“On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, as the tide of gray soldiers pushed forward towards town, a 69 year old defender confidently strode towards the expanding struggle. A veteran of the War of 1812, John Burns could not simply stand idly by as his home became a hotly contested battle ground. Moving in with the somewhat incredulous men of the Iron Brigade, the near 70 year old Burns fought along side men 50 years his junior. With them he would remain until wounded. Although the Southerners would capture the ground of the McPherson farm that he helped to defend, with assistance from his Union Army comrades, Burns found his way home where he recovered from several wounds received that day. A few months later, John Burns would have the honor of meeting and walking with President Abraham Lincoln when, in November of that year, Lincoln offered his few appropriate remarks to the dedication of the soldiers national cemetery.
Union Lieutenant Frank Haskell, also present for the battle, wrote of his brief contact with Burns. “I saw “John Burns,” the only citizen of Gettysburg who fought in the battle, and I asked him what troops he fought with. He said: “O, I pitched in with them Wisconsin fellers.” I asked what sort of men they were, and he answered: “They fit terribly. The Rebs couldn’t make anything of them fellers.”
And so the brave compliment the brave. This man was touched by three bullets from the enemy, but not seriously wounded.”
According to Burns’s biography in Appleton’s Cyclopedia, 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 in 1872.