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Ambrose Burnside was born in Liberty on 23rd May, 1824. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1847. He served in the Mexican War but resigned his commission in 1853.
Burnside settled in Bristol, Rhode Island, where he became involved in the manufacture of firearms. In 1856 Burnside invented a highly successful breech-loading rifle.
On the outbreak of the American Civil War Burnside became a colonel in the Rhode Island Volunteers. After fighting successfully at Bull Run he was promoted to brigadier general in the Union Army. He served in North Carolina and developed a reputation as a dashing commander and during this period he is said to have popularized the fashion of side whiskers (later known as sideburns).
Burnside took part in the battle at Antietam (September, 1862) and afterwards President Abraham Lincoln asked him to replace George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. After the complaints that had been made by President Abraham Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, about the inaction of the Union Army, Burnside was determined to immediately launch an attack on the Confederate Army.
With a force of 122,000, Burnside, Joseph Hooker, Edwin Sumner, William Franklin attacked General Robert E. Lee and his army of 78,500, at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on 13th December. Sharpshooters based in the town initially delayed the Union Army from building a ponton bridge across the Rappahnnock River.
After clearing out the snipers the federal forces had the problem of mounting frontal assaults against troops commanded by James Longstreet. At the end of the day the Union Army had 12,700 men killed or wounded. The well protected Confederate Army suffered losses of 5,300. Ambrose Burnside wanted to renew the attack the following morning but was talked out of it by his commanders.
After the disastrous battle at Fredericksburg Burnside was replaced by Joseph Hooker. Burnside was put in charge of the Army of Ohio in March, 1863 and succeeded in capturing Morgan's Raiders and performed well at the siege of Knoxville.
Returning to the east he took part in the Wilderness campaign before organizing regiment of Pennsylvania coalminers to construct tunnels and place dynamite under the Confederate Army front lines at Petersburg. It was exploded on the 30th June and US Colored troops were sent forward to take control of the craters that had been formed. However, these troops were not given adequate support and the Confederate troops were soon able to recover its positions. Thousands of captured black soldiers were now murdered by angry Southerners.
After the war Burnside was successful in his engineering business and served as governor of Rhode Island (1866-69) and as a US Senator (1875-81). Ambrose Burnside died in Bristol, Rhode Island on 13th September, 1881.
When McClellan at last had crossed the Potomac and Richmond, the President removed him from his command and put General Burnside in his place. The selection of Burnside for so great a responsibility was not a happy one. He was a very patriotic man whose heart was in his work, and his sincerity, frankness, and amiability of manner made everybody like him. But he was not a great general, and he felt, himself, that the task to which he had been assigned was too heavy for his shoulders. The complaint against McClellan having been his slowness to act. Burnside resolved to act at once. The plan of campaign he conceived was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and thence to operate upon Richmond.
The battle began on December 13th, 1862, soon after sunrise, under a gray wintry sky. Standing inactive in reserve, we eagerly listened to the booming of the guns, hoping that we should hear the main attack move forward. At eleven o'clock Burnside ordered the assault from Fredericksburg upon Marye's Heights, Lee's fortified position. Our men advanced with enthusiasm. A fearful fire of artillery and musketry greeted them. Now they would stop a moment, then plunger forward again.
Through our glasses we saw them fall by hundreds, and their bodies dot the ground. As they approached Lee's entrenched position, sheet after sheet of flame shot forth from the heights, tearing fearful gaps in our lines. There was no running back of our men. They would sometimes stop or recoil only a little distance, but then doggedly resume the advance. A column rushing forward with charged bayonets almost seemed to reach the enemy's ramparts, but then to melt away.
Here and there large numbers of our men, within easy range of the enemy's musketry, would suddenly drop like tall grass swept down with a scythe. They had thrown themselves upon the ground to let the leaden hail pass over them, and under it to advance, crawling. It was all in vain. The enemy's line was so well posted and protected by a canal and a sunken road and stone walls and entrenchments skillfully thrown up, and so well defended, that it could not be carried by a front assault.
The early coming of night was most welcome. A longer day would have been only a prolonged butchery. And we, of the reserve, stood there while daylight lasted, seeing it all, burning to go to the aid of our brave comrades, but knowing also that it would be useless. Hot tears of rage and of pitying sympathy ran down many a weather-beaten cheek. No more horrible and torturing spectacle could have been imagined.
General Burnside bore himself like an honorable man. During the battle he had proposed to put himself personally at the head of his old corps, the Ninth, and to lead it in the assault. Reluctantly he desisted, yielding to the earnest protests of his generals. After the defeat he unhesitatingly shouldered the whole responsibility for the disaster. He not only did not accuse the troops of any shortcomings, but in the highest terms he praised their courage and extreme gallantry. He blamed only himself.
There was nothing in his exterior or in his conversation that indicated intellectual eminence or executive ability of a high order. He inspired confidence in his honesty of purpose and ardent loyalty, but it was not possible that any experienced judge of men should be impressed with him as a great man.
Burnside, Ambrose (1824), Civil War general.Burnside graduated from West Point in 1847 and served as an artillery officer in the Mexican War. He resigned in 1853 to manufacture the breech‐loading rifle he had invented. After this venture failed, George B. McClellan hired him to work for the Illinois Central Railroad.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Burnside organized the First Rhode Island Infantry Regiment. Quickly promoted to brigadier general, he led the Federal campaign against Roanoke Island (February 1862) and became a major general. Joining the Army of the Potomac in July, Burnside fought at the Battle of Antietam, where his slow crossing of Antietam Creek has caused historical controversy. After McClellan's removal that November, Burnside reluctantly assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. The unsuccessful Fredericksburg campaign gave Burnside the reputation of a man unsuited to command an army. His move to Fredericksburg had merit, but a bureaucratic snarl over pontoon bridges, uncooperative subordinates, and his own fuzzy battle orders contributed to a stunning defeat. He was relieved from command after the unsuccessful “Mud March” up the Rappahannock River. He later successfully defended Knoxville, Tennessee, against a Confederate attack. Returning east, Burnside commanded the Ninth Corps in the Overland Company. His role in the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg provoked more controversy. Resigning near the end of the war, Burnside remained active in business and Rhode Island politics.
William Marvel , Burnside , 1991.
Gary W. Gallagher, ed., Decision on the Rappahannock: Causes and Consequences of the Fredericksburg Campaign , 1995.
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Ambrose Burnside In The Civil War
He commanded his brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run and took over the command of his troops after Brigadier General David Hunter was wounded. Burnside then commanded the North Carolina expeditionary force or the coast division. Burnside was eventually offered the command of the Army of the Potomac after the Peninsula Campaign in which Major General George B. McClellan failed. Burnside also led the right wing in the Army of the Potomac when the Battle of South Mountain began. He also served in Fredericksburg, East Tennessee, the Crater, and the Overland Campaign. During the Battle of the Crater, Burnside received orders not to use the division of black troops just a few hours before the infantry attack. Black troops had been trained for the mission without them, Burnside had to use untrained troops instead.
The origin of Sideburns
However, Ambrose left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. Beyond his post as the founding president of the NRA, beyond his terms as Governor and Senator and well beyond the battles fought for the Union. Ambrose will leave a legacy in facial hair. Specifically, Kingsmen, in your sideburns. It’s no mistake that your chops go by his last name slightly reversed. Ambrose Everett Burnside had the furriest, fluffiest and most bushy sideburns you’ve ever seen. They weren’t just mutton chops, they were the mutton chops to lead all mutton chops. The man sported a freshly shaved chin that perfectly split his sideburns down the middle and it would seem, if one were to look at his picture and ponder, that this man probably trimmed those chops fewer times than he was left at the altar.
His unique look wasn’t quite a beard and it wasn’t quite a mustache, and so, a new term was coined. Sideburns, named for General Ambrose Everett Burnside, civil war veteran, United States Senator, NRA president, weapons entrepreneur and inventor, and hardworking railway man who once stood, broken-hearted at the altar, watching his bride-to-be take off to join the enemy. Who knew your chops had such a history?
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Ambrose Burnside Before “Sideburns”
Born in Liberty, Ind. on May 23, 1824, Ambrose Burnside first began his military education at New York’s West Point military academy. He graduated in 1847 and was then stationed in Veracuz during the Mexican-American War.
Following the war, Burnside served with the frontier calvary in Nevada and California before being sent to Rhode Island, where he held commander of the state militia for two years. It was also in Rhode Island that he married a local woman named Mary Richmond Bishop in 1852.
Wikimedia Commons Ambrose Burnside (seated in front of tree) poses with several officers at Rhode Island’s Camp Sprague in 1861.
In 1855, he left the armed forces for a short time and founded an arms company called Bristol Rifle Works, which he ran successfully — until the Civil War began.
At the outset of the conflict in 1861, Ambrose Burnside felt the call of duty once more and returned to service on the side of the Union in Rhode Island’s militia. Burnside was first charged with leading his troops to protect Washington, D.C., before leading his men at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia in July 1861.
He was soon promoted and sent to command troops at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in September 1862. With nearly 23,000 dead, it was the bloodiest day in American history, but one that ultimately proved beneficial to the Union.
Wikimedia Commons Ambrose Burnside sits atop his horse. 1862.
However, Ambrose Burnside then suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia later that year. Following that devastating loss, he was sent to Knoxville, where his defeat of the Confederate James L. Longstreet put him back into command of the Army of the Potomac.
But shortly after, he suffered one more devastating loss at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia on July 30, 1864. Soon after, Burnside was granted extended leave and never called to service again for the remainder of the war.
In April 1866, just after the war, Burnside kicked off his political career when he was elected governor of Rhode Island. He served for three years and eventually moved on to become a U.S. senator for Rhode Island, a position he held until his death duroing his second term in office on Sept. 13, 1881.
Ambrose Burnside was a senior Union general during the American Civil War who was criticised by some as being promoted to a rank outside of his real military ability. Outside of the American Civil War, Burnside was also a successful politician who became a state governor and US Senator.
Ambrose Burnside was born on May 23 rd 1824 in Liberty, Indiana. His education was disrupted when his mother died in 1841. Burnside took up work in a tailor’s but he quickly turned his attention to the army and joined the US Military Academy at West Point in 1843. After graduating in 1847, Burnside joined the 2 nd US Artillery. He served on the western frontier where one of his superior officers was Braxton Bragg. After serving in Nevada, New Mexico and Rhode Island, Burnside resigned his commission in 1853.
Burnside then spent his time designing and perfecting the Burnside carbine that was produced by the Burnside Arms Company. He won a $100,000 contract to supply the US Army, which was withdrawn as a result of unscrupulous behaviour by a rival gun manufacturer – he bribed J B Lloyd, the Secretary of War. To make matters worse, his newly built arms factory burnt down. Burnside had to sell the patent to his Burnside carbine to a rival to pay off his debts. He then found work as the treasurer to the Illinois Central Railroad.
Burnside had his commission renewed when the American Civil War broke out in April 1861. He became a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia and quickly became a brigade commander. His men fought at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Burnside took charge of volunteers in August 1861 and was set the task of training men who would join the Army of the Potomac.
Burnside was given the command of the North Carolina Expeditionary Force and between September 1861 and July 1862, he conducted a highly successful campaign along the coast of North Carolina which denied 80% of the state’s coastline to Confederate shipping. For this work, Burnside was promoted to major general and his men became the 9 th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac but he turned this down because he did not believe he had the necessary experience.
At the Battle of Antietam, Burnside had command of both the 9 th and 1 st Corps. However, both corps fought at either end of the battlefield – as ordered by General McClellan – and he ordered Burnside to concern himself with just 9 th Corps. However, Burnside refused to accept this and sent orders to 1 st Corps as well as directly commanding 9 th Corps. His men got bogged down at what is now called ‘Burnside Bridge’ on the Antietam battlefield. Burnside requested more men to force through an attack but McClellan would not send any.
On November 7 th 1862, Burnside was given command of the Army of the Potomac. Abraham Lincoln ordered him to be more aggressive than McClellan. Burnside targeted the Confederate capital, Richmond. This met with the President’s support. To Lincoln, Burnside appeared to be a lot more decisive and robust than his more cautious predecessor. However, the advance on Richmond, led to the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Burnside offered to resign from the Union Army but this was refused. However, a number of subordinate generals in the Army of the Potomac were openly critical of Burnside in his leadership during the Battle of Fredericksburg. He called on them to be dismissed but was himself removed from his command and replaced by General Joseph Hooker – one of his foremost critics.
Lincoln did not want to lose Burnside as a military commander and gave him command of the Department of Ohio. In this command, he arrested anyone who spoke out against the war and tried them in a military court, even if they were civilians.
Burnside met with greater military success in his capacity as commander of the Department of Ohio, such as at the Battle of Campbell’s Station and the Battle of Fort Sanders. He fought in the Overland Campaign (May1864) with his 9 th Corps, which now stood at 21,000 men. Along with other components of the Union army, 9 th Corps helped to besiege Petersburg. By digging under the Confederate positions and igniting a charge of explosives, Burnside managed to severely damage the defences of the Confederates based there. What happened next is known as the Battle of the Crater. Burnside had trained a division of African Americans to enter Petersburg once the mine had been exploded. They had been trained to go around the crater and to take advantage of the chaos and confusion that was expected in the defenders lines. However, was ordered that his Africa American troops could not be used and white troops who had not been trained were used. It led to a disastrous attack where the attackers went into the actual crater and found that they could not get out easily. They were easy prey for the Confederate sharpshooters that surrounded the crater. Men were shot as they tried to crawl out of the crater. The attack that should have been relatively easy had Burnside been allowed to do as he wanted to, proved to be a disaster.
Burnside was sent on leave by General Ullyses Grant and relieved of his command. A court of inquiry placed the blame for the high casualty rate on Burnside. He resigned his commission on April 15 th 1865.
Burnside worked in a number of senior positions in various railway companies. He was also Governor of Rhode Island between 1866 and 1869. Burnside was also the first president of the NRA (National Rifle Association). In 1874, he was elected Senator for Rhode Island and was re-elected in 1880.
Blundering Underlings Betrayed Burnside at Fredericksburg
Lithograph shows Union engineers struggling to build belatedly arriving pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River under fire from Mississippi sharpshooters in the town of Fredericksburg. (National Parks Service)
By Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
Plenty of blame to go around for the defeat that cost the Union army 13,000 casualties
To the casual observer, the Battle of Fredericksburg was a terrible blunder for the Union Army of the Potomac, in particular the daylong attacks on Marye’s Heights: 30,000 troops repeatedly sent 900 yards across an open field, uphill, against Confederate infantry hunkered down behind a formidable stone wall and supported by nearly 50 artillery pieces perched on the heights behind them. By the end of the fighting on December 13, 1862, the Federals had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, the Confederates fewer than 5,000.
History blames Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside for the Federal fiasco at Fredericksburg. In fact, he had many reasons to believe he would succeed. (Battlefield.org)
It’s easy to cast blame on Union commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, to decry the loss as a tragic debacle that should have been avoided at all costs. But to dismiss Burnside as a blunderer is to make a blunder. The outcome of the Battle of Fredericksburg was anything but an inevitable fiasco-waiting-to-happen. Going in, Burnside had many legitimate reasons to believe he could win.
To better understand Burnside’s mindset, flash back to September 17, 1862, when the two armies clashed along Antietam Creek in the single bloodiest day of the war. After the battle, Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee slipped his Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac River and to the safety of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan decided not to give chase.
Mathew Brady photo of the meeting between President Lincoln and General McClellan Oct. 3, 1862, after Antietam. Lincoln had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and was pressing McClellan to pursue Lee’s army into Virginia. (Ohio History Connection)
Frustrated by McClellan’s inaction, President Abraham Lincoln urged his commander onward, but to no avail—and Lincoln could do nothing about it. The midterm elections were coming up, and things already looked grim for his Republican Party. By disciplining McClellan, a popular Democrat, Lincoln would only make his political situation worse.
But the day after the elections, on November 7, Lincoln sacked McClellan and appointed Burnside in his place. Burnside came to command knowing that his predecessor was fired for not doing anything. As a result, he knew he had to do something or risk McClellan’s fate.
Not only did Burnside have to act, he also had to do so quickly. It was already mid-November, and winter would soon settle in. Once the weather turned, conducting a campaign would be next to impossible.
It would not be enough, however, to march around and rattle his army’s sabers in a show of force. Burnside had to win. Because of the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in areas of the United States still in rebellion. Of course, the only way to enforce the proclamation and garner public support would be through battlefield victory—otherwise, the president’s lofty plan would be little more than a paper tiger.
General-in-Chief Henry Halleck pressured Burnside to fight for political reasons.
So Burnside had to do something, he had to do it quickly, and he had to succeed. Washington’s fervor for battle was so intense that Lincoln’s general-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, said it was better for Burnside “to fight a battle now, even if he is to lose it.”
Rather than follow the Confederates southwest into the Shenandoah Valley, Burnside devised a plan to slip his 118,000 men southeast to Fredericksburg, where he could cross the Rappahannock River, make a quick dash to Richmond, capture the Confederate capital, and, he hoped, end the war. If nothing else, threatening Richmond would draw Lee into battle.
Fredericksburg, a city with a wartime population of just more than 5,000, lay directly between the capitals of Richmond and Washington, D.C. The city was a key component to Burnside’s plan because it had a major railroad and a river Burnside could use both to supply his army. Fredericksburg also boasted two major roads to the Confederate capital: the Telegraph Road and the Bowling Green Road.
Burnside knew the bridges in Fredericksburg had been burned during a Federal occupation of the city the previous summer. So, well in advance of his move, he asked the War Department to send bridging materials that he could use to span the river.
On November 15, Burnside launched his plan, successfully moving his army to Fredericksburg by November 19. Due to circumstances beyond Burnside’s control, though, the bridging materials had not yet arrived. Poor communication between the War Department and the engineers in charge of the bridging left the materials backed up along a route that stretched from Washington, D.C., to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That breakdown in communication would cost Burnside and his army dearly.
When Lee discovered what Burnside was up to, he quickly moved to intercept the Federals. With part of the Confederate army settled around Culpeper, Va., and part of it still in the Shenandoah Valley, Lee ordered the two wings to concentrate. He moved his First Corps, under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, into the hills behind Fredericksburg—including the area known as Marye’s Heights. These 40,000 men were in a perfect blocking position.
The other half of Lee’s army—the 38,000 men in Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps—stretched out some 25 miles toward the south to cover all other possible river crossings. Until Burnside showed his hand, Lee had to prepare for all contingencies.
A quick strike was now out of the question for Burnside because he’d lost the element of surprise—but he still needed to do something.
As he considered his alternatives, Burnside looked downriver. There, the Rappahannock was wider, it was affected by the ocean’s tides, and the road network on the opposite bank wasn’t especially conducive for moving his large army.
Alternatively, if the army moved upriver it would have to cross not only the Rappahannock but also its main tributary, the Rapidan. Meanwhile, Lee could simply shift his army to the northwest to meet Burnside, and then the Union army would face two contested river crossings instead of one. Going in that direction would also move the Union army away from its supply lines.
In short, neither direction looked promising. At least if he crossed at Fredericksburg, Burnside could use the city to shield the army’s movements, giving his men a degree of protection. So, of the options available to him, Fredericksburg offered the best chance for success. “I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river,” Burnside wired Lincoln.
Burnside planned to build pontoon bridges at the north and south ends of town, along with two pontoon bridges about a mile below town (eventually there would be three bridges at that southernmost location). His army would cross at all three places, but Burnside planned to launch his main attack against the south end of the Confederate line, at an area known as Prospect Hill, where the high ground wasn’t as formidable as it was directly behind the city.
To prevent the Confederates from reinforcing the southern part of their line, though, Burnside intended to launch an attack against the northern end of the Confederate position to hold those potential reinforcements in place. He hoped one assault or the other would achieve a breakthrough that would flush Lee’s army from its position and open the southward road toward Richmond.
Burnside set his plan into motion on December 11. The engineers had difficulty building their pontoon bridges because of Mississippi riflemen ensconced in the city. After artillery bombardment failed to dislodge the Mississippians, Union commanders sent several regiments across the river in boats to establish a bridgehead. It would become the first amphibious landing under fire in American history.
Lithograph showing fighting in the streets of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862 (Library of Congress)
Troops from New York and Michigan established the foothold, and from there, the Union regiments fanned out. Street fighting ensued. Losses were heavy on both sides. The 20th Massachusetts, known as the “Harvard Regiment,” lost 163 of 307 engaged. The house-to-house battle lasted more than 3½ hours before the Mississippians were driven back to the main Confederate line. They had held off the Union advance for an entire day, buying crucial time for Lee to concentrate his men.
The Union engineers finished their bridges, but the bulk of the Union army would not cross the river until December 12. Frustrated by the delay, Federal soldiers took out their anger by sacking the city of Fredericksburg. Their commander, meanwhile, frittered away December 12, supervising the advance of his army in and around the city and tweaking his plan.
This delay may have been Burnside’s decisive mistake. Remember, his plan called for an attack on the southern end of the Confederate line—the very section of the line that was weakest, stretched out 25 miles to the south. However, once Burnside tipped his hand by crossing in Fredericksburg, Lee sent word to Jackson to concentrate his Second Corps. Burnside’s wasted December 12 gave Jackson the valuable time he needed to consolidate his position at Prospect Hill.
Burnside intended to launch his attack against Prospect Hill in the predawn hours of December 13 with 60,000 men. Although Burnside cut the orders on the night of December 12, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, commanding the army’s Left Grand Division on the southern end of the field, didn’t get them until 7:45 a.m.—35 minutes after dawn.
To make matters worse, Burnside’s orders were vague, saying, “You will send out at once a division at least…taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open.” Although the written orders flummoxed Franklin, who didn’t quite know how to interpret them even though he and Burnside had gone over the plan the previous evening, he failed to ask Burnside for clarification.
After the Army of the Potomac lost the element of surprise at Fredericksburg, left wing commander Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin compounded the failure by neglecting to reinforce Maj. Gen. George Meade’s men at the southern end of the Union line. (American Battlefield Trust)
Meanwhile, Burnside, unaware that his plan was already unraveling, sent word at about 10 a.m. to Maj. Gen. Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner, commander of the Right Grand Division, to begin the assault at the north end of the line in front of an area known as Marye’s Heights, a ridge that crested about 900 yards beyond the western edge of the city.
Despite the uphill slope Union soldiers would have to cross, Union commanders saw an advantage to the terrain: The wide-open space contained very few obstructions, which would allow the advancing soldiers to build up momentum for their attack. The plan called for a lightning-fast strike out of the city, across the open plain, and against the Confederate infantry position—a sunken road that ran behind a stone wall some 30 yards below the crest of the hill, held by 2,000 troops from Georgia, under Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb. The Confederate pickets out in the field would be so startled by the fast attack that they would turn tail and run back to the line, acting as human shields for the advancing Union soldiers hot on their heels.
The chest-high wall looked imposing, although a portion of it was hidden from Union view because it held up a dirt embankment. Even so, Federals saw a potential advantage to attacking the wall. After all, at Antietam, the Confederates had used a sunken road as a fortified rifle pit, from which they were able to generate a withering fire—but once the Union soldiers broke through, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Confederates had no safe route of retreat.
Here in Fredericksburg, the situation would be much the same. If Union forces could breach the stone wall, Confederates could try to retreat, but the only route available would be up the slippery exposed slope behind them or down the Telegraph Road toward Franklin’s force.
In addition, if Union troops could breach the wall, it would give them safety from the artillery fire that would surely rain down from the top of Marye’s Heights. First Corps artillery chief Colonel E. Porter Alexander had nearly 50 guns posted along the top of the heights. “Sir, a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” he boasted to his commander, General Longstreet, referring to the expanse the Yankees would have to cross. But if those Yankees got close enough to the stone wall, the Confederate artillerymen wouldn’t be able to depress their barrels enough to fire on them.
Confederate infantrymen from Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb’s and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s units put up a withering fire from behind the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. (British Library Collection)
By 11:45 a.m., the first Union troops, under Brig. Gen. William H. French, stepped out of the city toward Marye’s Heights. The 4,500 men in his three brigades immediately came under artillery fire from Alexander’s batteries. “We could see our shells, bursting in their ranks, making great gaps,” said one of the artillerists. A Union soldier said that “it seemed we were moving in the crater of a volcano.” Still, the Union soldiers came on, even as the cannons tore them to pieces.
A millrace cut across the field. Fifteen feet wide and five feet deep, the ditch diverted water from the Rappahannock. Union engineers had blocked off the millrace and tried to drain it, but nearly three feet of water still stood at the bottom. The troops clambered through, then tried to get back into formation before continuing their advance, the artillery ripping into them the entire time.
Another factor the Federals hadn’t considered was the weather. On December 13, the temperature rose to 56 degrees—but several days previously, it had snowed. The subsequent warm weather melted the snow, making the ground wet and spongy and slippery. The smooth-soled boots of the soldiers made footing on the muddy ground even slipperier and the advance more difficult.
When the lead elements of French’s attack neared the stone wall, the Confederate infantry opened on them, halting the advance. “[O]ur men were never subjected to a more devouring fire,” one Union soldier said.
All three brigades in French’s division met the same fate as they tried to brave the “furious storm of shot, shell, and shrapnel.” Nearly a quarter of French’s soldiers would end up as casualties. Survivors took cover in a shallow swale, a dip in the ground about 200 yards downhill of the stone wall.
Still, the Union soldiers came on. At about noon, after French’s attack fizzled, Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s 5,000 men were sent in to face the storm of lead coming from the stone wall.
Maj. Gen. William H. French led the first Union troops against Marye’s Heights. Nearly a third of the men in his three brigades would end up casualties. (American Battlefield Trust)
Among Hancock’s men was the Irish Brigade, one of the more famed units to fight at Fredericksburg. Of the 1,200 Irishmen who advanced against the wall, only 256 would survive the assault to answer roll call the next morning. (After the battle, as stragglers and the wounded returned, the brigade’s ranks would increase to just more than 600.) Overall, Hancock’s division suffered 2,000 casualties.
By 1 p.m., Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s division, with its 3,500 men, was sent against the stone wall. Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis with 4,475 men of the 9th Corps was sent to support Howard. They suffered 610 and 1,011 casualties, respectively.
Overall, the Union army was suffering a staggering average of 1,000 casualties an hour.
By 3 p.m., Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division, with its 6,000 men, was sent into action. Instead of making the stone wall his objective, Griffin sent his men in piecemeal to relieve Sturgis’ embattled troops. When Griffin finally did decide to attack the wall, he lacked the strength to do it. By the end of the day, his division suffered nearly 1,000 casualties.
By this time, on the Confederate side, nearly 3,000 reinforcements had been sent to the Sunken Road to support the 2,000 infantrymen who had started the battle. To get into position, reinforcements had to descend from Marye’s Heights down a steep embankment that exposed them to Union fire. Most of the Confederate casualties suffered during the fighting would occur on that hillside. For instance, the 8th South Carolina, stationed atop Marye’s Heights, incurred 31 casualties in the battle—28 of them on the top of the hill and on the hillside as they advanced down to the Sunken Road on the road itself, they sustained only three.
From the Union perspective, it might have looked as though their advances were having an impact. Why else would Confederates send in reinforcements if not because they were feeling the pressure?
A Currier and Ives lithograph of the relentless but futile charges by Union troops up Marye’s Heights.
In fact, Confederate soldiers were putting so much lead in the air that they were running out of ammunition. To alleviate the problem, Longstreet shifted entire brigades onto the road: Fresh soldiers meant fresh supplies of ammunition. “[I]f you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line,” Longstreet boasted.
The Confederate firepower behind the wall was made even more terrible by the efficiency of the infantrymen. Some units lined up four to six ranks deep, with the man in front firing and then going to the back of the line to reload while the second person stepped up to fire. When he did, he went to the back of the line while the third man stepped up, and so on. Thus the Confederates were able to create a conveyer belt–like effect.
Other units put their best marksmen in the front they would fire, pass their empty muskets to the back while someone passed them a loaded one, which they would fire and again trade for a loaded one. In this way, “[t]he small arms made one continual noise without a moment’s cessation,” a Confederate infantryman said. Another Confederate marksman stated he was black and blue from his right elbow all the way to his right hip for the next two weeks because he fired so many rounds that day.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the field near Prospect Hill, Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade—who would eventually command the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg—finally achieved success. At about 1 p.m., Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves broke through the Confederate line. However, they were 8,000 men trying to drive through 38,000 Confederates stacked four divisions deep. Meade’s men held for a while, but the Confederates began to push them back.
Meade, confident he could exploit the breakthrough if supported, desperately called for reinforcements. No one came, so Meade rode back himself to look for help. He even verbally assaulted another general who had not marched to his aid.
But it was all to no avail. Meade’s commander, Franklin, had decided his soldiers had had enough and called off the attack.
Yet he didn’t tell Burnside.
And so, Burnside continued to send troops into the meat grinder in front of the stone wall to support an attack at the far end of the field that was not happening.
Burnside was able to see Marye’s Heights from Sumner’s headquarters at Chatham Manor, a large house directly across from the action on the far bank of the Rappahannock he could not see Prospect Hill, though, obscured by trees, smoke, and distance. The Rappahannock, however, amplified the echoing effect of the sound waves from the battle. As a result, Burnside could hear constant gunfire, but he couldn’t pinpoint the direction from which it was coming. From his perspective, it sounded as if everything at the far end of the field was carrying on as ordered.
Poor communications complicated matters. Although the Union army had strung miles of telegraph line, not everyone trusted the new system, so officers frequently sent couriers, who took a great deal of time to travel from one end of the line to the other.
Eventually, Burnside learned that Franklin had called off the attack and ordered him to resume his offensive, to “advance his whole line.” Franklin, who was as overcautious as his old mentor, McClellan, said he’d see what he could do—but then did nothing.
And again, he did not tell Burnside.
A Mathew Brady portrait of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, whose men succeeded in pushing back Stonewall Jackson’s force at Prospect Hill. Meade called desperately for reinforcements, but William Franklin had called off the attack and left Meade hanging.
Burnside, however, expecting that his orders were being carried out, continued to throw soldiers at the stone wall to keep those Confederates from reinforcing the far end of their line. And so, what had originally been intended only as a diversion took on a terrible life of its own. By the end of the day, seven waves of Union soldiers would crash against the stone wall and be swept away—18 Federal brigades containing some 30,000 men. Beside French, Hancock, Howard, Sturgis, and Griffin, Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys and Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty sent in attacks.
Humphreys’ 4,500 Pennsylvanians attacked with a series of bayonet charges. Survivors of previous Union attacks clung to the pantlegs of the advancing men. “Don’t go forward, it is useless, you will be killed,” one of them pleaded as he lay prostrate behind the swale. For a plan that called for a fast bayonet charge, having fellow soldiers grabbing at the legs of the advancing men tended to be counterproductive.
Still, Humphreys’ men claimed they made it to within 12 paces of the wall. Peter Allabach, a colonel under Humphreys, stated, “My boys made it closer to the gates of hell that day than anyone else on the battlefield.” Subsequent charges got to within 30–45 yards of the stone wall before being repulsed by “a sheet of flames.” Humphreys lost more than 1,000 men in less than 45 minutes.
Getty’s attack came at the end of the day, just after sunset. His men advanced through “(a) perfect storm of bullets, boys a perfect storm!” according to one Connecticut colonel.
One of Getty’s brigades, under Colonel Rush C. Hawkins, got within 80 yards of the stone wall by sneaking under the cover of darkness up an unfinished railroad cut. In their excitement, the men let out a yell as they neared the wall, giving away their position. “If they had not started with a cheer,” admitted E.P. Alexander, “I don’t think that I, at least, would have known they were coming for I could not see them.” But thanks to the giveaway, Alexander’s men loaded up with canister, and the volley that ensued shredded Hawkins’ advance.
Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphrey’s men made the final charge against Marye’s Heights. Again and again, wounded men would grab their pant legs and beg them not to try to advance. Their momentum spent, the men fell back and General Burnside called off the attack.
So ended the fighting on December 13. More than 8,000 Union casualties lay in front of Marye’s Heights. The Confederates had suffered just about 1,000—an 8-to-1 ratio. Nearly one-third of the attacking force became casualties, yet not a single federal soldier touched the stone wall or made it into the Sunken Road.
Meanwhile, at Prospect Hill, which had clearly held Burnside’s best chance for victory, the Union army suffered 4,500 casualties, the Confederates just more than 4,000.
The next morning, Burnside still believed he could achieve victory at Fredericksburg. He convened a council of war with his subordinates and announced that he would personally lead his former troops, the 9th Corps, into battle. Burnside believed that the personal loyalty those soldiers felt toward him would inspire them to follow him anywhere, including across the upward sloping plain toward the stone wall.
Burnside, however, was the only one who felt that way. After doing a personal inspection and talking to several officers, “I found the feeling to be rather against an attack…” he said, “in fact, it was decidedly against it.” Ultimately, a teary-eyed Burnside called off his plan.
Therefore, December 14 passed with Confederate soldiers behind the stone wall trading pot shots with Union soldiers trapped behind the swale. Lee tried to goad Burnside into another attack, but the Union commander balked, so the Confederates simply fortified their position further. December 15 would pass much the same way, and when December 15 waned into December 16, Burnside withdrew his army under the cover of darkness.
Lee, who was usually aggressive, knew this was one victory he could not follow up. He understood that if he counterattacked across the same fields the Union army had just crossed, he would have the tables turned against him. The Federals had 147 cannon placed across the river on Chatham and Stafford Heights, and a large number of Union infantry had not yet been engaged. Frustrated, Lee could only watch the Federal army slip away to safety.
On the night of December 13-14, the Northern Lights had appeared—a rare occurrence that far south. They shone overhead for more than an hour. Union soldiers saw the lights as God’s way of commemorating the brave sacrifice of their fallen comrades. Confederates, on the other hand, said that “the heavens were hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our victory.”
But the Battle of Fredericksburg was no magnificent victory for the Confederates, and Lee knew it. At one point, he had watched from a hilltop as the spectacle unfolded below him and had said, “It is a good thing war is so terrible we should grow too fond of it.” Lee knew what an awful price Burnside’s army had paid in defeat.
The Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, with around 8,000 of them on the ground in front of the stone wall. The Confederates, by comparison, suffered fewer than 5,000 casualties, most of them at the far end of the field near Prospect Hill where Meade achieved his breakthrough.
Those lopsided numbers might suggest a terrible blunder on the part of Ambrose Burnside. However, while his generalship would ultimately prove to be unspectacular, at Fredericksburg Burnside was as much a victim of circumstances, sloppy communication, and poor generalship by his subordinates as he was a victim of his own mediocrity.
Burnside had come to Fredericksburg with many reasons to think he could find victory there.
About Maj. General Ambrose Burnside (USA), Governor, U.S. Senator
Ambrose Everett Burnside (May 23, 1824 – September 13, 1881) was an American soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a U.S. Senator. As a Union Army general in the American Civil War, he conducted successful campaigns in North Carolina and East Tennessee but was defeated in the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg and Battle of the Crater. His distinctive style of facial hair is now known as sideburns, derived from his last name.
Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, the fourth of nine children of Edghill and Pamela (or Pamilia) Brown Burnside, a family of Scottish origin. His great-great-grandfather Robert Burnside (1725) was born in Scotland and settled in the Province of South Carolina. His father, a native of South Carolina, was a slave owner who freed his slaves when he relocated to Indiana. Ambrose attended Liberty Seminary as a young boy, but his education was interrupted when his mother died in 1841 he was apprenticed to a local tailor, eventually becoming a partner in the business. His interest in military affairs and his father's political connections obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1843. He graduated in 1847, ranking 18th in a class of 38, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He traveled to Veracruz for the Mexican-American War but arrived after hostilities ceased and performed mostly garrison duty around Mexico City.
At the close of the war, Lt. Burnside served two years on the western frontier, serving 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. In 1852, he was assigned to Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island, and, while there, he married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, on April 27. The marriage, which lasted until Burnside's death, was childless.
In 1853, Burnside resigned his commission in the United States Army, although maintaining a position in the state militia, and devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous rifle that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. The Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, John B. Floyd, contracted with the Burnside Arms Company to equip a large portion of the Army with his carbine 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 went west in search of employment and became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he worked for, and became friendly with, one of his future commanding officers, George B. McClellan.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised a regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. 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 Run in July, committing his troops piecemeal, and took over division command temporarily for wounded Brig. Gen. David Hunter. After his 90-day regiment was mustered out of service, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 6, and was assigned to train provisional brigades in the nascent Army of the Potomac.
Burnside commanded the Coast Division, or North Carolina Expeditionary Force—three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps𠅊nd the Department of North Carolina, from September 1861 until July 1862. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war. For his successes at the battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern, the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater, he was promoted to major general on March 18. In July, his forces were transported north to Newport News, Virginia, and became the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Following Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's failure in the Peninsula Campaign, Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Refusing this opportunityuse of his loyalty to McClellan and because he understood his own lack of military experience— he detached part of his corps in support of Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Telegrams extremely critical of Pope's abilities as a commander from Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter that he received at this time and forwarded on to his superiors in concurrence would later play a significant role in Porter's court-martial, in which Burnside would appear as a star witness.
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 Corps and 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, returning Burnside to command of just the IX Corps. Implicitly refusing to give up his higher authority, Burnside treated first Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno (killed at South Mountain) and then Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox as the corps commander, funneling orders to the corps through them. This cumbersome arrangement contributed to his slowness in attacking and crossing what is now called "Burnside's Bridge" on the southern flank of the Union line.
Burnside did not perform adequate reconnaissance of the area, and instead of taking advantage of several easy fording sites out of range of the enemy, his troops were forced into 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 ordered one aide, "Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now." He increased the pressure by sending his inspector general to confront Burnside, who reacted indignantly: "McClellan appears to think I am not trying my best to carry this bridge you are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders." 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 Robert 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. President Abraham Lincoln pressured Burnside to take aggressive action and on November 14 approved his plan to capture the Confederate capital at 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 planning in marshaling pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River and his own reluctance to deploy portions of his army across fording points later delayed the attack. This allowed Gen. Lee to concentrate along Marye's Heights just west of town and easily repulse the Union attacks. Assaults south of town, which were supposed to be the main avenue of attack, were also mismanaged, and initial Union breakthroughs went unsupported. Upset by the failure of his plan and by the enormous casualties of his repeated, futile frontal assaults, Burnside declared that he would lead an assault by his old corps. His corps commanders talked him out of it, but relations between the commander and his subordinates were strained. Accepting full blame, he offered to retire from the U.S. Army, but this was refused.
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 officers, who were openly insubordinate, 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.
Lincoln was unwilling to lose Burnside from the Army and assigned him to command the Department of the Ohio and his old IX Corps. In Ohio, Burnside issued his controversial General Order Number 38, making it a crime to express any kind of opposition to the war. Burnside used it to arrest former Ohio congressman and candidate for governor of Ohio, Clement Vallandigham, a prominent leader in the copperhead peace movement, and try him in a military court (despite the fact that he was a civilian). 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. After occupying Knoxville unopposed, he sent troops back to the Cumberland Gap. Brig. Gen. John W. Frazer, the Confederate commander, refused to surrender in the face of two Union brigades and Burnside arrived with a third, forcing the surrender of Frazer and 2,300 Confederates. After Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, 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, in Annapolis, Maryland, he built it up to a strength of over 21,000 effectives. 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 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 at 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 Pennsylvania coal miners in his corps: dig a mine under a fort 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 murderous fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.
Burnside was relieved of command on August 14 and sent on leave by Grant Meade never recalled him to duty. 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 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 (May 1866 to May 1869). He was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans' association from 1871 to 1872. At its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association chose him as its first president.
During a visit to Europe in 1870, Burnside attempted to mediate between the French and the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1874 he was elected as 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 a heart attack on September 13, 1881 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.
Personally, Burnside was always very popular𠅋oth in the army and in politics. He made friends easily, smiled a lot, and remembered everyone's name. His professional military reputation, however, was less positive, and he was known for being obstinate, unimaginative, and unsuited both intellectually and emotionally for high command. Grant stated that he was "unfitted" for the command of an army, and that no one knew this better than Burnside. Knowing his capabilities, he twice refused command of the Army of the Potomac, only accepting when told that the command would otherwise go to Joseph Hooker. Jeffry D. Wert described Burnside's relief after Fredericksburg in a passage that sums up his military career:
He had been the most unfortunate commander of the Army, a general who had been cursed by succeeding its most popular leader and a man who believed he was unfit for the post. 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. He had been willing to fight the enemy, but the terrible slope before Marye's Heights stands as his legacy.
– Jeffry D. Wert, The Sword of Lincoln
Bruce Catton summarized Burnside:
. Burnside had repeatedly demonstrated that it had been a military tragedy to give him a rank higher than colonel. One reason might have been that, with all his deficiencies, Burnside never had any angles of his own to play he was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best even if that best was not very good, never scheming or conniving or backbiting. Also, he was modest in an army many of whose generals were insufferable prima donnas, Burnside never mistook himself for Napoleon. Physically he was impressive: tall, just a little stout, wearing what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army. He customarily wore a high, bell-crowned felt hat with the brim turned down and a double-breasted, knee-length frock coat, belted at the waist𠅊 costume which, unfortunately, is apt to strike the modern eye as being very much like that of a beefy city cop of the 1880s.
– Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln's Army
Burnside was noted for his unusual facial hair, joining strips of hair in front of his ears to his mustache but with chin clean-shaven the word burnsides was coined to describe this style. The syllables were later reversed to give sideburns.
Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon, is named for General Burnside, as is Burnside residence hall at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.
Burnside was portrayed by Alex Hyde-White in Ronald F. Maxwell's 2003 film Gods and Generals, which includes the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Ambrose E. Burnside
Ambrose Everett Burnside began his military career of varied success after graduating 18th in a class of 47 from the United States Military Academy in 1847. He received a brevet second lieutenant position in the 2nd Artillery, and served during the Mexican-American War mostly on garrison duty in Mexico City. After the war, he briefly served in garrison duty in the southwestern United States, and resigned his commission in 1853. He set to work on a breech-loading rifle, which eventually failed, was appointed as a major general of the Rhode Island militia, and received a nomination to Congress.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside organized the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, which was one of the first units to arrive in Washington and offer the capitol protection. At the battle of First Manassas, Burnside commanded a brigade of infantry, and was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers on August 6, 1861 for his actions.
In September of 1861, Burnside was given command of three brigades known as the North Carolina Expeditionary Force, and launched an attack against the North Carolina coast. His force was successful in achieving a foothold in North Carolina, resulting in Burnside’s promotion to major general of volunteers on March 18, 1862. At the battle of Antietam, Union General George B. McClellan gave Burnside command of the IX Corps as well as the I Corps. During the battle, however, while in charge of the IX Corps, Burnside’s overly precise orders caused confusion and delays, which led to great difficulties in capturing what became known as “Burnside’s Bridge.”
After McClellan’s failure to follow General Robert E. Lee following the battle of Antietam, Burnside was made commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862. Burnside decided to attempt a rapid approach to Richmond, leading to a very costly Union defeat on December 13 at the Battle of Fredericksburg, during which the Union army received 13,000 casualties after making numerous assaults against impregnable Confederate positions. This Union debacle, combined with a second failed attempt which became known as the “Mud March,” caused Burnside to be relieved of command, and Joseph Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac.
In March of 1863, Burnside was given command of the Department of the Ohio. During his command, he arrested ex-Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham for making seditious comments, an act which drew Burnside some criticism. In autumn of 1863, Burnside successfully commanded his troops against Confederate General James L. Longstreet. Burnside was able to outmaneuver Longstreet, and successfully held on to the city of Knoxville until Union reinforcements under William T. Sherman arrived and forced Longstreet to retreat.
After his successful defense of Knoxville, Burnside was ordered to take command of the IX Corps in support of the Army of the Potomac. He participated in much of the Overland Campaign under the direction of General Ulysses S. Grant, including the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. During the siege of Petersburg, Burnside commanded troops in the battle of the Crater, during which a Union mine dug under Confederate positions was filled with explosives and detonated, creating a fifty yard gap in the Confederate lines. Burnside failed to exploit the gap in time, which resulted in the loss of Union soldiers. After this failure, Burnside resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.
After the war, Burnside briefly served as Senator from the state of Rhode Island. The distinctive facial hair he wore throughout most of his life led to the identification of that form of facial hair by the modern name, sideburns, created from his last name.
Ambrose Everett Burnside
Commanded a brigade at First Manassas and later succeeded McClellan as the head of the Army of the Potomac. He was removed by Lincoln after Fredericksburg. Ambrose Burnside generally knew his limits, but despite that was promoted beyond his capability.
He was born in Indiana, went to seminary for a while, then West Point (class of 1847) and served in Mexico. He saw no action, only garrison duty. Against the Indians it was different: he was wounded in 1849 in the New Mexico Territory. He resigned in 1853 to make his fortune by inventing a breech-loading carbine. The Army wouldn't buy it and he went bankrupt trying. (His creditors had to be happy with the patent, which made them millions during the Civil War, when the Army was happy to have the gun.) He moved to Illinois and became treasurer of the Illinois Central.
He dropped that in 1861, raising and becoming Colonel of the 1st Rhode Island. He was acting as brigade commander at First Manassas, and didn't show much insight, leading a series of piecemeal attacks rather than concentrating for an overwhelming one in the important early stages of the battle. He and his men were mustered out in August 1861 (their enlistments had run out) but four days later he was a Brigadier General and in charge of an independent force.
Burnside was in charge of the North Carolina expedition, and grabbed (against light opposition) bases on Roanoke Island, and the port of New Bern. He wasn't brilliant, and there wasn't the strength to press inland, but he certainly helped the Union blockade. Success anywhere, anyhow, was enough for promotion and he pinned up his second star, and Lincoln offered him command of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside wisely declined, letting John Pope have a turn. When Pope proved incompetent, Lincoln made Burnside the same offer, but it was again declined.
Instead Burnside was given oversight of two Corps (I and IX) during the Antietam campaign. At the actual battle they were on opposite ends of the Union line, and he stationed himself with IX Corps, which made slow progress crossing the Antietam Creek. Burnside, the professional soldier, saw a bridge and apparently assumed the creek was to deep to ford. Successive attacks across the bridge failed, while he could simply have pushed across the stream and flanked the few Confederate defenders. (He also detached men from the main effort, scattering his forces.) He finally cleared the bridge and seemed to be pushing through into Lee's rear, unopposed, but he'd waited too long. A.P. Hill's Light Division slammed into Burnside's flank and sent the Union troops reeling.
With McClellan removed after the battle, Lincoln told Burnside to take command. He was still hesitant but felt he could not refuse an order. He stole a march on Lee and attacked Fredericksburg, again after delays actually crossing the river. The delays meant Lee could concentrate, and the Army of the Potomac paid heavily for it, in their most one-sided defeat. Having tricked Lee once in December 1862, Burnside tried it again in January 1863. This time it turned into the "Mud March" and Lee hardly needed to respond while Union soldiers drowned in mud. Burnside was sacked after saying he wanted out and also wanted a batch of officers court-martialed.