When Ambrose Burnside received his orders to take command of the Army of the Potomac in November of 1862, it was said he wept like a child.
He had twice refused the command, believing he wasn’t up to the task.
Burnside was dashing, charming and humble, popular with his soldiers. He invented a weapon that helped the Union win the Civil War. As a politician, he won election to some of the highest offices in America.
He was also completely unsuited to command an army.
His facial hair inspired the noun ‘sideburns.’ Another Civil War general whose name also became a noun usurped him as commander of the Army.
Ambrose Burnside, Unhappy Tailor
Ambrose Burnside was born May 23, 1824 in Liberty, Ind., the fourth of the nine children of Edghill and Pamela (or Pamilia) Brown Burnside. Edghill, a slaveholder from South Carolina, freed his slaves when he moved to Indiana.
As a boy, Ambrose Burnside was apprenticed to a tailor, and he returned home to open his own shop after his mother died. He realized he didn’t want to be a tailor, and his father, who had some political influence, got him an appointment at West Point.
Burnside missed most of the Mexican War, but fought Apaches in the west. He came back from one battle with an arrow in the neck. While recovering from his wound, he had a brainstorm: Cavalrymen could only use sabers against their enemy because muzzle-loading rifles were too hard to load while mounted. What if, thought Burnside, he could invent a light, breech-loading carbine efficient enough for the cavalry to use?
Left At The Altar
Burnside spent the winter of 1850-51 looking for love on a long furlough in Liberty. He proposed to Charlotte Moon, who accepted. On the day of their wedding, according to local legend, the minister asked Charlotte Moon if she would marry Ambrose Burnside. She replied, “No siree, Bob, I won’t,” and walked out.
Charlotte, the story goes, later got engaged to an Ohio lawyer. On the day of that wedding, the lawyer brandished his gun and said there would either be ‘a wedding tonight or a funeral tomorrow.’
The army promoted Burnside to lieutenant in 1851 and assigned him to Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., the next year. There he was luckier in love. He met, courted and then married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence.
He resigned from the Army in 1853 to develop the Burnside carbine at his Bristol Rifle Works in Rhode Island. When it looked as if he would get a large government contract, he borrowed money and boosted production. The contract fell through when a competitor bribed the Secretary of War to break Burnside’s contract. Burnside declared bankruptcy and sold his possessions and patents.
The gun became a popular weapon during the Civil War. Mary moved in with relatives and Burnside moved in with his old friend George B. McClellan and his family in Chicago. McClellan, a vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad, got Burnside a job with the company. Burnside rose to company treasurer, paid off his debts and in 1860 moved back with his wife.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was appointed colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry and quickly promoted to brigade command. He fought at the First Battle of Bull Run and again won a promotion, to brigadier general. He had an early success closing most of the North Carolina coast to Confederate shipping and won still another promotion.
Wilmer L. Jones, in Generals in Blue and Gray: Lincoln’s generals, observed,
Burnside was liked by his men because of his concern for them. He was a trusting man with an optimistic outlook on life and found it difficult to believe another person could wish him harm until it was so obvious he could not ignore it. When his plans fell short, he tended to take the blame himself. At difficult moments in his life, he accepted responsibility and tried to solve his problems on his own. Ambrose was six feet tall with a deep chest… Despite his intimidating size, his smile and good humor drew people to him.
Jeffrey D. Wert, in The Sword of Lincoln, called Ambrose Burnside ‘unfortunate.’
His tenure had been marked by bitter animosity among his subordinates and a fearful, if not needless, sacrifice of life. A firm patriot, he lacked the power of personality and will to direct recalcitrant generals.
Joseph Hooker was certainly recalcitrant. He was the other Civil War general said to have inspired a word: “Hooker,” slang for a prostitute. The word did appear in print 15 years before Hooker was a well-known figure, though his reputation as a ladies’ man – and the prostitutes in “Hooker’s Army” who followed his division – probably popularized the term.
Ambrose Burnside hated Hooker and remained loyal to his old friend McClellan.
After the failure of McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign, President Lincoln twice offered Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac. He refused. Then came Antietam, after which Burnside was criticized for slowness in attacking the enemy and crossing what is now known as Burnside’s Bridge.
McClellan also performed poorly at Antietam. Worse, he didn’t pursue Robert E. Lee after the battle. For that, Lincoln relieved McClellan.
On Nov. 7, 1862, a courier traveled through a blinding snowstorm to Burnside’s headquarters and handed him his order to command the Army of the Potomac. Burnside argued he didn’t want the command and he hadn’t sought it. Then he learned Joseph Hooker would get the job if he didn’t. Burnside accepted the command.
He received orders to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. In December 1862, Burnside suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, with nearly 13,000 casualties, more than twice that of the Confederates. He offered to quit; Lincoln refused.
In January 1863, Burnside’s forces failed in a winter offensive against Robert E. Lee in what became known as the Mud March. He again offered to quit; Lincoln accepted and replaced him with Joseph Hooker. That spring Hooker lost the Battle of Chancellorsville. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg he, too, lost his command.
Burnside was sent west to Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, where he shut down an antiwar newspaper in Chicago. He also arrested an Ohio congressman who spoke out against the war. Both actions provoked a backlash and Lincoln reversed the actions, announcing that Burnside had exceeded his authority.
He redeemed himself in August by outmaneuvering Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and holding Knoxville.
The Siege of Petersburg in July 1864 brought Burnside’s ultimate undoing. He agreed to a plan brought to him by a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners. They wanted to tunnel under an entrenched Confederate fort and set off explosives, creating a breakthrough for Union soldiers. Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade reluctantly approved the plan.
Burnside specially trained his African-American troops in the fourth division to lead an attack after the giant hole was blown. Hours before the attack, Meade ordered Burnside not to use the black troops. Untrained soldiers led the assault instead and were slaughtered. Burnside took the blame for the fiasco and the Army relieved him of command.
Ambrose Burnside sent his letter of resignation to Abraham Lincoln on the afternoon of his assassination. Later, a congressional inquiry exonerated him from blame for the failed Battle of the Crater.
Life improved for him after the Civil War. He got appointed director of several railroads, won election as governor of Rhode Island and then U.S. senator.
He also served as the first president of the National Rifle Association.
Sen. Ambrose Burnside died of a heart attack on Sept. 13, 1881, in Bristol, R.I. His most famous quote: “It is not death therefore that is burdensome, but the fear of death.”
With thanks to Generals in Blue and Gray. This story was updated in 2022.