“A Woman of Good Moral Character” John Burns Pension

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

On September 7, 1862, the men of the 86th Illinois marched out of the gates of Camp Lyon, through the streets of Peoria with great fanfare to the train depot. There they joined the 85th and boarded the train for Camp Joe Holt, Jefferson, Indiana. Among the men in the 86th was 20 year old John W. Burns. Described as being 5′ 8″ in height with light complexion, dark hair and hazel eyes, John had volunteered a month earlier with the Union army. He listed his  occupation as a farmer.

Six days before he left, on September 1st, 1862, he married Zelpha L. “Lucy” Roberts in front of Justice of the Peace T. Baldwin in Marshall County, Ill.  According to later statements they had known each other since childhood.

Certificate of Record of Marriage, John W. Burns Civil War Pension File.

Three weeks later, John was a part of Col. Daniel McCook’s Brigade pursuing Confederate soldiers. At the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, the 86th Ill suffered their first casualties.

Over the next two and a half years Private John W. Burns was witness to and a participant in numerous battles, including some of the bloodiest fighting in the Western Theatre including the Battles of Chicakauga, Resaca, Rome, Peach Tree Creek  all in Georgia, and Aversborough, N. Carolina. John was also along with Sherman on his infamous “March to the Sea.”

Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Toward the end of the Civil War, John was injured and sent to a hospital near Camp Butler, Springfield, Ill. PVT John W. Burns was discharged on May 2, 1865 and he returned to his home in Marshall County, Ill. He picked up the pieces of his life with his wife and resumed farming. John and Lucy had one child, Herbert H. Burns, born September 21, 1865.

The Burns family came to Harvey County, Ks in 1877 and settled to farm two miles northwest of Sedgwick, Ks.

There are not many clues as to what kind of person John Burns was prior to volunteering for the Union Army, but his time fighting had an affect on him.  By the mid-1880s, Burns began to have difficulties as a result of injuries received during the war including rheumatism.  He also became violent toward his wife, Lucy.

In 1892-3, he applied for a pension. The list of ailments that John Burns suffered from was included in his file. Sunstroke which happened “on or near Marietta, GA, June of 1864”  and resulted in many problems including derangement, vertigo, disease of brain, heart paralysis. Scurvy and rheumatism in the summer of 1864 also caused problems later in life.

John W. Burns List of Afflictions

In March 1893, he began receiving a pension of $30.00 a month “on account of disease of heart and nervous system, result of severe stroke . . . and rheumatism.” 

“Is not Inclined to Take his Incarceration Easily”

January 1, 1899, Lucy left their home in fear for her life in the middle of the night. The story of the abuse endured by Lucy was chronicled in John W. Burns’ Pension File.  Between the documents in the file and the newspaper, a very grim story emerges of the last years of John’s life.

On April 10, 1902,  Burns was judged to be insane. Since Harvey County did not have a facility that could take proper care of him, John stayed at Axtell Hospital where a male nurse was with him constantly. The Evening Kansan Republican concluded that “Mr. Burns is not inclined to take his incarceration easily and at times makes trouble for the attendants.”

At the end of April, he was transferred to the Asylum in Topeka, where he died a short time later on April 26, 1902. His obituary noted that he was one of the earliest settlers of Harvey County, an “old soldier” and “a well known character . . . however in the last years of his life he was afflicted with poor health and under the strain his mind gave way.” (Evening Kansan Republican,  26 April 1902.)

I am the lawful widow of John W. Burns”

As the widow of John Burn, Lucy Burns was eligible to continue to receive his pension. However, she had to have documented proof that she was “the lawful widow of John W. Burns.”

The pension file of John W. Burns tells the tale of a mentally ill man and the abuse endured by his wife.

Lucy Burns, 55 years old, described the events that led her to separate from her husband in 1899.

“My husband, John W. Burns, commenced to abuse and ill treat me some two or three years ago. . . .One night in December 1896, he walks the floor all night long with a flat iron in his hand and he threatens to kill me. He has not supported me for the past fifteen years . . . the night I finally left him was January 1st, 1899, he pounded me with his fist and he threw me out of the house and then locks the door, so that I could not  get in.” 

Mrs. Burns went to a neighbors and did not go back.

“I am the wife of their only son”

Lucy’s daughter in law supported Lucy. Kate Burns, age 31, noted that she had known John and Lucy Burns for thirteen years. She stated;

John W. Burns has been abusive to his wife during the entire time I have known them.  He often beat and pounded her, she has come to my house at midnight, often earlier to escape a beating. He has not supported her since I have known them.  She made a living by taking in sewing. . . He often swore at his wife and struck her in the face and blackened her eyes.  He would frequently pull hand full of hair out of her head. On a number of occasions, he threatened to kill her. His treatment finally became so bad bad she was compelled to leave him for her own safety. ” 

Initially, he kept possession of the house, but later moved to Newton. After he moved to Newton, Lucy returned to the Sedgwick area to be near her son and daughter-in-law. During the time of separation, and even prior, Lucy Burns had provide for herself working as a seamstress.  Witness statements in the pension file noted that the only thing that her husband had provided for her in thirteen years was a cloak.

Family members from Illinois also sent statements.

Statement from William Roberts.

In all the statements Lucy Burns was described as “a woman of good moral character,” who although living separated from her husband for her safety, was his lawful wife.  She never divorced him, or married another. She was deserving of the widows pension.

Lucy Burns died 14 November 1915 at the age of 72.

Sedgwick Pantagraph, 18 November 1915

The Old Soldier

John Burns was not alone among Civil War veterans from suffering lingering effects of what he saw and did during the war. Witness statements from people that knew him and his wife since childhood do not hint at violent behavior prior to the mid 1880s.  So what caused John Burns to become an abusive husband.

Some Civil War historians have looked into the idea that some of these men may have suffered from what  today is labeled PTSD. In the early 20th century, however, men with suffering from PTSD were diagnosed  with derangement, a feeble mind, insane. How to care for them was a complete unknown other than to send them  to a hospital that could handle the insane.

Burns was  not the only Civil War Veteran to be declared insane. One historian, Eric Dean studied admissions to the Indiana Hospital for the Insane and discovered 291 Civil War veterans were admitted many with violent and erratic behavior or acute panic attacks and  suicidal thoughts. Dean attributed this to the trauma experienced either in battle or in prisons. For many “old soldiers” of the Civil War, it never quite ended. Even though he returned physically, John W. Burns’ emotional injuries took a toll on both himself and his family in later years.


  • Burns, John W. File. The John C. Johnston Collection of Civil War Pensions, HCHM Archives.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 24 April 1902, 25 April 1902, 26 April 1902.
  • Sedgwick Pantagraph: 18 November 1915.
  • Information on John W. Burns’ Civil War Record courtesy Baxter B. Fite III on Find A Grave and via e-mail with author.
  • Horwitz, Tony. “Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?” Smithsonian Magazine January 2015.

This blog post is part of a Heritage Grant from Humanities Kansas to digitize the John C. Johnston Civil War Pension Collection. As part of the project HCHM, seeks to tell the stories of these men and their families.

Humanities Kansas is an independent nonprofit spearheading a movement of ideas to
empower the people of Kansas to strengthen their communities and our democracy. Since
1972, our pioneering programming, grants, and partnerships have documented and shared
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lives and serve the communities and state we all proudly call home. Visit humanitieskansas.org.

Carried in Battle: Bessmer’s Briefcase

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Many of the men that settled in Harvey County in the 1870s-1880s were Civil War veterans. Most were former Union soldiers, although a few, like R.M. Spivey, had fought for the South.

Unknown, 1861-1865.

At the close of the War, soldiers from both sides returned to everyday life.  For some, this meant establishing homesteads in the west.

John George Bessmer was born in Germany in March 1841.  He came to the United States at the age of 12 and settled in New York.

Bessmer was 20 years old in September 1861 when he joined Co H, 56th New York Infantry of the Union Army. For the next four years, he fought under the command of General McClellan and later Gilmore.  Bessmer was involved in several battles, including “the battle of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’ battles.”  He “took part in the capture of forts Wagner and Gregg and the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. . . and several minor engagements in South Carolina.”

He carried this briefcase with him throughout his time with the Union Army.

Briefcase belonged to J. George Bessmer, carried during the Civil War, 1861-1865.

Bessmer’s Briefcase.

J. George Bessemer, Co H 56th New York Infantry, 1861-1865.

Following the Civil War, Bessmer returned to New York.  He married  Rosina Kautz, also from New York, on December 5, 1867.  The couple had seven children; 2 sons and five daughters.  In March 1882, the family came to Harvey County, Kansas, settling on a farmstead in Emma Township, near Hesston,  previously owned by his brother Michael Bessmer.

The Bessmer family moved to Newton in 1908. George Bessmer passed away at his Newton home, 1211 N. Main, in the early morning hours on May 22, 1915.

His obituary noted that “he did not belong to any fraternal orders except Judson Kilpatrick Post No. 36, always preferring the quiet and duties of home above all else.”


  • Newton Daily Republican: 22 July 1888, 2 January 1889, 19 December 1893.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 22 January 1906, 4 September 1907, 10 February 1908, 24 August 1909, 11 September 1909, 27 April 1911, 22 May 1915, 25 May 1915, 14 July 1915, 13 January 1921, 13 May 1921, 9 June 1922
  • https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/56thInf/56thInfMain.htm
  • http://minisinkvalleygenealogy.blogspot.com/2014/09/co-h-124th-new-york-infantry-regt-in.html

Henry Brunner Was Among Them

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Sometimes a name just keeps popping up in research.  Maybe never exactly part of the action, but an observer or commentator.  Henry Brunner seems to have been such a man.

In his later years,  Brunner periodically wrote letters to the Evening Kansas Republican describing the early years of Newton or correcting the  possible mistakes of others.

“I have read in your paper, which I have been taking since the Kansan’s first issue, about the very few now remaining of the 1871 residents in Newton. . . . I know from my diary that May 19, 1871 there arrived on the townsite of Newton Captain Dave Payne, who boarded with me at the Santa Fe House during the winter of 1871-72.”


Henry Brunner, 1904. Republican National Convention of 1904.

Henry Brunner, 1904. Republican National Convention of 1904.

Heinrich ‘Henry’ Brunner was born in Germany 27 January 1842.  He immigrated to the U.S. in approximately 1855 with his parents.   Brunner enlisted on 24 April 1861 and served with the Union Army, Company M, 1st West Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War. He mustered out 5 November  1861. During this time, he married Mary U. Leppart and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In 1871, Brunner arrived in Harvey County, initially settling on a homestead on Section 24, Emma Township.  He left his family behind until he could earn sufficient funds to bring them to Kansas.  His family had joined him by July 1872 when his son, Henry L. Brunner was born in Newton.  He was reportedly the “first baby boy born on the town site.” In 1875, Brunner opened a small grocery, called the “Blue Front,” and the venture met with “greater success . . . than he had anticipated.” Ill health forced him to retire from the business in 1881.  At some point in the 1880s, he built a popular skating rink on “West Sixth street opposite the Presbyterian church” which was torn down in 1895.

By 1888, Brunner was again in business, this time opening a  hardware store at 708 Main, Newton, Ks. The December 31, 1887 issue of the Evening Kansan noted that

“Here is another instance of fortune’s favor.  Mr. Brunner came here as poor as Job’s turkey, without friends, and without any earthly assistance except his own hands and his strong will power.  He labored earnestly and zealously . . . Mr’ B’s Newton possessions to-day are alone worth thousands of dollars . . . He is an honest, reliable and trustworthy business man, in whom the confidence of the public is placed.”

Poor health continued to plague Brunner. In 1895, at the age of 53, he moved to Fitzgerald, Georgia.   Fitzgerald, Georgia was sometimes referred to as “the Colony,” and it was the dream of Philander H. Fitzgerald. He wanted to create a colony for Union veterans and families in the South where they could “spend remaining days in a milder climate.”  Brunner apparently thrived in the Colony where he was “an influential businessman” running a successful restaurant.

In March 1903, Mary U. Brunner filed for divorce in Harvey County.  She died in 1910 and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Harvey County. The couple had four sons. At some point, Brunner married for a second time.  Her name was Harriet Alice Cole Goodman Brunner.

It was during his time in Fitzgerald that he frequently sent letters to the Newton paper commenting on events that he remembered. On 11 August 1909 he offered correction on the location of two wells.

“Dear Sir:  While reading from this distance in the Weekly Kansan-Republican of the two public wells now obscure on Main street . . . found several errors, but was watching for the errors to be corrected . . . seeing none I deem it but a privileged to step up and speak out, since I was at that time a part of the early pioneers and on the spot to observe.

The first well dug at the intersection of Sixth and Main.  It was dug by Joe Rynearson and Henry Andrews.  Everybody knew Laughing Joe and Silent Andrews.  But the first water on the old town site was a weak spring in the northeast corner of Military park . . .it was tiled off and covered up later. . . The well on Fifth and Main was finally started and dug by ‘Oklahoma Payne.'”   Evening Kansan Republican, 17 September 1909, p. 3.

Last surviving Union veterans in Fitzgerald, GA, 1923. Henry Brunner, John Butcher, J.N. Howder, Ron McGregor. Photo courtesy Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.

Last surviving Union veterans in Fitzgerald, GA, 1932. Henry Brunner, John Butcher, J.N. Howder, Ron McGregor. Photo courtesy Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.

Brunner was compelled to set the record straight again in 1915.

“Henry Brunner writes the Kansan from Fitzgerald, Ga., that he is entitled to be in the list of old settlers published by the Kansan.  . .. [he] can tell much of the early day history of Newton.  He stated that Capt Payne used to board with him when he ran the ‘Santa Fe House’ He saw the first marshal of Newton killed by a man by the name of Bailey . . .”

Evening Kansan Republican, 9 February 1915

Evening Kansan Republican, 9 February 1915

He shared  reminiscences about the first school.

Evening Kansan Republican, 3 June 1919

Evening Kansan Republican, 3 June 1919

Brunner was the last surviving Union veteran in the Fitzgerald Colony when he died at the age of 98 October 30, 1940.

Last Salute: William J. Bush and Henry Brunner at Evergreen Cemetery Fitzgerald, 1937. Photo courtesy Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.

Last Salute: William J. Bush and Henry Brunner at Evergreen Cemetery Fitzgerald, 1937. Photo courtesy Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.


Henry Brunner Grave Evergreen Cemetery, Fitzgerald, Ben Hill County Georgia.

His obituary in the Evening Kansan Republican  noted that Brunner reportedly purchased the very first copy of the first Kansan printed in August 1872. He also had the “distinction of being a life subscriber to the weekly newspaper published by the Kansan Printing company.”

Thanks to Billi Jo Wilson, former  Historic Preservation Planner, Newton/North Newton Preservation, for sharing the tidbits that she ran across related to Brunner in her research.


  • Newton Daily Republican:  22 June 1888, 7 December 1889, 3 February 1890,  31 July 1895, 2 October 1895.
  • Newton Evening Republican: 31 December 1887, p. 6.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 26 June 1900, 24 December 1900,  18 October 1902, 13 May 1903, 17 August 1907, 17 September 1909, 9 January 1913, 2 October 1914, 9 February 1915, 3 June 1919, 1 April 1921, 2 November 1940.
  • Newton Kansan: 2 December 1967 (Henry L. Brunner)
  • Harvey County Early Settlers: Settlers Cards in Metal File Box, HCHM Archives.
  • Divorce Index: Brunner , Mary U. vs Henry.  Case #6049, 31 March 1903, Vol. Y, p. 312.
  • U.S. Census: 1880
  • “Henry Brunner” Find A Grave #71584572 & 18515473
  • Seegmueller, Tom.  “A Surprising Past” Southwest Georgia Living, May/June 2013.