William H. Burns was born in Toronto, Canada in 1839. He and his family moved to Wisconsin during his childhood. At the beginning of the Civil War, Burns enlisted as a sergeant in Company A, 3rd Wisconsin Infantry in Watertown, Wisconsin on April 18, 1861.
The 3rd Wisconsin was a very active unit during the first year of the war. Their first engagement was a skirmish with forces under Turner Ashby on Bolivar Heights on October 16, 1861. They fought in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862, and at Cedar Mountain in August. The battle of Antietam was particularly hard on the regiment, fighting near the Cornfield. The 3rd Wisconsin lost 27 enlisted men killed and 173 wounded of 340 engaged, as well as 8 of 12 officers wounded. Sergeant Burns, wounded slightly from a gunshot wound in the left leg during the battle, had seen enough of the infantry.
He transferred to Company C, 6th U.S. Cavalry as a private on October 23, 1862. His enlistment documents describe him with hazel eyes, brown hair, a florid complexion and 5’6” tall. He served on picket duty along the Rappahannock during the winter after training as a cavalryman in the regiment’s dismounted camp. He must have performed well, as he was promoted to corporal prior to Stoneman’s Raid in May 1863.
On June 9, 1863, Corporal Burns was again in a pitched battle, this time at Brandy Station, Virginia. His old unit was there as well, as the 3rd Wisconsin and the 2nd Massachusetts both fought on the Union right wing near Beverly Ford during the battle. Burns was again wounded, this time with a gunshot wound in the left breast. Fortunately his companions helped him from the field, and he was sent to Washington, D.C. with the other seriously wounded. After a long and difficult recovery, he was discharged because of disability from Lincoln Hospital on December 26, 1863. His disability pension was $10.14 per month.
Burns returned to Wisconsin after living briefly in St. Louis. By 1882, he was once again residing in the Milwaukee area, alternating between Wauwatosa and Milwaukee. His wound continued to cause him issues periodically, and he spent time in and out of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, North-western Branch, in Milwaukee between 1882 and 1890. He worked as a watchmaker and jeweler before and after this period.
William H. Burns died in Milwaukee in April 1913. He was survived by his wife Eliza. He is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.