded is unknown because he was never given a medical exam. (His pension was awarded by a special act of Congress, which didn’t require an exam.)
This gave Burns license to create (and re-create) his own truth: Smith says in varying accounts after the battle, including those of Burns himself, it was claimed that Burns had been hit by Rebel fire one time, two times, three times, four times, five times, and seven times.
“So we know for certain,” Smith said, “that Burns was not wounded six times.”
So locally notorious was Burns and his ever-shifting story that where Bret Harte opened his famous 1864 poem, “John Burns of Gettysburg,” with the following lines…
Have you heard the story that gossips tell
Of John 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…
…a Gettyburg resident named Henry Minnigh (himself a former captain in the 1st PA Reserves) wrote and printed a flier of a poem entitled “A Necessary Revisal,” which he distributed at the dedication of a Gettysburg memorial to Burns in 1903. The opening lines read…
Yes, we have heard the story gossips tell,
Of John Burns of Gettysburg. Ah, well!
Among the people here ‘tis a conviction,
Half the tale is fact, the other half is fiction…
“It is a rare treat,” Smith wrote, “when we are able to actually confirm an aspect of the Burns legend,” and legend and fact seem to have converged in Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1, 1863: Burns tried to get his neighbors to get their weapons and go join in the first day’s battle on the nearby field, but they refused (“the only man who didn’t back down”); he grabbed his musket and went out to the portion of the field now known as Reynolds Woods (so named because Union General John Reynolds was killed there); he tried to latch onto a Pennsylvania unit, but they basically told the old man to go back home, but Burns persisted and eventually fought alongside the 7th Wisconsin regiment (the famous “Iron Brigade”), where he received his wound(s).
Shortly after he was shot, the Confederates took that part of the field; Burns, who, like Hahn, could have been executed by the Rebels for bushwhacking, hid his gun and ammo and pleaded with the Confederate doctors to treat him, which they did, but they left him on the field near where he fell. When night came, Burns crawled about a quarter mile to a house on the edge of town (the Riggs house, across from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters), where he lay on a cellar door overnight.
According to Smith, while he was lying wounded on the field, Burns described his house in town to a member of the 7th Wisconsin, and asked the soldier to tell his wife to come get him. The soldier balked at first, but later when he passed Burns’ house, he decided to stop and knock on the door. Burns’ wife Barbara answered and the soldier relayed her husband’s message.
Mrs. Burns’ reply?
“I told him not to go out there.”
Brief, indeed, was the glory that hero earned.
Book: Smith, Timothy H. John Burns: “The Hero of Gettysburg.” Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2000. ISBN 1-57747-060-5
Youtube video interviews with Smith about…
“the Bushwhacker:” tinyurl.com/henry-hahn-bushwhacker
John Burns: tinyurl.com/tim-smith-on-john-burns
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