If Robert Burns had lived for one more day, he might well have lived for another 50 years or so.
Instead, Burns, a 28-year-old Covington resident serving in the Army during World War I, was wounded on Nov. 10, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
He died the following day — the day that an armistice ending hostilities went into effect.
“That would make him one of the final casualties of the war,” said local historian Frank McGlothlin. “You think of everybody else celebrating and he’s lying there, dying.
Burns, the only Covington resident to die in combat during the war, wasn’t forgotten though.
The local American Legion post was named in Burns’ honor shortly before the return of his body from France in 1921. Burns’ picture is displayed at the entry of the legion hall on U.S. 190 Bypass.
And, on Sunday, the 100th anniversary of his death, Robert H. Burns Post 16 will place a wreath on Burns’ grave in Covington Cemetery No. 1. The wreath-laying will be part of the post's annual Veterans Day ceremonies, which will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the parish courthouse, 701 N. Columbia St.
The public, especially any of Burns’ family, is encouraged to attend. Burns was not married and left no direct descendants.
Usually, Burns is remembered with the laying of a wreath on Memorial Day.
Post 16 commander Gary Songy said that the centennial of Burns’ death made this year different.
“Memorial Day is to honor those who died in our wars, and Veterans Day is to honor all of those who served in our wars, both those who lived through them, and those who didn’t make it home,” he said. “Robert Burns gave his life for his country that others might live.
“Our members, and everyone in the community, should know who he is and honor his memory.”
Burns was the oldest child of a prominent St. Tammany citizen — Edward Burns, called Captain because he had operated a lumber dredge along the Tchefuncte River near Madisonville.
According to McGlothlin, Robert Burns worked as both a mechanic and machinist in his father’s business.
He was inducted into the Army on May 29, 1918, and, along with several other local residents, was sent to Camp Beauregard for training.
Arriving in France that fall, he joined the 32nd division of the 128th infantry, ostensibly a Wisconsin National Guard unit, as a replacement, a common practice at that stage of the war.
He was a machine-gunner and in combat for about two weeks, McGlothlin said, before he was wounded under unknown circumstances, dying the following day even as the war was ending.
His death was not a rare one.
Although an infusion of American troops had the war was going the Allies’ way — Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on Nov. 9 — the soldiers in the trenches were sent into battle until the end, even after the agreement for an armistice had been made.
American Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing was against the armistice, believing — arguably rightly so — that if the German armies were allowed to go home undefeated, they would be encouraged to fight again in the future.
But he was overruled by President Woodrow Wilson and the other Allied leaders.
So the shooting didn’t stop until 11 a.m. on Nov. 11. Burns’ actual time of death, however, is unknown.
Ironically, Burns’ father died a week later at age 53, apparently not knowing of his son’s death.
An obituary for Edward Burns in the Nov. 23, 1918, edition of the St. Tammany Farmer indicates Robert Burns was alive, along with his brother Frank, who was also in the Army.
While Robert Burns was the only Covington resident to die in combat, he was far from the only casualty from St. Tammany Parish.
According to information on the memorial on the grounds of the old courthouse on Boston Street, Burns was one of 36 servicemen from all corners to die in World War I.
Some succumbed to disease. Among that number was Capt. Cecil Anthony Neuhauser, of Slidell, who died of meningitis at Camp Beauregard.
There were brothers Sam and Van Grantham, buried together at a family cemetery in Bush, and Ruble Francis Burns, no relation to Robert Burns, who is buried in Folsom, but whose name is on the same side of the monument as Robert Burns. The two were inducted on the same day.
Also listed on the monument are the names of five black St. Tammany residents. Although the military was segregated during the war, as was Louisiana, the five are interspersed among the others without any separation or indication of their race, an unusual gesture for the time, according to McGlothlin.
Among the black servicemen listed is Louis Hair, of Florienville, a lumber community between Pearl River and Covington that no longer exists. Hair is buried in Arlington Cemetery, which had separated black and white soldiers before World War I.
It took nearly three years for Robert Burns’ body to be returned to Covington for burial in the family plot.
He and more than 80,000 other American casualties of the war had been buried in temporary battlefield graves. While there immediately was demand from the families to bring the bodies home, the British government opposed the idea because of the more than 700,000 of its dead buried in France. The French government wound up banning any body removal for at least three years.
Even Pershing and much of the American military leadership were for leaving the bodies where they were, arguing that leaving the dead with their fallen comrades offered them the greatest glory.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt objected to moving the remains of his son, Quentin, a pilot who was shot down and laid to rest with full military honors by German troops.
But public opinion persisted, and in late 1920 the French moved up the date the bodies could be disinterred.
In the end, about 46,000 soldiers were returned to the U.S. at a cost of more than $30 million, or more than $400 million in today’s dollars.
Among them was Burns, one of the 7,264 bodies aboard transports that arrived on July 10, 1921, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Pershing was there to meet the ships.
More than two weeks later, Burns’ body finally reached Covington, where he was given a military funeral organized by the local American Legion post, which just days before had voted to name itself for him.
The body lay in state at the courthouse on Boston Street, and all businesses in Covington were closed that afternoon.
Along with the American Legion, Boy Scouts from the area and a gun salute unit were part of the procession.
Farmer editor D.H. Mason called Burns “one of the heroes in the greatest war in history.”
But he added a solemn note, beginning the story by saying, “The war is over, but our dead still come home to us.
“The heroes who made the great sacrifice, the boys who slipped from the loving embrace of dear ones at home and climbed over the top of the trenches in France to meet bullet and shell and deadly gas and passed into the long sleep whose awakening no one knows, are bringing back with their bodies memories that the scarlet poppies of France hid from view as they bent low and whispered of patriotism and loyalty and bravery.”
No one, it’s been said, should die from the last bullet of the last battle of a war.
Robert Burns came close.
But, as Mason wrote, his legacy endures.