Ambrose Burnside, circa 1880
|United States Senator|
from Rhode Island
March 4, 1875 - September 13, 1881
|William Sprague IV|
|Nelson W. Aldrich|
|30th Governor of Rhode Island|
May 29, 1866 - May 25, 1869
|James Y. Smith|
Ambrose Everett Burnside
May 23, 1824
|Died||September 13, 1881 (aged 57)|
Bristol, Rhode Island
|Cause of death||Angina|
|Resting place||Swan Point Cemetery|
Providence, Rhode Island
|Political party||Democratic (1858-1865)|
Mary Richmond Bishop
(m. 1852; died 1876)
|Education||United States Military Academy|
|Profession||Soldier, inventor, industrialist|
|Branch/service||United States Army|
|Years of service||1847-1865|
|Commands||Army of the Potomac|
Army of the Ohio
American Civil War
Ambrose Everett Burnside (May 23, 1824 - September 13, 1881) was an American soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island. He served as the Governor of Rhode Island from 1866 to 1869, and as a United States Senator for Rhode Island from 1875 until his death.
As a Union Army general in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, he conducted successful campaigns in North Carolina and East Tennessee, as well as countering the raids of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, but suffered disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of the Crater.
Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, and was the fourth of nine children of Edghill and Pamela (or Pamilia) Brown Burnside, a family of Scottish origin. His great-great-grandfather Robert Burnside (1725-1775) was born in Scotland and settled in the Province of South Carolina. His father was a native of South Carolina; he 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.
As a young officer before the Civil War Burnside was engaged to Charlotte "Lottie" Moon, who left him at the altar. When the minister asked if she took him as her husband, Moon is said to have shouted "No siree Bob!" before running out of the church. Moon is best known for her espionage for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Later, Burnside arrested Moon, her younger sister Virginia "Ginnie" Moon, and their mother. He kept them under house arrest for months but never charged them with espionage.
He obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1843 through his father's political connections and his own interest in military affairs; Caleb Blood Smith recounted Burnside's brash application to the military academy. He graduated in 1847, ranking 18th in a class of 47, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He traveled to Veracruz for the Mexican-American War, but he arrived after hostilities had ceased and performed mostly garrison duty around Mexico City.
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 August 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.
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 Run 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 Corps. 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 Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
The participants were vessels of the United States 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. He received telegrams at this time from Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter which were extremely critical of Pope's abilities as a commander, and he forwarded on to his superiors in concurrence. This episode later played a significant role in Porter's court-martial, in which Burnside appeared as a witness.
Burnside was given command of the Right Wing of the Army of the Potomac (the I Corps 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's Bridge on the southern flank of the Union line.
Burnside did not perform an adequate reconnaissance of the area, and he did not take 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 the high ground. By noon, McClellan was losing patience. He sent a succession of couriers to motivate Burnside to move forward, ordering one aide, "Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now." He further 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 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 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, 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 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 the attack was delayed by his planning in marshaling 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 declared that he would personally lead an assault by the IX corps. His corps commanders talked him out of it, but relations were strained between the general 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 anything was accomplished, and has derisively been 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, and on January 26 replaced Burnside with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against him.
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, Ohio 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 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 former coal miners in his corps, the 48th Pennsylvania: to 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 the assault. Instead, he was forced to use untrained white troops. 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 getting drunk in a bombproof shelter well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie's men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, became 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. He was never recalled to duty for 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 United 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. He was nominated by the Republican Party to be their candidate for governor in March 1866, and Burnside was elected governor in a landslide on April 4, 1866. This began Burnside's political career as a Republican, as he had previously been a Democrat before the war .
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.
During a visit to Europe in 1870, Burnside attempted to mediate between the French and the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. He was registered at the offices of Drexel, Harjes & Co., Geneva, week ending November 5, 1870. Drexel Harjes was a major lender to the new French government after the war, helping it to repay its massive war reparations.
In 1876 Burnside was elected as commander of the New England Battalion of the Centennial Legion, the title of a collection of 13 militia units from the original 13 states, which participated in the parade in Philadelphia on July 4, 1876, to mark the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
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. Burnside continued his association with the Republican Party, 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.
Personally, Burnside was always very popular, both 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 himself. Knowing his capabilities, he twice refused command of the Army of the Potomac, accepting only the third time when the courier told him that otherwise the command would 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
... 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--a 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 the chin clean-shaven; the word burnsides was coined to describe this style. The syllables were later reversed to give sideburns.
The monument stood for nearly twenty years in Exchange Place, facing City Hall, with horses, wagons, and carriages moving in all directions around it.
President Chester A. Arthur and Governor Augustus O. Bourn of Bristol dedicated the hall to the memory of General Ambrose E. Burnside (1824-1881), whose statue was intended to be the focus of the porch.
1966. Aldrich, Burnside, Coddington, Dorr, Ellery, and Hopkins Residence Halls were opened
|Party political offices|
James Y. Smith
| Republican nominee for Governor of Rhode Island
1866, 1867, 1868
none, new corps
| Commander of the IX Corps
July 22, 1862 - August 3, 1862
Department of Virginia
George B. McClellan
| Commander of the Army of the Potomac
November 9, 1862 - January 26, 1863
James Y. Smith
| Governor of Rhode Island
John A. Logan
| Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic
| U.S. senator (Class 1) from Rhode Island
Served alongside: Henry B. Anthony
Nelson W. Aldrich
|National Rifle Association|
|New title|| President of the NRA
William Conant Church