Ambrose Everett Burnside

Commander Army of the Potomac Nov 1862 to Jan 1863

Ambrose Everett Burnside, the most unwilling and, perhaps, most unsuitable commander of the Army of the Potomac, was born on May 23, 1824, at Liberty, Union County, Indiana. His father, born in South Carolina, had been a slave owner but freed his slaves when he moved to Indiana. After receiving a primary school education, Burnside was apprenticed to a tailor and subsequently was a partner in a shop in Liberty. At nineteen, however, his father's political connections procured for him an appointment to West Point, from which he was graduated in 1847 as a brevet second lieutenant, 2nd Artillery. In the Mexican War he was confined mainly to garrison duty in Mexico City. He afterward served in garrison duty and on the southwestern frontier, where he was slightly wounded in a skirmish with Apaches in 1849. He resigned his commission in 1853 and in Bristol, Rhode Island, engaged in the manufacture of a breech-loading rifle which he had invented while in the army—a venture which failed. Burnside's genial personality won for him, during the antebellum years, appointment as major general of the state militia, nomination to Congress as a Democrat, and a job with the Illinois Central Railroad under his friend, George B. McClellan. At the outbreak of war Burnside organized the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, a three-month regiment which was one of the first to reach Washington. He was in command of a brigade at First Manassas and was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers on August 6, 1861. Having become something of a favorite of President Lincoln, he was given command of the expedition against the coast of North Carolina, an eminently successful venture which gave the Federals a base of operations. One of the few early Union successes, Burnside's feat was rewarded by promotion to major general of volunteers to rank from March 18, 1862. In July some of Burnside's troops were withdrawn to be sent to the Army of the Potomac and, some sources say, in the next few weeks he twice declined the command of that army. At Sharpsburg in September, McClellan assigned him direction of his own IX Corps and Joseph Hooker's I Corps. Burnside's overly precise construction of his orders on this field caused delay and loss of an opportunity to crush the weak Confederate position opposite "Burnside's Bridge." On November 10, 1862, after McClellan had incessantly appealed for more men and materiel in order to assume the offensive, Burnside was made commander, accepting the responsibility as an order to be obeyed. The following month the tragedy of Fredericksburg was acted out—nearly thirteen thousand casualties were sustained by the Army of the Potomac in a series of assaults against the impregnable Confederate position. Although Burnside's subordinate commanders opposed the abortive "Mud March," by which he proposed again to cross the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg, he persisted in the plan. He afterward offered the President the choice of relieving him or of dismissing some and relieving others of his subordinates, including five major generals and two brigadiers. Lincoln thereupon gave the army command to Hooker, whose dismissal Burnside had urged. In March, 1863, Burnside was assigned to command the Department of the Ohio. Here he arrested and tried by military commission Copperhead ex-Congressman Clement L. Vallandig-ham for uttering seditious sentiments. In the autumn of 1863 Burnside ably defended Knoxville against the forces of Confederate General James Longstreet. The following spring Burnside's old IX Corps was recruited to full strength and was for a time an independent unit supporting the Army of the Potomac, an awkward arrangement dictated by Burnside's being senior in rank to George G. Meade, the nominal army commander. The IX Corps took part with U. S. Grant in the Overland campaign and in the operations culminating in the siege of Petersburg. In the celebrated battle of the Crater (July, 1864), Burnside's troops failed to exploit a fifty-yard gap in the Confederate line caused by the explosion of a Federal mine. This circumstance ultimately resulted in his resignation from the service on April 15, 1865. General Burnside continued to enjoy the confidence of his civilian friends, occupying numerous railroad and industrial directorships after the close of hostilities. In the course of his business career he was elected three times governor of Rhode Island (1866, 1867, 1868). In 1874 he was elected a United States Senator from Rhode Island and served until his death at Bristol, Rhode Island, on September 13, 1881. General Burnside was buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island.

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Reference:  Generals in Blue.  Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner.  Louisiana State University Press.  Baton Rouge.