Ambrose Burnside

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Ambrose Burnside
American Civil War
Rank Major General
Born May 23, 1824
Place of birth Liberty, Indiana
Died September 13, 1881
Place of death Bristol, Rhode Island
Battles engaged in Mexican–American War

American Civil War

  • First Battle of Bull Run
  • Burnside's North Carolina Expedition
  • Battle of Roanoke Island
  • Battle of New Bern
  • Maryland Campaign
  • Battle of South Mountain
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Morgan's Raid
  • Knoxville Campaign
  • Overland Campaign
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
  • Battle of North Anna
  • Battle of Cold Harbor
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Battle of the Crater

Ambrose Everette Burnside (1824 - 1881) was a Major General in the United States Army during the American Civil War, and best known for his loss of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, and the disaster of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg in July, 1864.

Early life

Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, from where he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1847. His involvement in the Mexican War the following year consisted of garrison duty as he arrived too late to take part in hostilities.

Between 1847 and 1852, Burnside served in various garrisons along the western frontier of the United States, and during this time he drew up designs for a new rifle, a breech-loading carbine that could load faster, was more accurate, and had less misfire than the smoothbore musket then standard issue among the infantry. Resigning his commission in 1853, he moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, where he set up shop to manufacture his rifle. Sales were slow, however, and facing financial ruin when he was unable to sell enough of them to sustain his business, he was forced to give the patents to his creditors in 1860. When the Civil War broke out some nine months later, the company holding his patents were able to make 2000 rifles a month to satisfy Army demand, and thus made a comfortable profit; Burnside didn't see a penny from his idea. (TL 13, pg. 24).

Civil War

When war broke out in 1861, Burnside was accepted as head of a Rhode Island militia regiment. His regiment was sent to Virginia to take part in the First Battle of Bull Run, and his subsequent actions there caused him to be reinstated in the regular army as a brigadier general, to lead a command in the successful North Carolina coastal campaign against coastal fortifications and ships, taking many prisoners as a result. His reputation high among his fellow officers, he was promoted to major general and asked by President Abraham Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac. In this he politely refused, stating he was not experienced to command anything larger than a brigade.


He served in the Army of the Potomac regardless, under Major General George B. McClellan, and during the Battle of Antietam he was in command IX Corps, of McClellan's left wing. The arrangement was cumbersome; two junior officers, Major General Jesse Reno and later, Brigadier General Jacob Cox (after Reno was killed), were both treated as corps commander, and Burnside sent orders to the corps through them, resulting in the slowness of the corps to attack the Confederate forces on the Union's southern flank near what came to be called “Burnside’s Bridge”.

Burnside funneled his forces across the bridge during the battle; because of the narrowness of the bridge itself the attacking soldiers were easily picked off and driven from the bridge. He sent wave after wave across the bridge, and each was beaten back with heavy losses. Expecting the bridge and the ground beyond to be taken, McClellan sent a succession of messengers to inquire as to why the bridge wasn't taken, and the delay in taking it allowed Confederate reinforcements under Major General A. P. Hill to repulse the only Union breakthrough. Had Burnside made a reconnaissance of the area, he would have discovered the creek was less than three feet deep in places within a half mile of the bridge.


Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac due to his general's ineffectiveness at following and destroying the Confederate forces which left Antietam, and over his protests, ordered Burnside to take over on November 7, 1862. Disagreement over plans to take Richmond between Burnside, Army Chief Major General Henry Halleck, and Lincoln, caused a delay in Burnside's crossing of the Rappahannock River, so that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was allowed considerable time to arrange his forces on the heights of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside's attack on December 13, mismanaged nearly everywhere, resulted in a disastrous retreat, and a second attempt to go after Lee in January resulted in the derisive “Mud March”. In a letter to Lincoln, Burnside demanded the resignation of several officers who were openly insubordinate during the march, or he himself would resign; Lincoln rejected the former and accepted the latter; Burnside was relieved of command, and transferred to Ohio.

Minor successes

Here he found some level of success. He assisted in the crushing of an attempted raid into Ohio by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan in July, 1863. He arrested agitators against the war and locked them in jails, suspending habeas corpus for the duration of the war, the most famous of which was a Democratic Congressman, Clement L. Vallandigham, whose arrest set off a firestorm in Washington (Lincoln would issue a famous reply in response: "must I shoot some simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, and not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?"). He also marched into Knoxville, Tennessee in September, 1863, and held it against Confederate forces under general James Longstreet, thus aiding Major General Ulysses S. Grant's success in Chattanooga.

The Crater

Rejoining his old corps in the Army of the Potomac during the Wilderness Campaign, Burnside served under Grant through his attacks on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and subsequently laying siege to the army at Petersburg. It was Burnside who came up with a plan to end the siege: soldiers who once worked in the Pennsylvania mines would dig a tunnel under the Confederate defenses, pack it with explosives, and set the charge off; the resulting explosion would open a breach in the lines which the Union could take advantage of. Burnside, having received approval from Grant, began the tunnel, and trained a unit of black soldiers to go around the blasted area and take hold of the weakened Confederate line, allowing other Federal forces to follow through. Some three hours before the blast took place, Burnside was ordered to replace his trained black soldiers with a white corps which was not trained for the task. When the explosion took place on July 30, the new soldiers jumped into the crater instead of going around it, and stared at it awestruck. The Confederates thus were given time to regroup and open fire from the rim, and the short Battle of the Crater ended in a humiliating defeat with heavy casualties. Burnside, charged with the fiasco, was sent on leave. He was not placed in a command again, and President Andrew Johnson accepted his resignation from the Army on April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died from an assassin's bullet.

After the war

After the war, Burnside was employed by numerous industrial and railroad firms, as well as serving as governor of Rhode Island (1866-1869). He also served as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veterans association); was elected first president of the National Rifle Association; and was elected to the United States Senate in 1874, but he died before the first year was over into his second term in 1881.

Apart from his Civil War service, Burnside is known for the flamboyant facial whiskers which he wore for most of his life, and a play on his name caused them to be called “sideburns”.


  • Time-Life Books The Civil War (vol. 13, Rebels Resurgent), Time, Inc. New York (1985)