As part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s spring campaign of 1864, two Union forces were to attack the Shenandoah Valley.
Brig. Gen. George Crook was to advance from West Virginia, attacking Dublin Depot and cutting the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad by burning the New River Bridge. Crook’s column then would march down the valley, heading north toward Harpers Ferry. Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel was to attack south up the valley to link up with Crook. Crook succeeded in his mission to destroy the New River Bridge after winning a short but bloody victory at Cloyd’s Mountain. Based upon rumors of Confederate forces approaching from the east, however, Crook retired back to West Virginia, leaving Sigel to face a Confederate force under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge.
Sigel and Breckenridge finally met at the little town of New Market, on the east side of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Sigel, a political general with little gift for command, was no match for the aggressive Breckenridge. After a hard fight, Sigel’s timid generalship squandered what should have been a Union victory. The Battle of New Market also became famous for the legendary attack of the cadets from the nearby Virginia Military Institute.
One Union soldier stood out on that battlefield — he was Sgt. James Madison Burns of the 1st West Virginia Infantry. Burns was just 16 years old when he enlisted in Company B at the beginning of the war, and he was promoted to sergeant on Nov. 1, 1863. He was a veteran soldier who already had participated in 11 engagements before New Market. By the end of the Civil War, he had fought in 19 major battles and 42 other engagements in which men were killed.
During New Market, the 1st West Virginia advanced beyond the main Union battle line but was forced to fall back under the furious Confederate assault. The Confederates pressed the regiment, and a savage fight ensued over the U.S. national colors. “Our army was defeated, and while falling back, the colors were in great danger of being captured,” Burns recalled. He rallied a few men and saved the colors from falling into the hands of the enemy.
Col. Henry J. Johnson, adjutant of the 1st West Virginia, recalled, “Burns bore the colors, amid a shower of bullets, to a place of safety within our reforming lines.” Burns was wounded during this action, but his heroics were not over.
During the fight for the colors, Pvt. Travilla A. Russell was wounded severely. Despite his own wounds, Burns “went back between the contending lines and assisted off the field one of his comrades who had been stricken down badly wounded,” Johnson said.
Russell would testify later: “In this part of the engagement I was severely wounded, and lying helpless on the field I called for aid.” Burns, he continued, “hearing my call, returned in the face of a hot fire from the enemy and assisted me from the field of battle and saved me from capture.”
In his own account of the action, Burns later remembered that he “was never under a heavier fire” than in those few telling moments. Burn’s bravery was observed by the men of both sides, and in one of those unique American moments, “His conduct received ringing cheers from the men of both armies who witnessed the brave deed.”
Burns’ official Medal of Honor citation reads: “Under a heavy fire of musketry he rallied a few men to the support of the colors, in danger of capture and bore them to a place of safety. One of his comrades having been severely wounded in the effort, Sergeant Burns went back a hundred yards, in the face of the enemy’s fire, and carried the wounded man from the field.”
Burns continued to serve with distinction in the regiment until the end of the Civil War. After the war, he applied for a regular commission and was appointed a second lieutenant in the 17th U.S. Infantry on Sept. 21, 1867. Burns was first assigned to the Department of Texas, where he served from 1867 to 1869 on Indian campaigns in the northern Texas and Indian Territories against hostile Comanche and Kiowa Indians.
After a short tour in Richmond, Burns was again stationed out West in 1870, this time in the Department of the Dakotas. By 1872, Burns was commander of an escort party for the chief engineers working on the Northern Pacific Railroad from Fort Rice to the badlands of the Missouri River. The party was caught in a blizzard, and the whole command was given up for lost. Yet they emerged from the ordeal. Chief Engineer Lindsey reported that the exertions of Lt. Burns saved the entire party.
Burns continued to serve throughout the Indian Wars as an engineer, guide and protector of the men who were opening up the West. He participated in expeditions to the Yellowstone and Muscle Shoals rivers during the summer of 1873 and was the engineer officer who built what would become Custer’s Trail. In the spring of 1876, he was the quartermaster officer at Fort Abraham Lincoln, supplying the troops of Gens. Alfred H. Terry and George A. Custer during that campaign against the Sioux.
Despite increasingly fragile health caused by his old wounds from the Civil War, Burns continued to serve his country and very nearly was sent to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. He was still with the 17th Infantry when that regiment was ordered overseas. At the last moment, however, Burns was transferred to the 7th U.S. Infantry and assisted in organizing Ohio National Guard troops for the Spanish-American War.
Burns finally retired in 1899 because of disability from his old wounds. Col. Henry Johnson summed up the career of James Madison Burns with the observation, “No braver, truer, more honorable man ever donned a uniform. He enlisted as a young man, quite early, and served till the close of the war, acquitting himself of his arduous and sometimes dangerous duties with creditable distinction.”
The story of this remarkable officer is one that needs to be told again to a new generation of Americans and to the soldiers who serve them on “arduous and sometimes dangerous duties.”
Darl Stephenson is the author of “Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts.”