Aged War of 1812 veteran and former Gettysburg constable John Burns is often reported to be the only civilian to take up arms to fight with the Union Army at Gettysburg. Such an assertion is not true, however. The 12th Massachusetts had its own “John Burns” in its ranks as it fought along the Mummasburg Road north of Gettysburg. A slender boy the soldiers estimated to be sixteen had tagged along when the regiment marched through Emmitsburg, becoming enmeshed with Company A.
He went into battle on Oak Ridge on July 1 and was wounded in the arm and thigh by Confederate fire. The boyish volunteer was carried beyond the crest of the ridge and given water. He was later taken away to a field hospital, and his comrades never heard from him again. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Cook recalled, “His very name is unknown; for he was never mustered into service.”
Cook may have never known the civilian’s name, but J. W. Weakley survived his wounds. One of eight children of an eccentric indigent mountaineer, the illiterate Weakley later enlisted in the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry. In November 1864, the unsung Gettysburg hero drowned ignominiously when he suffered an epileptic seizure and fell into in a camp cesspool.