Ambrose Burnside

From Academic Kids

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Portrait of Ambrose Burnside by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860

Ambrose Everett Burnside (May 23,1824September 13, 1881) was a railroad executive, an industrialist, and a politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a U.S. Senator. As a Union Army general in the American Civil War, he was defeated in the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg,


Early life and career

Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1847 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He accompanied Braxton Bragg's Battery throughout the Mexican-American War, and with it entered Mexico City.

At the close of the war Lieutenant Burnside was detailed for duty against the Apaches in the New Mexico Territory, and served some two years in frontier warfare. In 1849 he was wounded by an arrow in his neck 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 Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1853 he resigned his commission in the regular 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 Breechloading 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 works were no sooner complete than another gunmaker bribed Floyd to break his contract with Burnside, who was ruined. He went west in search of employment and became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he worked, and became friendly, with his future commanding officer, George B. McClellan.

Civil War

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, 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 at the First Battle of Bull Run and was promoted to brigadier general on August 6.

Burnside commanded the North Carolina Expeditionary Corps, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps, and the Department of North Carolina, from September, 1861, until July, 1862. For his successes at Roanoke Island and New Bern 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 George B. McClellan's failure in the Peninsula Campaign, Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Refusing this opportunity, in part due to his loyalty to McClellan (and also because he understood his own lack of military experience), he detached part of his corps in support of John Pope's Army of Virginia in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Again offered command following the debacle of Second Bull Run in that campaign, Burnside again declined.


Burnside was given command of the “Right Wing” of the Army of the Potomac (the I and IX Corps) during the Maryland Campaign. He fought at South Mountain and then at the Battle of Antietam, where his two corps were placed on opposite ends of the Union battle line. He nonetheless remained in wing command over the IX Corps—a cumbersome arrangement that may explain his slowness in attacking and crossing what is now called "Burnside Bridge". The delay allowed A.P. Hill's Confederate division to come up from Harpers Ferry and repulse the Union breakthrough.


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, 1862, 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, due to poor planning in marshaling pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River, allowed Robert E. Lee to concentrate along Marye's Heights just west of town and easily repulse the Union attacks. 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, Burnside declared that he himself would lead an assault by his old corps. He was talked out of it, but relations between the commander and his subordinates were strained. Accepting full blame, 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 be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Joseph Hooker.

Tennessee and the Overland Campaign

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. He advanced to Knoxville, Tennessee, but after the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, Burnside found the tables turned and he was besieged in Knoxville by James Longstreet. After Braxton Bragg's defeat by Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga, troops under William Tecumseh Sherman marched to Burnside's aid and lifted the siege.

Burnside was then ordered to take the IX Corps back to Virginia, where he fought in the Overland Campaign directly under Grant; his corps was not assigned initially to the Army of the Potomac because he outranked its commander, Major General George G. Meade, who had been a division commander under Burnside at Fredericksburg. (This cumbersome arrangement was rectified during the Battle of North Anna on May 25, 1864, 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 performed in a mediocre manner, appearing reluctant to commit his troops to frontal assaults after the Fredericksburg experience. After North Anna and Cold Harbor he took his place in the siege lines at Petersburg.

The Crater

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. The fort was destroyed and many rebels died in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. But because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered not to use his division of black troops (specially trained for this mission) and had to use untrained white troops instead. Those troops, badly led by their commanders, entered the crater itself instead of going around it, and were subjected to murderous fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties. Burnside received the blame for this fiasco and he was sent on leave and never recalled. He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.

Post-bellum career

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 Locomotive Works. He was elected to three one-year terms as governor of Rhode Island (18661868). He was president of the veterans' association, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). And at its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association chose him as their first president.

During a visit to Europe in 1870, Burnside attempted to mediate between the French and the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, 187071. In 1874 he was elected a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island and served until his death at Bristol, Rhode Island. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island.


Burnside was noted for his unusual facial hair, joining his ears to his mustache, but with chin clean-shaven; the word burnsides was coined to describe these strips of hair in front of the ears. The syllables were later reversed to give sideburns.

Personally, Burnside was always very popular—both in the army and in politics—but he was out of his depth as a senior army commander, a fact no one knew better than Burnside himself. Knowing his capabilities, he twice refused command of the Army of the Potomac until finally being forced under orders to accept it. And despite bitter disappointments in high command, he willingly and loyally served his country in lesser roles for the remainder of the war.


  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J.: Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3

External links

Preceded by:
George B. McClellan
Commander of the Army of the Potomac
Succeeded by:
Joseph Hooker

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