John Burns relaxing in a rocking chair with his rifle nearby. Image via Timothy H. O’Sullivan- TITLE: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. John L. Burns, the “old hero of Gettysburg,” with gun and crutches
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The 69-Year-Old Man Who Fought In The Civil War To Avenge His Cows

John L. Burns was one of the most unusual soldiers in the history of the Civil War

Andrew Martin
5 min readJul 8, 2022


The reasons for those who fought in the Civil War varied from person to person. Slavery and states’ rights were the two of the most common, but perhaps the most unique belonged to a 69-year-old man named John L. Burns. He fought with the Union Army at Gettysburg in 1863, explaining he was doing so to avenge his cows, which Confederate soldiers had mistreated.

Burns was old enough that he was a veteran of the War of 1812, participating in a number of battles. Born in New Jersey in 1793, he was of Scottish heritage. Stories of his participation in the Civil War indicate generally that he was 69, but he may in fact have been even older. He and his family came to settle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — a beautiful and sleepy farming community. It unfortunately ended up becoming the unlikely site of perhaps the most well-known battle in the war.

Burns had attempted to not only enlist to fight during the Mexican-American War, but also the Civil War. However, he was denied in both cases due to his age. Remaining in Gettysburg, he did work as a teamster for a brief period for the Union Army, and also became a town constable.

He was not a happy camper when it came to Confederates entering Gettysburg. In late June, he was briefly jailed after trying to assert civil authority to Confederate General Jubal Early when he began occupying the town. As soon as he was released, he began arresting any southern straggler he found. He finally relinquished control once the Union Army arrived on the scene.

The first day of the battle occurred on July 1st. Residents who were not combatants had either fled or were hiding in their homes. However, once the shooting started, Burns was still sore over the Confederates being in his hometown and also because they had manhandled some of his cows despite his protestations. He grabbed his flintlock musket and powder horn; an absolute relic of a weapon not good for doing much, and rushed out of his house, approaching a group of Union soldiers.

The first man he met was Major Thomas Chamberlin (brother of Lawrence Chamberlin), who advised…



Andrew Martin

Dabbler in history, investing & writing. Master’s degree in baseball history. Passionate about history, diversity, culture, sports, investing and crypto.