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A Look Back: Celebrated Firearms From American History


July is an important month in American history. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the armies of Gen. George G. Meade and Gen. Robert E. Lee battled around the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle is considered to be one of the main turning points of the American Civil War. To commemorate this significant month in American history, I will be sharing five celebrated firearms associated with the American Revolution and the American Civil War.

The Hero of Gettysburg

On the morning of July 1, 1863, John Lawrence Burns, a 69-year-old citizen of Gettysburg, grabbed an old flintlock musket, put on a black top hat and headed toward the sound of gunfire. When he reached the front, the old man swapped his antiqued musket for a more modern rifle. He fought alongside the 7th Wisconsin Infantry at John Herbst’s woodlot. Burns was wounded during the intense fighting. He survived the ordeal and became a national celebrity.

After Gettysburg, photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan snapped a photo of Burns with his crutches and the musket he carried into the battle. That flintlock musket is currently on display at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

‘The Shot Heard Round The World’

On the morning of April 19, 1775, at Lexington, Massachusetts, 77 militiamen confronted roughly 800 British regulars. Captain John Parker, a 45-year-old veteran of the French and Indian War, commanded the militiamen. He intended to delay the column headed toward the town of Concord. Someone fired a single shot — no one knows for sure who — and a battle ensued. Within two minutes, eight of the militiamen were dead. The British continued their advance but were defeated at Concord later that day. The two engagements sparked the Revolutionary War.

Two muskets owned by Captain Parker hang in the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber: one of them the musket Parker reportedly carried at Lexington, and the other a captured British musket.

Chamberlain’s Captured Revolver

The efforts of Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the soldiers of the 20th Maine during the Battle of Gettysburg are the stuff of legend. The 358 soldiers secured the extreme left flank of the Union army after a bayonet charge, helping to secure victory in this monumental battle.

A number of Chamberlain artifacts are on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, Maine. One of the most noteworthy (and fascinating) is a Navy Colt revolver. Chamberlain captured this from a Confederate officer at Little Round Top. The enemy officer took a shot at his face but missed. Chamberlain then captured the man at the point of his sword. He retained the officer’s surrendered pistol as a souvenir and would tell visitors about his near-death experience.

The Lafayette/Washington Pistols

In 1779, Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette presented a pair of ornate saddle pistols to his friend and the commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. Washington allegedly carried the pair with him at Valley Forge, Monmouth, Yorktown and during the Whiskey Rebellion. He held on to the cherished gift until his death in December 1799. Years later, Congressman Charles F. Mercer, at the request of a Washington family member, presented the set to Andrew Jackson in 1824. Jackson declared the pistols to be “sacred and holy relics.” Upon his own death in 1845, Jackson bequeathed them to Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette.

The pistols went up for auction at Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales in January 2002 and sold for $1.986 million. The Richard King Mellon Foundation purchased the pair and donated them to Fort Ligonier, located in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. These rare pistols are now on display at the museum.

The First Shot At Bunker Hill

On June 17, 1775, British infantrymen launched their assault at Breed’s Hills, overlooking Boston. Entrenched militiamen under the command of Col. William Prescott defended it. Among the Americans was Pvt. John Simpson of Deerfield, New Hampshire. Despite Prescott ordering his men to hold fire “till you see the whites of their eyes,” Simpson disobeyed and discharged his musket. This was the first shot fired in one of America’s most famous battles.

Simpson’s musket remained in his family for 244 years. It went up for auction with Morphy Auctions in October 2019. An undisclosed individual purchased it for $480,000. The anonymous buyer has loaned the historic firearm to the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Wyoming.

Road Trip?

Fortunately, most of these celebrated firearms in American history — and others not mentioned here — are on display to the public. When things return to normal, consider planning a family vacation to visit these historic firearms. It’s a great way to learn something about our history while also supporting the institutions preserving them.

About Frank Jastrzembski

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Frank Jastrzembski is an associate editor with Delta Defense, LLC. He studied history at John Carroll University (B.A.) and Cleveland State University (M.A.). He’s written dozens of history and travel articles and two books on Victorian officers. He’s also a regular contributor to the blog Emerging Civil War. He runs “Shrouded Veterans,” a nonprofit mission to identify or repair the graves of Mexican War and Civil War veterans.

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