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Ambrose Everett Burnside

By John T. Marck

He was born Ambrose Everett Burnside, the son of a South Carolina slave owner, on May 23, 1824 in Liberty, Indiana. Burnside was raised in Indiana, as his parents moved there from South Carolina, after they freed their slaves. At the age of nineteen, Burnside entered West Point and graduated eighteenth in the class of 1847. Now a brevet second lieutenant in the second artillery, he served during the Mexican War.

Burnside was a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, who got along well with others, and also had a love of gambling, sometimes resulting in bad judgment. In 1853, he resigned from the army and moved to Rhode Island where he started his own business manufacturing a breech-loading rifle he designed. In order to stay in business, it was necessary to receive government contracts, which unfortunately he failed to secure, resulting in his going bankrupt. As bad luck would have it, his creditors assumed all control over his patents and during the Civil War, produced more than fifty-five thousand Burnside Carbines plus millions of rounds of ammunition for the military.

Now out of business, Burnside sought the help of a friend, George B. McClellan, who was the chief engineer of the Illinois Central railroad. Meanwhile, Burnside was engaged to a belle from Kentucky, who, to continue his bad luck, jilted him at the altar. Consequently, he returned to the military, accepting an appointment as major general for the Rhode Island Militia.

When the Civil War began, he rejoined the army with the rank of colonel in the 1st Rhode Island Volunteers. This unit was one that Burnside had helped organize, and was one of the first to defend the Capital when Washington, D.C. was threatened by the Rebels. At the First Battle of Bull Run Burnside commanded a brigade, and as a result, in appreciation, was promoted to brigadier general by President Abraham Lincoln. Burnside then served in the coastal campaigns in 1862, whereby his command destroyed a Confederate fleet in Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Additionally he captured Roanoke Island, taking more than two thousand Rebel prisoners and thirty-two guns. He then was again successful in capturing New Berne, Beaufort, and Fort Macon. For these accomplishments he was promoted to major general on March 18, 1862.

Burnside's next command was that of the IX Corps, and I Corps, serving under his friend, General George B. McClellan. However, like his superior, Burnside was also a procrastinator, wasting many opportunities to overtake the enemy. At Antietam, his bullheaded decision to cross a bridge heavily defended by Rebels over the Antietam Creek, later known as "Burnside's Bridge," delayed his arrival on the battlefield. This delay cost him the chance to overrun the weak enemy positions on the other side of the bridge, and defeat the Confederates. Although his men eventually crossed the bridge, it was too late to do any damage to the enemy.

In spite of this, Burnside was chosen by Lincoln on two occasions to command the Army of the Potomac, when Lincoln became disillusioned with McClellan, however, Burnside turned down the position both times. However, on November 7, 1862, per orders from Washington, he accepted the command of the Army of the Potomac, in spite of his reservations.

Now in command, and confident from the Union's technical win at Antietam, Burnside decided to attack General Robert E. Lee and his army at Fredericksburg, Virginia. But, using his same tactics that he employed at Antietam, and his inability to see past Marye's Heights, his first goal, eventually cost him the battle as well as the confidence of President Lincoln. Furthermore, in January 1863, Burnside attempted to cross the Rappahannock River, resulting in another calamity, known as "Burnside's Mud March." These failures resulted in his removal from command of the Army of the Potomac.

But things did improve for Burnside. That March, he was placed in command of the Department of the Ohio and in this position he presided over the arrest and subsequent military trial of former Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham for treason, as well as he captured Confederate leader John Hunt Morgan and several of his cavalrymen. During the fall of 1863, Burnside improved his reputation by successfully defeating Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet at Knoxville.

Placed once again in the east during the spring of 1864, Burnside was given command of the former IX Corps, and led it with relative success at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Bethesda Church. However, at the Battle of Petersburg, he once again procrastinated, resulting in the gruesome butchering of his men at the Battle of the Crater. For his actions here, he was charged with the improper handling of the troops under his charge and was relieved. Consequently, he resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.

After the war, Burnside ran for political office and was elected governor of Rhode Island for three terms; 1866 through1868. In 1869 he returned to various business ventures until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1874. Ambrose Burnside served in this position until his death on September 13, 1881 at Bristol, Rhode Island.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.