Ambrose Everett Burnside (May 23, 1824 – September 13, 1881) was an American railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a U.S. Senator. As a Union Army general in the American Civil War, he conducted successful campaigns in North Carolina and East Tennessee, but was defeated in the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg and Battle of the Crater. His distinctive style of facial hair is now known as sideburns, derived from his last name. Burnside was not the most apt general to take the field during the Civil War, but he, more than anyone, seemed to be aware of his shortcomings and was willing to submit to resignation if need be for the greater good of the army. The Civil War in America left deep scars on both sides, due to the fact that many families were split over the conflict. The South, in defeat, was bitter and resentful. The task that America faced, for its very survival as a single nation, was to heal the wounds of war and to reunify around the nation’s founding vision. Burnside, whose side won, helped to ensure that the nation remained unified, since if the South had won, the Confederacy would have continued as separately governed states. Yet, in his own defeats at Fredericksburg and in the Battle of the Crater, Burnside also helped to ensure that the side that lost retained some pride. Without this, the healing of the wounds and the process of Reconstruction would have been much more difficult than it was.
Early life and career
Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, the fourth of nine children of Edghill and Pamela (or Pamilia) Brown Burnside, a family of Scottish origin. His father, a native of South Carolina, was a slave owner who freed his slaves when he relocated to Indiana. Ambrose attended Liberty Seminary as a young boy, but his education was interrupted when his mother died in 1841 and he was apprenticed to a local tailor, eventually becoming a partner in the business. His interest in military affairs and his father’s political connections obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1843. He graduated in 1847, ranking 18th in a class of 38, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He traveled to Veracruz for the Mexican-American War, but arrived after hostilities ceased and performed mostly garrison duty around Mexico City.
At the close of the war, Lt. Burnside served two years on the western frontier, serving under Captain Braxton Bragg in the 3rd U.S. Artillery, a light artillery unit that had been converted to cavalry duty, protecting the Western mail routes through Nevada to California. In 1849, he was wounded by an arrow in his neck during a skirmish against Apaches in Las Vegas, New Mexico. In 1852, he was appointed to the command of Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island, and, while there, he married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, on April 27. The marriage, which lasted until Burnside’s death, was childless.
In 1853, Burnside resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, although maintaining a position in the state militia, and devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous rifle that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. The Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, John B. Floyd, contracted with the Burnside Arms Company to equip a large portion of the Army with his carbine, and induced him to establish extensive factories for its manufacture. The Bristol Rifle Works were no sooner complete than another gunmaker allegedly bribed Floyd to break his $100,000 contract with Burnside. Burnside ran as a Democrat for one of the Congressional seats in Rhode Island in 1858 and was defeated in a landslide. The burdens of the campaign and the destruction by fire of his factory also contributed to his financial ruin and he was forced to assign his firearm patents to others. He went west in search of employment and became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he worked for, and became friendly with, one of his future commanding officers, George B. McClellan from an office in New York.
First Bull Run
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised a regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. Within a month, he ascended to brigade command in the Department of Northeast Virginia. He commanded the brigade without distinction at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, committing his troops piecemeal, taking over division command temporarily for wounded Brig. Gen. David Hunter. After his 90-day regiment was mustered out of service, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 6, and was assigned to train provisional brigades in the nascent Army of the Potomac.
Burnside commanded the Coast Division, or North Carolina Expeditionary Force, three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps, and the Department of North Carolina, from September 1861 until July 1862. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war. For his successes at Roanoke Island and New Bern, the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater, he was promoted to major general on March 18. In July, his forces were transported north to Newport News, Virginia, and became the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Following Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s failure in the Peninsula Campaign, Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Refusing this opportunity—because of his loyalty to McClellan and because he understood his own lack of military experience—he detached part of his corps in support of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Again offered command following Pope’s debacle at Second Bull Run (in which Burnside was not involved) in that campaign, Burnside again declined.
Burnside was given command of the “Right Wing” of the Army of the Potomac (the I Corps and IX Corps) at the start of the Maryland Campaign for the Battle of South Mountain, but McClellan separated the two corps at the Battle of Antietam, placing them on opposite ends of the Union battle line, returning Burnside to command of just the IX Corps. Implicitly refusing to give up his higher authority, Burnside treated first Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno (killed at South Mountain) and then Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox as the corps commander, funneling orders to the corps through him. This cumbersome arrangement contributed to his slowness in attacking and crossing what is now called “Burnside’s Bridge” on the southern flank of the Union line.
Burnside did not perform adequate reconnaissance of the area and, instead of taking advantage of several easy fording sites out of range of the enemy, his troops were forced into repeated assaults across the narrow bridge, dominated by Confederate sharpshooters on high ground. By noon, McClellan was losing patience. He sent a succession of couriers to motivate Burnside to move forward. He ordered one aide, “Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now.” He increased the pressure by sending his inspector general to confront Burnside, who reacted indignantly: “McClellan appears to think I am not trying my best to carry this bridge; you are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders.” The delay allowed Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Confederate division to come up from Harpers Ferry and repulse the eventual Union breakthrough. McClellan refused Burnside’s requests for reinforcements and the battle ended in a tactical stalemate.
McClellan was removed after failing to pursue Lee’s retreat from Antietam and Burnside was assigned to command the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862. He reluctantly obeyed this order, the third such in his brief career. President Abraham Lincoln pressured Burnside to take aggressive action and on November 14, approved his plan to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. This plan led to a humiliating and costly Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. His advance upon Fredericksburg was rapid, but later delays allowed Gen. Robert E. Lee to concentrate along Marye’s Heights just west of town and easily repulse the Union attacks. (The delays were because of poor planning in marshaling pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River and his own reluctance to deploy portions of his army across fording points long before Lee arrived in force.) Assaults south of town, which were supposed to be the main avenue of attack, were also mismanaged and initial Union breakthroughs went unsupported. Upset by the failure of his plan and by the enormous casualties of his repeated, futile frontal assaults, Burnside declared that he himself would lead an assault by his old corps. His corps commanders talked him out of it, but relations between the commander and his subordinates were strained. Accepting full blame for the loss and the 12,000 casualties sustained in battle, he offered to retire from the U.S. Army, but this was refused.
In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several officers, who were openly insubordinate, be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against Burnside.
Lincoln was unwilling to lose Burnside from the Army and assigned him to command the Department of the Ohio and his old IX Corps. Here, he was forced to deal with copperheads such as Clement Vallandigham and Confederate raiders such as John Hunt Morgan. In the Knoxville Campaign, he advanced to Knoxville, Tennessee, but after Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, Burnside was pursued by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, against whose troops he had battled at Marye’s Heights. Burnside skillfully outmaneuvered Longstreet at the Battle of Campbell’s Station and was able to reach his entrenchments and safety in Knoxville, where he was briefly besieged until the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fort Sanders outside the city. Tying down Longstreet’s corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. Troops under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman marched to Burnside’s aid, but the siege had already been lifted and Longstreet withdrew, eventually returning to Virginia.
Burnside was ordered to take the IX Corps back to the Eastern Theater, where, in Annapolis, Maryland, he built it up to a strength of over 21,000 effectives. The IX Corps fought in the Overland Campaign of May 1864 as an independent command, reporting initially to Grant; his corps was not assigned to the Army of the Potomac because Burnside outranked its commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who had been a division commander under Burnside at Fredericksburg. (This cumbersome arrangement was rectified on May 24 just before the Battle of North Anna, when Burnside agreed to waive his precedence of rank and was placed under Meade’s direct command.)
Burnside fought at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, where he did not perform in a distinguished manner, attacking piecemeal and appearing reluctant to commit his troops to the frontal assaults that characterized these battles. According to Gordon Rhea, Burnside’s “failings were so flagrant that the Army talked about them openly. He stumbled badly in the Wilderness and worse still at Spotsylvania.” After North Anna and Cold Harbor, he took his place in the siege lines at Petersburg.
As the two armies faced the stalemate of trench warfare at Petersburg in July 1864, Burnside agreed to a plan suggested by a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners in his corps: dig a mine under a fort in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. But because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered only hours before the infantry attack not to use his division of black troops, specially trained for this mission, and was forced to use untrained white troops instead. He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots. The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk, well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie’s men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to murderous fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.
Burnside was relieved of command on August 14 and sent on leave by Grant; Meade never recalled him to duty. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, “I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed.” He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.
After his resignation, Burnside was employed in numerous railroad and industrial directorships, including the presidencies of the Cincinnati and Martinsville Railroad, the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad, and the Rhode Island Locomotive Works. He was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island (May 1866 to May 1869). He was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veterans’ association from 1871 to 1872. At its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association chose him as its first president.
During a visit to Europe in 1870, Burnside attempted to mediate between the French and the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1874 he was elected a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, was re-elected in 1880, and served until his death in 1881. During that time, Burnside, who had been a Democrat before the war, ran as a Republican, playing a prominent role in military affairs as well as serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1881.
Burnside died suddenly of “neuralgia of the heart” (Angina pectoris) at Bristol, Rhode Island, and is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence. An equestrian statue in his honor was erected in the late 1800s in Burnside Park in Providence.
Assessment and legacy
Personally, Burnside was always very popular—both in the army and in politics—he made friends easily, smiled a lot, and remembered everyone’s name. His professional military reputation, however, was less positive, and he was known for being obstinate, unimaginative, and unsuited both intellectually and emotionally for high command. Grant stated that he was “unfitted” for the command of an army, and that no one knew this better than Burnside himself. Knowing his capabilities, he twice refused command of the Army of the Potomac – only accepting when told that the command would otherwise go to Hooker. Historian Jeffry D. Wert described Burnside’s relief after Fredericksburg in a passage that sums up his military career:
He had been the most unfortunate commander of the Army, a general who had been cursed by succeeding its most popular leader and a man who believed he was unfit for the post. His tenure had been marked by bitter animosity among his subordinates and a fearful, if not needless, sacrifice of life. A firm patriot, he lacked the power of personality and will to direct recalcitrant generals. He had been willing to fight the enemy, but the terrible slope before Marye’s Heights stands as his legacy.
– Jeffry D. Wert, The Sword of Lincoln
Historian Bruce Catton summarized Burnside:
… Burnside had repeatedly demonstrated that it had been a military tragedy to give him a rank higher than colonel. One reason might have been that, with all his deficiencies, Burnside never had any angles of his own to play; he was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best even if that best was not very good, never scheming or conniving or backbiting. Also, he was modest; in an army many of whose generals were insufferable prima donnas, Burnside never mistook himself for Napoleon. Physically he was impressive: tall, just a little stout, wearing what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army. He customarily wore a high, bell-crowned felt hat with the brim turned down and a double-breasted, knee-length frock coat, belted at the waist—a costume which, unfortunately, is apt to strike the modern eye is being very much like that of a beefy city cop of the 1880s.
– Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army
Burnside was noted for his unusual facial hair, joining strips of hair in front of his ears to his mustache, but with chin clean-shaven; the word burnsides was coined to describe this style. The syllables were later reversed to give “sideburns.”