June 25, 2011
Burlington Cunningham was nicknamed “Burl” by his comrades. He enlisted as a private in Company K, 19th Indiana Infantry on July 29, 1861. The 19th became a part of the famous Iron Brigade. At the Battle of Antietam, where the Iron Brigade helped earn the sobriquet they would carry through the war, Cunningham, who was wounded, rescued a color of his regiment from the field. His reward was promotion to corporal on September 25, 1862 and the honor of carrying the regiment’s national colors (a Union infantry regiment was authorized to carry a national and state color in action).
On the morning of July 1 Cunningham and his regiment were advancing up the slope of Eastern McPherson’s Ridge, almost exactly where Tristram Campbell and Henry James would die several hours later. There were reports the enemy were directly in front on the other side of the slope. The colors of the 19th were furled and cased. A passing staff officer called out to Cunningham not to unfurl the flag, probably so that it did not draw fire upon the regiment before it was fully formed. But as the regiment moved from column to line of battle Cunningham decided to ignore the staff officer and asked his comrade in the color guard, Abe Buckles, to uncase the colors. Cunningham shook the flag free and immediately drew heavy fire from Confederates of General James Archer’s brigade on the western slope of the ridge. One bullet hit Cunningham in his side and he fell in farmer John Herbst’s wheat field, unconscious. Buckles picked up the flag and the battle swept on.
Following the Iron Brigade’s defeat of Archer’s brigade, stretcher parties ignored Cunningham since they thought he was dead. But he was not. He woke up several hours after the morning action subsided and made his way to the rear for medical attention, probably at the Lutheran Seminary, which was the closest field hospital. But rather than remaining at the hospital, once his wound was bandaged Cunningham made his way back to his regiment, now positioned on the southwestern corner of Herbst Woods, and asked Abe Buckles to return the flag to him. We can only imagine the surprise of his comrades who believed Cunningham dead to see him walk back up and ask Abe Buckles to return the national color to him.
Around 2:30 p.m. the Confederates of General James J. Pettigrew’s North Carolina brigade attacked the Iron Brigade and some of the most desperate fighting of the entire Battle of Gettysburg ensued. One of the early casualties in the 19th Indiana was Cunningham, who was hit again, this time a severe wound in the right leg. Abe Buckles took the color for a second time that day but he too was wounded minutes later.
Cunningham fell into Confederate hands temporarily when they overran his regiment’s initial position. After the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg he was evacuated to a hospital in Harrisburg to convalesce for the next five months. He met Private William L. Bingamon, of the 20th Pennsylvania Cavalry, while he was here and the two men had their photograph taken some time in November or December, after Cunningham’s promotion to sergeant on November 1, 1863.
“Burl” was a tough nut and despite his three wounds in the war he served out his enlistment in the 19th, was discharged in July 1864, and returned home. He eventually moved to Nebraska where he died in 1930.