Irish Colonels: Michael William Burns, 73rd New York Infantry

Michael William Burns was born in Ireland in 1834. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 14, and prior to the outbreak of the Civil War worked as a city inspector and a fireman. It was his connections with the fire service that led him to raise a Company to serve in the 2nd Fire Zouaves, the 73rd New York Infantry. The unit was part of Sickle’s famed Excelsior Brigade; Burns would experience four years of hard fighting with the outfit, and eventually rise to command of the regiment in 1864. (1)

The fire service was a profession that attracted a lot of Irishmen in ante-bellum New York, and it is no surprise that many went on to join regiments connected with the fire service in 1861. Burns recruited Company A of the 73rd New York from his headquarters at the Exempt Hose House in West Broadway, near Beach Street. Indeed the majority of the regiment was formed around different pre-existing fire companies, such as ‘Hose Company No. 50′, ‘Engine Company No. 20′ and ‘Hook and Ladder Company No. 15′. Burns and the men of the 73rd left New York on 8th October 1861 for Washington D.C. and they served in that city’s defences until the commencement of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. (2)

The final months of 1862 proved an extremely eventful period in Michael Burns’ life. The 73rd were heavily engaged during the fighting on the Peninsula, particularly from the Battle of Williamsburg onwards. The Irishman was captured at Gaines’ Mill on 27th June, in what was Robert E. Lee’s first victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Burns was sent to the soon to be infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, where he was confined until his exchange on 12th August. Misfortune followed him; he had been free for just over two weeks when he was shot in the left breast at Bristoe Station, Virginia on the 27th August. (3)

Michael Burns recovered from his wounds and returned to the 73rd, and a series of promotions followed. He became the regiment’s Major on 1st November 1862 and its Lieutenant-Colonel dated to 16th January 1863. Burns commanded the firemen at the Battle of Gettysburg, where 50%  of their number became casualties. Burns increasingly found himself taking charge of the New Yorkers, as Colonel William Brewster had by this point risen to brigade command. The Irishman became effective Colonel dating from 27th October 1864. (4)

Monument of the 73rd New York Infantry at Gettysburg, erected in 1897 and depicting a Union infantryman and a fireman side by side (Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Monument of the 73rd New York Infantry at Gettysburg, erected in 1897 and depicting a Union infantryman and a fireman side by side (Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Enough of the regiment re-enlisted after their initial three years service for the 73rd to become a veteran volunteer outfit. Lieutenant-Colonel Burns led the veterans back to New York on furlough, where 1,000 firemen turned out to greet them as they marched past the City Hall and the Mayor. Following this interlude it was back to the trenches of Petersburg and more heavy fighting. Burns and his men would continue to take part in the activities of the Army of the Potomac all the way through to Appomattox, and after a long war the Irishman was honourably mustered out on 29th June 1865. (5)

On 20th April 1865 Burns was included in a list compiled by Brigadier-General Regis de Trobriand of individuals worthy of brevet promotion. It recommended Burns be promoted to Colonel by brevet as he was ‘a fighter and good officer; for gallant services, especially on the night of April 1 and April 6′ (at Petersburg and Little Sailor’s Creek). The brevet was granted and dated to 6th April 1865. (6)

Following the conflict Michael Burns became a weigher in the New York Custom House, and was also heavily involved in politics in the city’s 1st District, serving for a year on the Board of Aldermen. He was later appointed harbour master, but had been in the position for just three years when he contracted meningitis and died at his home of No.58 Beach Street on 7th December 1883. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, New York (Section 6, Range 20, Plot T). (7)

(1) Hunt 2003: 60, New York State Military Museum: 73rd Infantry Regiment; (2) New York State Military Museum: 73rd Infantry Regiment: Newspaper Clippings; (3) Hunt 2003: 60, New York State Military Museum: 73rd Infantry Regiment;(4) Hunt 2003: 60, New York State Military Museum: 73rd Infantry Regiment; (5) New York State Military Museum: 73rd Infantry Regiment; (6) Official Records: 860; (7) New York Times 4th December 1883, Hunt 2003: 60;


Hunt, Roger D. 2003. Colonels in Blue: Union Army Colonels of the Civil War- New York

New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center

New York Times 4th December 1883 ‘Col. M.W. Burns Dying’  

Official Records Series 1, Volume 46 (Part 3) Chapter 58. List of officers recommended for promotion by brevet in the Third Division, Second Army Corps

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Categories: Battle of Gettysburg, Irish Colonels

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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7 Comments on “Irish Colonels: Michael William Burns, 73rd New York Infantry”

  1. November 10, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Burns was also a member of the Fenian Brotherhood of America. Burns was present at the first Canadian expedition. Since many of the Excelsior Brigade (73rd NY was one of the regiments) were recruited by Daniel Sickles a former Democratic congressman, there were many Irish and German immigrants in its ranks. Strangely enough the Democratic party in other cities recruited companies for the Excelsior Brigade. Captain Powers who was the long time captain of the Meagher Guards of Philly chose not to throw in with the 69th Pa. but became a captain in the Excelsior Brigade.

  2. Frank
    November 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Does anyone have documentation for the statement, made above, that:

    “The Irishman was captured at Gaines’ Mill on 27th June, in what was Robert E. Lee’s first victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

    I’m not sure that the 73rd NY was engaged in that fight.

    Clearly, Burns, along with the Regimental Commader Col Brewster and the Chaplain, Father O’Hagan, were captured in late June, perhaps together — but the circumstances of the capture have been very difficult to track…..



  3. November 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi Frank,

    It is certainly worth looking into a bit further- that reference is Colonels in Blue, but I think you are right about the 73rd. I will have a trawl through some of the accounts and see can I pull anything more together to clarify this.

    Kind Regards,


  4. Frank
    November 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Thanks for the response Damien.

    The following quote is something I found online, attributable to the Richmond Times Dispatch, July 1862. (exact date unspecified). Charles Denny appears to have been a member of the 73rd New York, and may have been captured together with Capt Burns, Col Brewster, and Chaplain O’Hagan. There is another story in the same issue with details on the circumstances of Father O’Hagan’s captivity — but nothing about how, when, or where they were captured.

    “Charles Denny, a member of the Sickles brigade, who was paroled at Richmond, has arrived at New York, and gives a very highly-colored ‘”experience:”’
    As he approached Richmond, the prisoner witnessed many of the rebel fortifications. He compared them in appearance to the rebel fortifications at Yorktown — works erected on high eminences, mounted with numerous heavy guns, and supplied with all the natural and artificial auxiliaries of modern warfare. Colonel Brewster, of his regiment; Father Hagan, the chaplain of his regiment; Captain Burn and Michael Burns, of company A, of the same regiment, were his fellow-prisoners. Colonel Brewster was taken to private quarters.


    • November 16, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

      Hi Frank,

      An initial look through the Official Records hasn’t clarified this for me, it is intriguing. There must be something that can provide us with a clue as to the circumstances of their capture- I will keep hunting to see if I can find anything!

      Kind Regards,



  1. Medal of Honor: First Sergeant William Jones, 73rd New York Infantry | Irish in the American Civil War - March 10, 2013

    […] and Cold Harbor. The 73rd New York was at this time commanded by William’s fellow Irishman Lieutenant-Colonel Michael W. Burns. On 9th August 1864 he recounted the actions of his men the previous May, when they had been in […]

  2. Daniel Divver: An Irish Fireman in the American Civil War | Irish in the American Civil War - October 19, 2013

    […] enlisted in these regiments; the 73rd New York was even commanded for part of the war by Irishman Colonel Michael Burns. There was no more famous body of firemen who donned uniform during the conflict than the 11th New […]

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