Ambrose Burnside, a native of Liberty, Indiana, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1847, was commissioned as a Brevet 2LT of Artillery, and served in the 2md U.S. Artillery in Veracruz and Mexico City, Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American war.
At the close of the war, Lt. Burnside served two years on the western frontier under Captain Braxton Bragg in the 3rd U.S. Artillery, a light artillery unit that had been converted to cavalry duty, protecting the Western mail routes through Nevada to California. In 1849, he was wounded by an arrow in his neck during a skirmish against Apaches in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on December 12, 1851. In 1852, he was assigned to Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island, and he married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island on April 27 of that year. The marriage lasted until Mary’s death in 1876, but was childless.
In October 1853, Burnside resigned his commission in the United States Army, and was appointed commander of the Rhode Island state militia with the rank of major general. He held this position for two years.
After leaving the Regular Army, Burnside devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous firearm that bears his name: the Burnside Carbine. President Buchanan’s Secretary of War, John B Floyd, contracted the Burnside Arms Company to equip a large portion of the Army with his carbine, mostly cavalry, and induced him to establish extensive factories for its manufacture. The Bristol Rifle Works were no sooner complete than another gunmaker allegedly bribed Floyd to break his $100,000 contract with Burnside.
Burnside ran as a Democrat for one of the Congressional seats in Rhode Island in 1858 and was defeated in a landslide. The burdens 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. He then went west in search of employment and became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he worked for and became friendly with George B. McClellan, who later became one of his commanding officers.
First Bull Run
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was a colonel in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. Two companies of this regiment were then armed with Burnside Carbines.
Within a month, he ascended to brigade command in the Department of northeast Virginia. He commanded the brigade without distinction at the First Battle of Bull in July, and took over division command temporarily for wounded Brig. Gen. David Hunter. His 90-day regiment was mustered out of service on August 2; he was promoted to brigadier-general of volunteers on August 6 and was assigned to train provisional brigades in the Army of the Potomac.
Burnside commanded the Coast Division or North Carolina Expeditionary Force from September 1861 until July 1862, three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corp. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed more than 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war. This included the Battle of Elizabeth City, fought on 10 February 1862 on the Pasquotank River near Battle of Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
The participants were vessels of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron opposed by vessels of the Confederate Navy’s Mosquito Fleet; the latter were supported by a shore-based battery of four guns at Cobb’s Point (now called Cobb Point) near the southeastern border of the town. The battle was a part of the campaign in North Carolina that was led by Burnside and known as the Burnside Expedition. The result was a Union victory, with Elizabeth City and its nearby waters in their possession and the Confederate fleet captured, sunk, or dispersed.
Burnside was promoted to major general of volunteers on March 18, 1862 in recognition of his successes at the battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern, the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater. In July, his forces were transported north to Newport News, Virginia and became the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac following Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s failure in the Peninsula Campaign He refused this opportunity because of his loyalty to McClellan and the fact that he understood his own lack of military experience, and detached part of his corps in support of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia in the Northern Virginia Campaign.
Burnside again declined command following Pope’s debacle at Second Bull Run.
Burnside was given command of the Right Wing of the Army of the Potomac (the I Corp and his own IX Corps) at the start of the Maryland Campaign for the Battle of South Mountain , but McClellan separated the two corps at the Battle of Antietam, placing them on opposite ends of the Union battle line and returning Burnside to command of just the IX Corps. Burnside implicitly refused to give up his authority, and acted as though the corps commander was first Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno (killed at South Mountain) and then Brig. Gen Jacob D. Cox, funneling orders through them to the corps. This cumbersome arrangement contributed to his slowness in attacking and crossing what is now called Burnside Bridge on the southern flank of the Union line.
His troops attempted repeated assaults across the narrow bridge which was dominated by Confederate sharpshooters on high ground. By noon, McClellan was losing patience. He sent a succession of couriers to motivate Burnside to move forward. He increased the pressure by sending his inspector general to confront Burnside. The IX Corps eventually broke through, but the delay allowed Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Confederate division to come up from Harpers Ferry and repulse the Union breakthrough. McClellan refused Burnside’s requests for reinforcements and the battle ended in a tactical stalemate.
McClellan was removed after failing to pursue General Robet E. Lee’s retreat from Antietam, and Burnside was assigned to command the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862. He reluctantly obeyed this order, the third such in his brief career, in part because the courier told him that, if he refused it, the command would go instead to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, whom Burnside disliked. President Abraham Lincoln pressured Burnside to take aggressive action and approved his plan on November 14 to capture the Confederate capital a Richmond, Virginia. This plan led to a humiliating and costly Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. His advance upon Fredericksburg was rapid, but the attack was delayed by the arrival of pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River, as well as his own reluctance to deploy portions of his army across fording points. This allowed Gen. Lee to concentrate along Marye’s Heights just west of town and easily repulse the Union attacks.
Assaults south of town were also mismanaged, which were supposed to be the main avenue of attack, and initial Union breakthroughs went unsupported. Burnside was upset by the failure of his plan and by the enormous casualties of his repeated, futile frontal assaults, and he declared that he would personally lead an assault of the IX corps. His corps commanders talked him out of it, but relations were strained between the commander and his subordinates. Accepting full blame, he offered to retire from the U.S. Army, but this was refused. Burnside’s detractors labeled him the “Butcher of Fredericksburg”.
In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several openly insubordinate officers be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against Burnside.
Burnside offered to resign his commission altogether but Lincoln declined, stating that there could still be a place for him in the army. Thus, he was placed back at the head of the IX Corps and sent to command the Department of the Ohio, encompassing the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. This was a quiet area with little activity, and the President reasoned that Burnside could not get himself into too much trouble there. However, antiwar sentiment was riding high in the Western states as they had traditionally carried on a great deal of commerce with the South, and there was little in the way of abolitionist sentiment there or a desire to fight for the purpose of ending slavery. Burnside was thoroughly disturbed by this trend and issued a series of orders forbidding “the expression of public sentiments against the war or the Administration” in his department; this finally climaxed with General Order No. 38, which declared that “any person found guilty of treason will be tried by a military tribunal and either imprisoned or banished to enemy lines”.
On May 1, 1863, Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, a prominent opponent of the war, held a large public rally in Mount Vernon, Ohia in which he denounced President Lincoln as a “tyrant” who sought to abolish the Constitution and set up a dictatorship. Burnside had dispatched several agents to the rally who took down notes and brought back their “evidence” to the general, who then declared that it was sufficient grounds to arrest Vallandigham for treason. A military court tried him and found him guilty of violating General Order No. 38, despite his protests that he was simply expressing his opinions in public. Vallandigham was sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of the war, and was turned into a martyr by antiwar Democrats. Burnside next turned his attention to Illinois, where the Chicago Times newspaper had been printing antiwar editorials for months. The general dispatched a squadron of troops to the paper’s offices and ordered them to cease printing.
Lincoln had not been asked or informed about either Vallandigham’s arrest or the closure of the Chicago Times. He remembered the section of General Order No. 38 which declared that offenders would be banished to enemy lines and finally decided that it was a good idea; so Vallandigham was freed from jail and sent to Confederate hands. Meanwhile, Lincoln ordered the Chicago Times to be reopened and announced that Burnside had exceeded his authority in both cases. The President then issued a warning that generals were not to arrest civilians or close down newspapers again without the White House’s permission.
Burnside also dealt with Confederate raiders such as John Hunt Morgan.
In the Knoxville Campaign, Burnside advanced to Knoxville, Tennessee, first bypassing the Confederate-held Cumberland Gap and ultimately occupying Knoxville unopposed; he then sent troops back to the Cumberland Gap. Confederate commander Brig. Gen. John W. Frazer refused to surrender in the face of two Union brigades but Burnside arrived with a third, forcing the surrender of Frazer and 2,300 Confederates.[
Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, and Burnside was pursued by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, against whose troops he had battled at Marye’s Heights. Burnside skillfully outmaneuvered Longstreet at the Battle of Campbell’s Station and was able to reach his entrenchments and safety in Knoxville, where he was briefly besieged until the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fort Sanders outside the city. Tying down Longstreet’s corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. Troops under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman marched to Burnside’s aid, but the siege had already been lifted; Longstreet withdrew, eventually returning to Virginia.
Burnside was ordered to take the IX Corps back to the Eastern Theater, where he built it up to a strength of over 21,000 in Annapolis, Maryland. The IX Corps fought in the Overland Campaign of May 1864 as an independent command, reporting initially to Grant; his corps was not assigned to the Army of the Potomac because Burnside outranked its commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who had been a division commander under Burnside at Fredericksburg. This cumbersome arrangement was rectified on May 24 just before the Battle of North Anna, when Burnside agreed to waive his precedence of rank and was placed under Meade’s direct command.
Burnside fought at the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, where he did not perform in a distinguished manner,[attacking piecemeal and appearing reluctant to commit his troops to the frontal assaults that characterized these battles. After North Anna and Cold Harbor, he took his place in the siege lines of Petersburg
As the two armies faced the stalemate of trench warfare at Petersburg in July 1864, Burnside agreed to a plan suggested by a regiment of former coal miners in his corps, the 48th Pennsylvania: dig a mine under a fort named Elliot’s Salient in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. Because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered, only hours before the infantry attack, not to use his division of black troops, which had been specially trained for this mission. He was forced to use untrained white troops instead. He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots.
The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie’s men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.
Burnside was relieved of command on August 14 and sent on “extended leave” by Grant. Burnside was never recalled to duty during the remainder of the war. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, “I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed.” He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox
The Unites States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War later exonerated Burnside, and placed the blame for the Union defeat at the Crater on General Meade for requiring the specially trained USCT (United States Colored Troops) men to be withdrawn.
After his resignation, Burnside was employed in numerous railroad and industrial directorships, including the presidencies of the Cincinnati and Martinsville Railroad, the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad, the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad, and the Rhode Island Locomotive Works.
He was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island, serving from May 29, 1866, to May 25, 1869.
Burnside was a Companion of the Massachusetts Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a military society of Union officers and their descendants, and served as the Junior Vice Commander of the Massachusetts Commandery in 1869. He was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veterans’ association from 1871 to 1872, and also served as the Commander of the Department of Rhode Island of the GAR. At its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association chose him as its first president.
In 1874 Burnside was elected by the Rhode Island Senate as a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, was re-elected in 1880, and served until his death in 1881. During that time, Burnside, who had been a Democrat before the war, ran as a Republican, playing a prominent role in military affairs as well as serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1881.
Burnside died suddenly of “neuralgia of the heart” (Angina pectoris) at Bristol, Rhode Island, and is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island . An equestrian statue in his honor was erected in the late 19th century in Burnside Park in Providence.
Michael R. Gabriele, of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, is a computer programmer/analyst with Exelon Corporation, with over 35 years working in information technology.
He is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University and Bucks County Community College. He served for 8 years in the U.S. Army Reserves in the Adjutant General Corp. He is a member of the American Legion Post 308, Willow Grove, PA. He has also been active as Boy Scout Leader since 1995.
Mike Gabriele can be contacted at [email protected].