Born May 23, 1824
Died September 13, 1881
Bristol, Rhode Island
Best known for his decisive defeat at the Battle of
Fredericksburg and his unsuccessful "Crater"
attack during the siege of Petersburg
Ambrose Burnside is best known for his disastrous command of the Union's Army of the Potomac from November 1862 to January 1863. During the course of this three-month period, Burnside's army suffered a major defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the hands of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry). Burnside then tried to rally his army by launching an offensive across Virginia's Rappahannock River, but the Union march fell apart when bad weather reduced the army's route to a muddy quagmire. After his removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside served the North well by helping to hold Knoxville, Tennessee, against Southern forces. But in late 1864, his scheme to break Confederate defenses at Petersburg failed miserably. This attack, known as the Battle of the Crater, ended Burnside's military career.
Soldier and inventor
Ambrose Everett Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, to a former South Carolina slaveowner who settled in Indiana after freeing his slaves. He received a good education as a youngster, and in 1843 he enrolled in the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He served in the Mexican War (1846–48) after his 1847 graduation from West Point, helping guard forts and military supply centers.
In 1848, the Mexican War came to an end, as the United States acquired vast new territories in the West from the weaker Mexican government. Continuing his service with the army, Burnside served at various federal forts in these newly acquired territories. In 1849, he was wounded in a clash with Apache Indians, but he made a quick recovery.
By the early 1850s, Burnside had built a reputation among his fellow soldiers as a likable, intelligent officer who seemed to be on track for a successful career in the military. In 1853, though, he surprised his colleagues by resigning from the army in order to open a rifle-making factory. Burnside had developed a new breech-loading rifle (a rifle that could be loaded from the side) that he felt was greatly superior to the rifles currently being used by U.S. soldiers. He thought that his new design would make him very wealthy. Unfortunately, he was forced to declare bankruptcy after a few years because he could not convince the federal government to buy his rifles. He had to turn his factory and his rifle design over to creditors (other businessmen to whom Burnside owed money). A few years later, these businessmen became rich using Burnside's rifle design. They sold more than fifty-five thousand of his rifles—called "Burnside Carbines"—and millions of rounds of matching ammunition to the Union Army during the Civil War. But since Burnside had been forced to give up possession of the rifle design in order to pay off his debts, he never received any money from these sales.
Early Civil War successes
In the late 1850s, Burnside worked as an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad and served as major general of the Rhode Island militia (a group of citizens who volunteer to provide military services). He returned to the regular army in the spring of 1861, when longstanding tensions between America's Northern and Southern states finally exploded into war.
America's Northern and Southern regions had been angry with one another for years over a variety of issues. The major issue dividing the two sections, however, was slavery. The Northern states felt that slavery was immoral and wanted the federal government to pass laws that would end the practice. The South, however, wanted to keep slavery because many of its economic and social institutions relied on it. They also argued that each state should be able to decide for itself whether to allow slavery. As Northern calls to end slavery grew stronger over the years, Southerners became increasingly resentful and defensive. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form their own country that accepted slavery in early 1861.
Burnside enjoyed many military successes during the first eighteen months of the war. Serving as a colonel in the First Rhode Island Volunteers, Burnside helped organize the establishment of new defenses around Washington, D.C. Weeks later, his performance at the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, convinced the Lincoln administration to promote him to brigadier general.
In early 1862, Burnside's reputation continued to grow. He organized an expedition down the North Carolina coast that destroyed a small Confederate fleet and captured Roanoke Island. After seizing the island (and capturing twenty-six hundred Confederate soldiers stationed there), Burnside continued to move down the coast. Over the course of several weeks he captured Southern positions in North Carolina at New Berne, Beaufort, and Fort Macon. In recognition of his successful expedition, Burnside was promoted to major general on March 18, 1862. In July, he was named commander of the Army of the Potomac's Ninth Corps.
Burnside and the Army of the Potomac
During the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) twice offered Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had lost faith in the army's current commander, General George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry), and he wanted to make a change. Burnside, though, turned down the offers because of deep self-doubts about his ability to direct such a large military force. Disappointed by Burnside's decision, Lincoln reluctantly kept McClellan in command.
In September 1862, Burnside fought by McClellan's side in Maryland in the Battle of Antietam, a vicious day-long battle against General Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. This clash between the war's two largest armies killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers, making it the single bloodiest day in Civil War history. The Union viewed Antietam as a victory for their side, since the battle put an end to a brief Confederate invasion of the North. But many historians believe that if McClellan and Burnside had acted more decisively, they might have been able to crush Lee's army altogether. Instead, Lee's army retreated into Virginia, where it operated for the next three years.
Burnside reluctantly takes command
In the weeks following Antietam, Lincoln ordered McClellan to pursue Lee's army and resume the battle. But McClellan moved his army so slowly that the president finally decided to change commanders. He removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac and once again asked Burnside to lead the army. Burnside was not sure that he could handle such a big responsibility, but he reluctantly accepted the assignment on November 7, 1862.
Burnside's first command decisions pleased Lincoln. The general moved his army forward at an increased speed, and he showed a much greater willingness to engage the enemy than had McClellan. Burnside's plan was to march on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in hopes of drawing Lee's army out for another battle. Once Lee committed to defending the capital, Burnside hoped to use his superior firepower and troop size to demolish the Confederate Army.
At first, Burnside's strategy succeeded. Lee's hungry and tired Army of Northern Virginia was forced to set up defenses at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in an effort to stop the Union march on Richmond. But when the two armies resumed their bloody fight on December 13, Burnside's plan fell apart.
Battle of Fredericksburg
Once Burnside reached Lee's position at Fredericksburg, a small town located along the Rappahannock River, he ordered a full frontal assault on the Confederate defenses. Lee and his lieutenants had established strong positions, however, and they easily pushed back every Union offensive. Union casualties mounted with shocking speed throughout the day, but Burnside refused to admit that his plan was flawed. As a result, thousands of courageous Northern troops sacrificed their lives in doomed attempts to break through the rebel (Confederate) lines. "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor [courage] or generals to manifest [show] less judgement," wrote one newspaper reporter who witnessed the battle.
By the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly thirteen thousand casualties. Lee's army, on the other hand, suffered fewer than five thousand casualties. When Burnside realized how badly he had been defeated, he at first vowed to lead an attack personally the next day. During the night, though, his lieutenants convinced him to break off the offensive and withdraw to Washington.
Burnside's "Mud March"
Lee's decisive victory at Fredericksburg stunned Lincoln. As the president listened to reports about the battle, he wondered if Burnside was the right man to lead the Army of the Potomac. Despite growing doubts, however, he decided to give Burnside one last chance to prove himself.
In January 1863, Burnside launched another campaign against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which had set up camp around Fredericksburg for the winter. But within hours of setting out from Washington, the Union advance was slowed by a heavy rainstorm. Burnside ordered his troops on, but the storm continued for days. The roadways upon which they were traveling disintegrated into muddy pits. The conditions made it impossible for the army to make any progress. Supply wagons became hopelessly stuck and soldiers became cold and exhausted as they slogged through the muddy mess. Finally, after days of struggling through the mud, Burnside admitted defeat. Angry and humiliated, he ordered the Army of the Potomac to return to camp.
Burnside's "Mud March," as it came to be known, further damaged the general's reputation. It also convinced Lincoln that he needed to change generals once again. On January 25, 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker (1814–1879) replaced Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
In March 1863, Burnside was reassigned to lead the Department of the Ohio. Over the next few months he made significant contributions to the Union cause. He captured Confederate cavalry leader John Hunt Morgan (1825–1864) and supervised the arrest and conviction of Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham (1820–1871; see entry) on charges of treason. Burnside also served the Union well in the fall of 1863, when he helped fend off a Confederate attempt to seize the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, from Federal control.
Battle of the Crater
Burnside returned to the war's eastern theater in the spring of 1864, when he received orders to take his old spot as commander of the Army of the Potomac's Ninth Corps. In May he took part in the Wilderness Campaign of Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry). This bloody campaign against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia eventually drove the Confederate Army back to Petersburg, Virginia. Once Lee reached Petersburg, however, he established defenses that repulsed Grant's aggressive assaults. Grant responded by initiating a siege (a blockade intended to prevent the city's inhabitants from receiving food and other supplies) of Petersburg in June 1864.
Shortly after the siege began, Colonel Henry Pleasants (who had been a mining engineer before the war) approached Burnside with an idea to tunnel under a key section of the rebel defenses and blow it up. Waiting Union forces could then rush through the gap and destroy Lee's army once and for all. Pleasants's scheme intrigued Burnside, who received reluctant approval from Grant to undertake the plan.
Burnside's regiment began work on the tunnel on June 25. By the end of July, the Union troops had tunneled to a point directly under the Confederate line and placed four tons of gunpowder at the end of the tunnel. Early in the morning of July 30, Burnside's troops lit the fuse. A few moments later, the Confederate fortifications erupted in a terrific explosion of fire, dirt, and timber. The blast buried an entire Confederate regiment and opened a huge hole in Lee's defenses. But Burnside proved unable to take advantage of the situation. Rather than appoint a competent commander to lead the assault, he had arranged to have his division commanders draw straws. Division commander James H. Ledlie received the assignment, but he turned out to be unreliable: he drank too much and did not adequately prepare his men for the offensive. In fact, Ledlie did not even join in the attack. Instead, he hid in the Union trenches drinking rum.
Ledlie's men, meanwhile, charged down into the crater that had been created by the explosion rather than around it. This move gave the rebel soldiers time to recover from the explosion and close the hole. Leaderless and disorganized, the Union troops became trapped inside the thirty-foot-deep pit as Confederate troops rushed to the edge and opened fire. James M. McPherson noted in Battle Cry of Freedom that more than four thousand Northern soldiers were killed or wounded in the subsequent slaughter, as "rebel artillery and mortars found the range and began shooting at the packed bluecoats [Union soldiers] in the crater as at fish in a barrel."
Calling the so-called Battle of the Crater "the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war," Grant placed the blame for the disaster squarely on Burnside's shoulders (though he also stripped Ledlie of his command). Grant relieved Burnside of his command and sent him on military leave. Burnside resigned from the army a few months later.
Governor of Rhode Island
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Burnside became involved in politics in Rhode Island. Despite his controversial military record, he was elected governor of the state for three consecutive one-year terms from 1866–68. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served there until he died in 1881.
Where to Learn More
Davis, William C. The Commanders of the CivilWar. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.
Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Knopf, 1952. Reprint, West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.
For much of his career, General Ambrose Burnside maintained a very unusual-looking beard. Unlike other soldiers who kept mustaches or full beards, Burnside shaved his chin area but let his mustache and cheek whiskers grow out until they joined together across his face. People originally called this peculiar style "burnsides," but over time the two syllables became reversed, and the name came to be associated primarily with the part of a man's face directly in front of his ears. Today, people refer to the area of beard down the side of a man's face as "sideburns."