A History of the Burns Family
Home About Contents Biographies Photo Galleries Memoirs

PART ONE: Guy's Path to the Dance

CHAPTER THREE: Division Hospital

Fredericksburg, Virginia
May 12, 1864

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

Liberty feels himself going.  The surgeon had done his best under the gruesome conditions of the field hospital, but amputation was the only alternative once the Minié ball [1] had blown his thigh apart.  Chloroform rendered him unconscious during the procedure, but the wound festered and gangrene has set in. [2]

The first few days he'd been out of his mind with pain, unable to form a coherent thought. Anger, despair, terror took turns occupying his waking moments. But now he's settled, the pain absorbed into his bones and sinews. But the end is not quite here. Stretched out on a blanket in the hospital's shady yard, he lets his mind go where it will...

....To the two loves of his life, Ellen and Elizabeth, both gone far too soon, destroyed by the very process of bringing life to this earth. To the wee ones he'll never really know. To his older children who will be losing him for the second time.

Daniel will be all right. He is a man who works as well with his hands -- shoemaker, machinist, laborer -- as he does with people. He'll win Harriet's hand someday, there's no doubt about that. And the farm in Knox will be his. Mary Ellen has married to one of their old Rose neighbors, Thomas Witherow, who is a fine farmer. Joseph has showed his mettle in the war, and will find his way too, probably far from Jefferson County now that he's had a taste of the wider world. Jane's of age and will make a fine wife for some lucky young man from Knox.

It's the youngest of Ellen's he worries about. Young Liberty, now 15, will lose his father at the same age Liberty lost his. The lad is already in trouble, after the dust-up in Brookville last fall.

Court Record
From Jefferson County Court Proceedings, February 24, 1864

Sheriff Expenses
Liberty jailed

And Lizzie's little ones - Robbie, Lorenzo, Sallie, and Elmer. How will they fare without a father or a mother? Their Grandmother Burns is long gone now. Can the Bish grandparents manage all these orphans along with their own three young ones? John's health has not been good for a long while. [3]

So many lives ruined in this godforsaken war. Soon his will be just one more. And yet doesn't regret re-enlisting. Without Elizabeth, he can see no path to the future, no reason to start over even if he could. In any case, the enlistment bonus has helped the children more than his somber presence ever could.

Liberty's Re-enlistment Paper
Liberty's Discharge Papers
Liberty Civil War Pension Page One
Liberty Civil War Pension Page Two
Liberty Burns on 1866 Knox County Property Map

Suddenly, an image of the old gristmill in Juniata pops into his mind, its stolid power a testament to his father Robert's strength and skill. Does it still turn, harnessing the onrush of Lost Creek to grind wheat for whiskey? And he remembers too the bitterness of his father's final years, the suddenness of his death after all the pointless feuding over the Burns property back in Lewistown. How glad his mother had been to leave that all the acrimony behind and make a fresh start in Jefferson County. The Minie ball has spared him that long and bitter decline, any road. [4]

A breeze soughs gently through the branches, cooling his feverish skin. A lark trills from somewhere above. And then the thoughts begin to flicker, his focus blurs. With a last shuddering breath, he lets himself go. And finds a sorrowful sweetness in his deliverance. [5]

One of the most popular songs of the Civil War Era was The Vacant Chair. It takes no sides, but rather acknowledges the pain of losing a soldier regardless of which army he fought for.


The Vacant Chair

We shall meet, but we shall miss him,
there will be one vacant chair;
we shall linger to caress him
when we breathe our evening prayer.
When a year ago we gathered,
joy was in his mild blue eye;
but a golden cord is severed,
and our hopes in ruin lie.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him,
there will be one vacant chair;
we shall linger to caress him
when we breathe our evening prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely,
often will the bosom swell
at remembrance of the story,
how our noble Willie fell.
How he strove to bear our banner
thro' the thickest of the fight,
and uphold our country's honor,
in the strength of manhood's might.


True they tell us wreaths of glory
ever more will deck his brow,
but this soothes the anguish only
sweeping o'er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today, o early fallen,
in thy green and narrow bed;
dirges from the pine and cypress
mingle with the tears we shed.


Author's Note

The Battle of Wilderness raged on for two days after Liberty fell.  On the night of May 6th, with 17,000 Union soldiers dead, Ulysses S. Grant went to his tent and broke down.  He would later describe the battle as the most “desperate fighting as the world has ever seen." [6] Sergeant Dowling died there, as did General Hayes. Liberty Burns died a week after he was wounded on the battlefield, and is buried at Fredericksburg National Cemetery, in Division B, Section C, Grave 331. [7]

Liberty Grave
Liberty's resting place

Liberty knew that his son Joseph had joined the Army the same summer he had. What he could not have known is that Liberty, Jr., probably in return for reduced jail time, would enlist as a substitute with the Pennsylvania 85th, Company G, in November of 1864. [8]

Liberty Jr. Enlistment

Liberty Burns, Jr. enlists in the Pennsylvania 58th, November 18, 1864 (click to enlarge)

He would also never live to see July 1, 1865, the day an arsonist destroyed his home on Swamp Run Road. This was less than two months before President Andrew Johnson formally declared the end of the American Civil War.


[1] Fired from the .58 caliber Springfield rifle musket, the most commonly used Civil War weapon, the Minié ball could penetrate 11 inches into white pine at 200 yards.

[2] Various accounts of Liberty's demise all agree he died a week after receiving wounds to his thighs. In these conditions, his leg or legs would certainly have been amputated. The state of medical knowledge at the time of the Civil War was extremely primitive.  Doctors did not understand infection, and did little to prevent it. There were no antibiotics, and no attempt was made to maintain sterility during surgery. Minor wounds could easily become fatal ones.

[3] We do not know for sure if or how or when the Bish grandparents helped out with their orphaned grandchildren. No guardian was appointed until 1867, so they must have been with family until then. The Bishes lived near the Burns place at that time too, so it's reasonable to assume they were involved to a degree. But by 1870, census records show all of Liberty and Elizabeth's young children were living in the area with different families, and the Bishes were living with two of their own children. John Henry Bish was buried in Armstrong County, so it's possible they moved back there sometime in the 1870s.

[4] We'll learn much more about these forebears once I complete the research.

[5] When Liberty died, everyone in Jefferson County knew almost immediately.  On May 18, 1864, less than a week after Liberty Burns succumbed in Virginia, the Brookville Republican listed him as wounded “in thigh and since died.“

[6] From Kate Havelin's biography of Ulysses S. Grant, published in 2004 by Twenty-First Century Books. p. 45.

[7] From the Roster of Known Union Soldiers Buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery: " (3947)  Burns, Liberty (ROH Barnes, Alberty)  Private. Co. B, 105 Pa. Mustered in on 9 Sept., 1861, for three years. Died 12  May of wounds received 5 May, 1864, in the Wilderness Battlefield (ROH)." "ROH" means Roll of Honor. Liberty was originally misidentified as "Alberty Barnes," raising the possibility that because he was badly injured, he might not have been able to speak clearly. Only 2,473 of the 15,243 Union soldiers buried in the cemetery are identified. See Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

[8] Men could pay to get out of service, sending a "substitute" in their place.