A History of the Burns Family
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PART ONE: Guy's Path to the Dance

CHAPTER TWO: The Battle of Wilderness

Spotsylvania, Virginia
May 5, 1864, Afternoon

PART ONE Overview
1 - Wildcat Brigade
2 - Battle of Wilderness
3 - Field Hospital
4 - Orphan School
5 - Ladies' Man
6 - Mary Dinger
7 -The Masons
8 - Mary Rebecca
9 - Guy the Wanderer
10 - Farmer Boy
11 - Center of the World
12 - Birthday
13 - Fish Story
14 - Miss Fenn
15 - To the Dance

More Information

Passing the canteen along, Liberty eases himself to the grassy turf in front of the split-rail fence down the road from the tavern, and allows himself a few moments to think of his Lizzie, now gone the way of Ellen.

How cruel these losses were, and how little he had expected them. He had acquired his 80-acre parcel in Knox Township southeast of Brookville as a newcomer from central Pennsylvania in the 1830s, undeterred by the economic depression sweeping the nation. His neighbor, the old schoolmaster Robert Knox, gave him permission to wed his daughter Ellen, and for more than a decade, they had made their way together, raising Daniel, Mary Ellen, Joseph, and Jane on the swath of heavily wooded land that sloped down to Swamp Run. But after Ellen died giving birth to little Liberty in 1848, he had been devastated. It had taken him a long time to rebuild a life for himself.

Elizabeth Bish was just an infant when he and Ellen married. The second daughter of neighbor and Knoxdale school director John Henry Bish, Lizzie was only three years older than Liberty's eldest son Daniel, and the Knox family moved to Ohio in the 1840s. But they returned some years later, and by 1857, Lizzie was a lovely young woman who caught his widower's eye. He wipes his brow and smiles faintly, remembering the courting. She had chosen him over her parents, who soon moved back to old family property in Sugar Creek, miles and miles away.[1]

John H. Bish on 1861 Sugar Creek, Armstrong County map

Of course he wasn't a broken-down old soldier then. Taller than most men at five-foot-nine, strong and still vigorous from his years as a farmer and a lumberman, he had a full head of black hair and grey eyes some said were attractive. Robbie was born nine months and twelve days after they exchanged their vows, and the next two children -- Lorenzo and Sarah -- came in quick succession. [2]

Trefoil symbol
of Hancock's 2nd Corps
A lumberman's wages didn't go far, but they had sufficient food on the table for their growing family, which included his three youngest children with Ellen. Daniel, was on his own and working as shoemaker by then, and Mary Ellen was working as a domestic in Brookville proper. But Lizzie treated her stepchildren Joseph, Jane, and little Liberty as her own. With Lizzie, Liberty had been happier than ever before; that is, until 1861, when the war began.


He'd mustered in as a volunteer at Pittsburgh in August, hoping that his young wife would be able to manage the household on her own. Father and Mother Bish had moved back from Armstrong County to resume residence on their Knox property, and the older children could be relied on to pitch in, accustomed as they were to hard work. And in Jefferson County, you could always count on your neighbors.

He had learned this the hard way after Ellen died.What would he have done if his mother and older sister hadn't taken the baby? And how could he ever repay the debt owed to the Craigs and Butlers for looking after Joseph and Jane until he could get back on his feet? [3]

Casualty SheetSighing, Liberty inspects his boots, caked with grime, heels worn wafer-thin. And smooths his trousers, filthy and worn -- patches on top of patches. They would soon need mending again, a difficult task with his close vision going, and his calloused lumberman's hands hard put to guide a needle.

Lizzie would have made short work of it. He pictures her bent over her sewing basket, dark hair escaping the knot at her neck, stitching by lamplight. Or drawing water from the well in the big wooden bucket to tend the young shoots in their kitchen garden. She had always been a willing worker, undiscouraged by hardship. And because of this, he had always believed they would be reunited, if he could just manage to keep going.

What he never reckoned on was that Lizzie herself would be taken away. The magnitude of the loss sometimes threatens to overwhelm him, especially in the tense monotony between battles. Her photograph and last letter are still tucked inside his jacket, but he hasn't the heart to look at them anymore.

He is still ashamed of what happened after the Battle of Fair Oaks in May of '62. At the hospital in New Haven in December, his wounded right leg still not healed after more than six months, he'd gotten into the drink on the first anniversary of Elmer's birth and been discharged for intemperance and incapacity. But with the South making inroads into Union strongholds, every able-bodied man was needed for the cause, and Liberty found himself back in the fray soon enough. He'd re-enlisted at Waterford, Pennsylvania just before Christmas 1863, lying to the recruiter about his age and likewise fooling the examining surgeon. Sometimes he thinks the doctor knew full well he was too old. No matter. By February he'd rejoined the regiment. The $300 re-enlistment bounty was a powerful incentive. It will go a long way toward supporting the family back home in Knox. [4]

Liberty Signature
Liberty's signature on his re-enlistment papers

Liberty watches Sergeant Dowling make his way up the line toward the tavern, squinting against the bright sun. It seems impossible that Company B might come to harm on such a day as this. But this is wishful thinking, he knows. There'll be plenty of blood shed by the Pennsylvania Wildcat Brigade today. He can only hope it won't be his. He'd survived Fair Oaks after all - the place where Sergeant Dowling's brother died -- and has paid his dues in pain and shame. The terrible scar on his right leg will never allow him to forget the misery and horror he has seen. Surely his luck will hold today. [5]

Now the Sergeant is motioning them forward, and it's time to push on. Their rest by the tavern has not fortified Liberty. But like the other men, he heaves himself to his aching feet, shoulders his rifle, and joins the march. By four o’clock they've made their way down Brock Road with the rest of Birney's men to back up Getty's line, building significant breastworks all along the road. Company B falls in behind Wheaton's Brigade in the dense woods, where John Ostrander's regiment awaits the advance. There's nothing to see, except the thick underbrush hemming them in. Liberty waits in the sweltering heat, too tired to be afraid. Even the cicadas are quiet.

At 4:15 Getty's men charge up the road, transforming the scene into chaos. It's then that the bullets start to fly, the cannons to thunder. The waiting is over, and Liberty hears rather than sees the pitched battle commence. A choking smoke fills the air, along with the screams of the wounded and dying.

Battle of Wilderness Re-enactment

The order to charge ricochets down the line from Captain Barr, and all conscious thought evaporates except for the focused will to survive. With the Orange Plank Road clogged by artillery, the men of Company B form a line bushwhacking their way through the thickets toward the fight. Liberty's boots crunch over a litter of skulls and bones that have lain untouched since Chancellorsville.

But there's no time to feel the horror of this, for abruptly they've come up behind Wheaton's men, and can see the rebels through the trees. Reflexes take over, for now they're in the thick of things, and it's just fire and reload, fire and reload.  Bullets ping off the trees, musketfire explodes all around. Standing to shoot in the din, Liberty hears James Dowling cry out beside him, and turns, just as the ball is fired from Hill’s line, the one that will shatter his own right leg. [6]

O, Wrap the Flag Around Me Boys[7]


O, wrap the flag round me, boys,
To die were far more sweet
With freedom’s starry emblem, boys,
To be my winding sheet.
In life I loved to see it wave
And follow where it led,
But now my eyes grow dim, my hands
Would grasp its last bright shred.

O wrap the flag round me, boys,
To die were far more sweet
With freedom’s starry emblem, boys,
To be my winding sheet.

O, I had thought to greet you, boys,
On many a well won field
When to our starry banner, boys,
The traitorous foe should yield.
But now alas! I am denied
My dearest earthly prayer.
You'll follow and you'll meet the foe
But I shall not be there.


But tho my body moulder, boys,
My spirit will be free,
And ev’ry comrade's honor, boys,
Will still be dear to me.
There in the thick and bloody fight
Ne’er let your order lag,
For I'll be there and hov'ring near
Above the dear old flag.



[1] Bish, Burns, and Knox family details are derived from census and tax documents from 1840-1860. The superintendent detail is from the Bish Family genealogy website.

[2] Details from Liberty's pension records sent by the National Archives.

[3] I haven't been able to find out where Liberty was when the 1850 census was taken. Nor have I found Daniel or Ellen in that census, even though all the other children are accounted for. It is possible that Liberty joined the rush of adventurers panning for gold in California. Two of his cousins did, one named Liberty M. Burns.

[4] From Liberty's military service records. He was discharged in January of 1863 and sent back to Brookville until he re-enlisted in December. The average age of a Union soldier was 26. It was very rare to see a soldier as old as 45, even fewer as old as Liberty was at re-enlistment (47 or 48). According to civilwar.com, there were fewer than 6000 men older than 45 at enlistment. This represents about 3/10ths of 1 percent of the total number of Union soldiers.

[5] From Liberty's military service records. He was wounded on May 31, 1862, and sent to a New Haven hospital to recover. In January 1863 he was discharged, and did not rejoin his unit until early 1864.

[6] From General Hancock's after-battle report.

[7] Words to this Civil War song, composed in 1862 by Stewart Taylor, were written in a penciled autograph-style book of songs Liberty’s son Lorenzo kept.