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This is the story of John and Eliza. It is a Civil War love story. It is also a story of war, death, disease and battle. But most of all, it is a story of the trials, triumphs and tribulations of life.
John and Eliza were both born in 1843, just two months apart, as if fated to meet and marry. But she grew up near Boston, he on a farm in western Pennsylvania. War would bring them together. John’s younger brother, Clinton, introduces us to John in his memoirs.
“As a youth, John was sturdy, strong, square-shouldered and capable of great endurance. When he was 14 years old, he took his place in the field with the men. He would not allow any man to do more work than he.”
When John turned 18, he enrolled in nearby Waynesburg College. Years later, Clinton described the encircling circumstances that would soon sweep John away from his studies — “The election of Abraham Lincoln — the gathering of war clouds — the storm burst in all its fury.”
John and his fellow students, even their professors, soon formed the core of the 140th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Events moved quickly. Clinton’s memoirs take us to Gettysburg.
“John celebrated his 20th birthday, July 2, 1863, in the awful battle of Gettysburg. He was in the wheat field where men were mowed down by the thousand. Of his regiment’s 500 men, 367 were killed or wounded. His general, colonel, captain and lieutenant were all killed or seriously wounded. Thus my brother John came out of the battle in charge of his company.”
No greater courage nor carnage occurred at Gettysburg than in the wheat field and a rock-studded slope on its western edge. The wheat field ran red with blood as Union and Confederate forces drove each other back and forth in battle, bodies of both armies being strewn across the field and onto the rocky slope beyond. Late-afternoon darkness and thick black smoke from cannon fire reduced visibility to near zero, men firing their weapons blindly at times. An astronomy professor turned soldier, realizing he was in charge of John’s regiment by default, gave a command to retreat when Confederate reinforcements came pouring over the ridge and down the slope.
A regimental history states: “One of the last to retreat was Sgt. Burns since he did not hear the order to fall back. Starting back through the tangled wheat and with bullets whistling past him, he heard a Confederate soldier shout ‘Halt, you damned Yank.’ The trampled wheat would trip him and down he would fall, but up and on again. At last, he was exhausted, and, his breath failing, he fell again and was unable to rise. But looking through the ripening wheat, he saw the Union line of battle just a few feet in front of him. His breath returning, he arose and plunged forward, falling exhausted just behind the battle line.”
Six months later, Clinton’s memoirs: “John was detached from his company to secure recruits. Coming through Baltimore, he missed his train and was compelled to lie over, using the extra day to visit one of his men in a field hospital. A box was being distributed to the men from the Women’s Christian Commission of Quincy, Massachusetts.
“A letter which accompanied the care package was shown to my brother. It was beautifully written — in penmanship, in the style of composition and in the thoughts which it contained.”
John, on behalf of the army, answered the letter. He, too, was smitten by the letter’s tenderness of word and thought, and a courtship by correspondence ensued with the young woman who had written the letter — Eliza Hardwick of Quincy, a music teacher and milliner who lived with her parents and a bachelor brother.
John was a changed man after the war. Clinton wrote: “The war had made a deep impression on John. The awful wickedness he had seen daily awakened the deepest religious feelings of his soul, and he determined to enter the Christian ministry that he might teach men the gospel of peace and good will.”
The religious pull on John now coexisted with his feelings for Eliza, a woman he had yet to meet face to face and knew only from the tenderness, eloquence and content of her writings. Their courtship by correspondence continued for the next six years as John resumed his studies at Waynesburg College and then transferred to Monmouth College in Illinois to finish his degree and enroll in the seminary.
Capt. John Burns and Eliza Hardwick were wed in Quincy in September 1871. They took the train from Boston to Chicago and on to Monmouth for his final year of seminary, after which he became the minister of a small church in rural Iowa. This congregation described John as “a young man who had been captain of his company in the war but gave up his commission and sword to take up the banner of his Savior.”
In 1872, John and Eliza had a daughter, naming her Bessie Lincoln Burns. In 1876, John became minister of a much larger church in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But, sadly, two years later he contracted Bright’s Disease, a deadly kidney disease, and passed away in 1878 at age 34. Few men have led a more admirable life.
Eliiza and Bessie moved back to her childhood home at 45 Granite St. in Quincy. Bessie went to college, married and moved on. Eliza passed away at the Granite Street house in 1928, age 85. Her love for John never wavered.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.