John H. Burnett, senator, soldier, and executive, was born in Greene County, Tennessee, on July 8, 1830, the son of Silas E. and Malinda (Howell) Burnett, both of whom were natives of Virginia. He was reared in Summerville, Chattooga County, Georgia. During the Mexican War he enlisted in Lt. Col. James S. Calhoun's battalion of the Georgia mounted volunteers, a part of Gen. Winfield Scott's army. He was in several engagements, including the storming of the castle of Chapultepec, was twice slightly wounded, and before the end of the campaign was promoted to lieutenant. After the war Burnett was made a colonel in the Georgia militia. He also was elected sheriff of Chattooga County, Georgia, at the early age of twenty-one and served for two years.
In 1854 he moved to Crockett, Texas, where he engaged in farming and merchandising. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1857. In August 1861 he was elected a member of the Texas Senate from Houston, Anderson, and Trinity counties. He served until February 1862, when he resigned to command the Thirteenth Texas Cavalry. His senatorial colleague, Anderson F. Crawford of Jasper County, became the lieutenant colonel of the regiment, which was soon dismounted and attached to the first brigade of John G. Walker's Texas Division. In November 1863, after service in Arkansas and Louisiana, Burnett was transferred by medical recommendation to post duty, and he never again commanded his regiment in the field. He resigned his commission in April 1864 because of continuing illness and disability.
He returned to Crockett after the war, then in 1866 moved to Galveston and became a partner with W. B. Wall in the commission business. By 1875 his firm, J. H. Burnett and Company, was doing general contracting and building as well as brokering cotton. The firm was one of the contractors for the third and last Tremont Hotel, completed about 1880. It built the Gulf City Street Railway, added seventy miles to the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, and contracted for $350,000 worth of Galveston streets and sidewalks. For a number of years Burnett was president and director of the Galveston National Bank and a large stockholder in several railroads. In 1899 he moved to Houston, where he had acquired extensive real estate holdings, and became president of the Planters and Merchants Bank. He was thought to be one of the largest taxpayers in South Texas at the time of his death, when his estate was appraised at more than a million dollars. In 1851 Burnett married Catherine Beavers, daughter of Gen. John F. Beavers of Summerville, Georgia. They had three children. Burnett died on June 24, 1901, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery, Houston.