Union General Ambrose Burnside Born
Major General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)
Photograph by Mathew Brady b/w 1861 and 1865
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: May 23, 1824
Ambrose Burnside was born Liberty, Indiana, the fourth of nine children. In 1841, upon the death of this mother, Ambrose was apprenticed to a tailor, eventually becoming a partner in the business. He had a great interest in military affairs. Using his father's political connections, he obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1847 – 18th in a class of 38. He was sent to Mexico, where he was relegated to garrison duty.
Burnside spent the next six years in various assignments in the Southwest, where he was wounded in the neck from an Apache arrow. In 1852, he was reassigned to Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. While there, Burnside met and married Mary Richmond Bishop. Their marriage, which lasted until his death, was childless.
Burnside carbine, produced 1858-1870
Burnside resigned his commission in 1853. He then devoted all his time, energy, and money to the development and manufacture of a new firearm that bore his name: the Burnside carbine. The rifle was a breechloader, and utilized brass cartridges. In 1857, a competition was held at West Point, with Burnside's design winning over 17 similar designs.
Despite his triumph, Burnside received few orders from the federal government. This changed, however, with the start of the Civil War. A total of 55,000 Burnside carbines were ordered, making it the third most popular carbine after the Sharps and Spencer carbines. The weapon actually became very popular with Confederates cavalry regiments, with 7 Rebel units at least partially armed with the weapon between 1863 and 1864.
In the meantime, Burnside ran as a Democrat for one of the Congressional seats in Rhode Island in 1858 and was defeated in a landslide. The cost of the campaign and the destruction by fire of his factory contributed to his financial ruin, and he was forced to assign his firearm patents to others. Burnside 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.
George B. McClellan (1826-1885) Commander of the Army of the Potomac (1861-1862)
(Portrait by Julian Scott in National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC)
At the beginning of the Civil War, Burnside held the rank of brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia. He formed a volunteer regiment, the 1st Rhode Island, with himself appointed its colonel. He was appointed to command a brigade in the newly formed Department of Northeast Virginia. Burnside's brigade participated in the 1st battle of Bull Run (Manassas) without distinction. Afterwards, he was assigned to command the Northeast Expeditionary Force from September 1861 to July 1862. During that time, his force closed most of the Confederates ports of North Carolina. Eventually, his forces were sent to Newport News, VA and reformed into the IX Corps of the new Army of the Potomac.
A portion of Burnsides IX Corps was assigned to the Army of Virginia under General John Pope. Pope's army was defeated at the 2nd battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in August 1862. At Pope's court-martial, Burnside was a star prosecution witness. On September 17, 1862 Burnside and his corps participated in the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). His main assignment that day was to attack the right flank of Lee's army along Antietam Creek across a stone bridge.
Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), Sept. 17, 1862
Assaults by the IX Corps, 10 am to 4:30 pm
Burnside failed to do reconnaissance of the creek, failing to find several easy fords out of range of Confederate fire. Consequently, he spent several hours launching several assaults across the bridge which now bears his name. Finally breaking through in mid-afternoon, the IX Corps assault was halted by Confederate reinforcements commanded by A.P. Hill.
Gen. Burnside in the field, circa 1862
After the battle, McClellan was sacked by President Lincoln, and command of the Army of the Potomac was offered to Burnside. He turned the promotion down twice on previous occasions, saying that he was not competent to command so large a force. He reluctantly accepted this time. Burnside then planned a direct assault on Richmond, moving directly south from Washington. The Army of the Potomac was opposed at the Rappahannock River by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, at the city of Fredericksburg. The Rebels were entrenched on Marye's Heights, and Burnside ordered a direct assault on the Southern position. The result was a virtual massacre: 6,000 to 8000 Union casualties from 14 individual assaults, with only about 1200 Confederate losses. [This battle will be the subject of a future Burn Pit post, I promise…]
Soon afterwards, Burnside was relieved of command of the Army and reassigned to command of his old IX Corps. For the next two years, Burnside and his corps participated in action in Tennessee and Virginia. While in command of the Department of the Ohio, he ordered the arrest of prominent copperhead (anti-war) Congressman Clement Vallandigham and tried him for treason in a military court.
The IX Corps under Burnside was part of Grant Overland Campaign in 1864, and performed poorly at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. Then, in perhaps the ultimate downfall of his career, he commanded troops during the siege of Petersburg. Burnside approved a scheme to dig a mine under Confederate lines, fill it with gunpowder and explode it to create a breach to achieve a breakthrough. The result of all this was the infamous Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, a gigantic disaster for the Union. Burnside was relieved of command shortly thereafter, and resigned from the U.S. Army in April of 1865.
Explosion of the mine which created the Crater, July 30, 1864
(Pencil drawing on green paper by A.R. Waud; published in Harper's Weekly, August 20, 1864)
After the war, Burnside was employed on the board of directors of several railroads. He was elected to three one-year terms as governor of Rhode Island (1866-1869). He was the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization from 1871 to 1872. He was appointed the first president of the National Rifle Association in 1871.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate – as a Republican – in 1874, and was re-elected in 1880, serving until his death in 1881 from angina pectoris.
Footnote #1: Civil War historian summarized Burnside best, I think, in his book, "Mr. Lincoln's Army (1951):"
"... 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…"
Footnote #2: Perhaps Burnside's most enduring legacy is the luxuriant facial hair that bears his name. It also was responsible for coining the term "sideburns."
Hon. Ambrose Burnside, circa 1880
In fact, this fashion survives to this day, if the following link can be believed: http://thisainthell.us/blog/?p=29964