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Prairie Schooner 80.3 (2006) 150-163

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The Hero of Gettysburg, and: Reconstruction

The Hero of Gettysburg

As the rebel troops descended upon Gettysburg, one of her eldest citizens, the seventy-five-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, John Burns, donned his old uniform, seized his trusty musket and rushed to the thickest of the battle, where he fought with honor and courage unsurpassed upon the field, until at last receiving wounds that ended his heroic fight.

Harpers Weekly, August 23, 1863


The damn tallow-faced sissy!

You have musket and powder, says he, but no balls.
– I run bullets all night, pourin' pewter till dawn.
What? says I. You chicken-liver!
I've balls aplenty! Let's march!
And him grinnin' that tallow face.

So I hied out for the ridge alone.
Headin' for an infernal cracklement of guns.
"Welcome, Father Time!" says a Wisconsin Johnny,
"Fall in at my elbow and anchor the line,
for you'll not skedaddle on them hobbled shanks!"
– What? says I. And jumps both feet off'n the ground!
I hoist my rifle over head, jumpin' up and down.
But before I can make him eat his words [End Page 150]
woof! off he goes like a torpedo hisself
a'spatterin' me all with brains and whatnot.

I commence to firin' the Springfield
and soon use up all twenty-five loads.
Then a dead boy's box. And then another.

I turn to fall back in the gen'ral retreat and –
swat! A ball takes me in the arm!
Then bang! bang! – Two more
in leg and back.

What? says I, upon the ground.
The rebs will hang me for a bushwacker sure.

From yon thickest limb o' this tree where I bleed.
So I heaves the gun, 'tho it was a crate-new piece
I'd already come to count as my own.
And quick scrabble a hole
Buryin' my cartridge box.

Over the spot I lay.

At times from pain I faint dead out.
Then harken the lines tuggin' to and fro.
Shell bits a'rainin' down. Cavalry quakin' the earth.
Now our boys – now rebels – trottin' past.

A boot toe digs my ribs. "Hey ol' man."
says a rebel sergeant. "What you doin' here?
You in this fight?" "Captain," says I
"mercy no. My wife is sick to dyin'.
I come to fetch Doc Leeds on the ridge."
"Tha'so?" says the sergeant, "Well shit,
now din't you go and pick the worst damn route?"
And he looks up at the sky to think. [End Page 151]
"Le's stick the bushwhack 'n be shut of him"
says the sergeant's mate, a scraggy reb.
And draws back his Enfield, the bayonet
like thread slicked for a needle's eye.
"Naw, hail. . . ." says the sergeant raising a hand,
"Leave the sum'bitch croak. "

What? says I to myself, Croak is it?
Well, I may be sixty-nine years old
but 'fore I croak sure you'll roast in hell!

And off'n that field I crawl,
hand o'er hand, trailin' my own life's blood.


I ran from him just as far as I could run.

Clear 'cross country to the other sea.
But still in dark of night
if the cat jumps thump off a sill,
or a draft blows cold on my face,

I bolt up in bed
all prickly, puffing.
Then I scurry to my baby's crib
to make certain she is sleeping there. . . .
safe, yes, and well. . . .

A babe myself I came to them.

Even then he poked my chest,
squeezed my skinny legs.
Like Gretel's witch pinching the bone. [End Page 152]

As I filled out he eyed me like that tree
flowering by our house in nobody's lot.
Not wanting to eat the apples green
but not losing them neither to some quicker raid.

(Oh he always grubbed his fill.)

So that market day I was not surprised

as I bent smoothing sheets and quilt
he pushed me hard down on their bed.
Hoisted my skirts – and...


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