General Ambrose E. Burnside Biography

A brief biography of General Ambrose E. Burnside, Civil War officer.

He was a big man -- an affable man. He was popular with the men in his command, though his fellow officers cringed at the thought of his military abilities. But everyone had to admit that genial Ambrose Everett Burnside had a set of the most spectacular side whiskers in the Army of the Potomac. They called them "sideburns."

His subordinates cringed because Burnside was an accident looking for a place to happen. It was not that he didn't recognize his own shortcomings as a commander. In fact, he refused command of the Army of the Potomac twice, citing his inexperience each time. Misfortune followed him wherever he went, and Burnside's misfortune often spelled doom for his troops.

Born in Liberty, Indiana, Burnside was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Then he served six years in the regular army as an artillery officer. In 1849, he was wounded in a fight with Apaches in New Mexico Territory.

Burnside was also an inventor. In 1853, he resigned from the army to manufacture a breech-loading rifle that he had designed. But the government refused him a contract and he was forced to assign his patents to his creditors.

After Fort Sumter was attacked Burnside, who was then living in Rhode Island, raised the First Rhode Island Regiment. His speedy response to Lincoln's call for volunteers, and his splendid personality, endeared him to the president and they became close friends.

Burnside's first attempts at military command showed great promise. At First Manassas, Colonel Burnside led a brigade of Rhode Island and Massachusetts volunteers. Though the first major battle of the Civil War turned into a rout -- the Confederates chased the panicked Federal troopers all the way back to Washington -- Burnside performed admirably and, in an officer-starved army, was quickly promoted to brigadier general.

Then Burnside organized an expedition against the North Carolina coast. After an amphibious landing, his troops captured Fort Macon from the Confederates and Burnside found himself a national hero. Northern victories had been few up till then. General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was overly slow and cautious. He also believed inflated reports about Confederate strength and acted accordingly, although the Union army on the Peninsula actually outnumbered the enemy five to one. Lincoln offered Burnside command of the army, but Burnside refused. He did not think that he was qualified. After Second Manassas, he was again offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Again, Burnside refused.

Burnside's pristine reputation as a military commander began to erode at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was invading Maryland in a bold thrust into Union territory. McClelland discovered the plan and intercepted Lee just outside Sharpsburg.

One scene of deadly fighting took place at Rohrbach Bridge. The old stone bridge was being held by a thin line of 350 Georgia sharpshooters under the command of Colonel Henry L. Benning, perched on a ridge with a clear line of fire. Burnside had received orders to take Lee's right. The 125 foot bridge lay directly in the path.

Burnside repeatedly threw his men against the narrow bridge in the face of deadly Confederate fire, in spite of the fact that Antietam Creek could have been forded nearby in any number of places. The bridge was eventually taken, but not without an obscene number of Union casualties. Antietam Creek ran red with their blood and the bridge has been known as "Burnside Bridge" ever since.

In spite of this Burnside was, over his objections, was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClelland had tried to make it appear in his reports, that the bridge debacle was Burnside's fault. Lincoln saw through the ruse and dismissed McClelland.

Unfortunately when Burnside took command of the Union Army, he also inherited those commanders who remained loyal to McClelland. Their fondest wish was to see Burnside fail and be replaced with one of their own number. It only took one battle to make their wish come true. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, the North lost 12,000 men and the Army of the Potomac was nearly destroyed. Burnside offered his resignation as commander and it was accepted.

Burnside's final catastrophe occurred on July 30, 1864. During the Siege of Petersburg, a scheme was hatched by Lt. Col Henry Pleasants and Brigadier General Robert Potter to dig a tunnel under the Confederate fort in front of the city, pack it with explosives, blow it up, and take advantage of the break in the lines. Burnside, always the innovator, liked the idea and promised to present it to his superior, General George Meade.

Meade was not exactly keen on tunneling under the Confederate defenses and blowing them up. But the siege was at a standstill and he would entertain any reasonable idea for breaking it. Besides, commanding general Ulysses Grant liked the bold idea. So Meade reluctantly approved the tunnel.

Pleasants had been an engineer before the war and had worked with the Pennsylvania Railroad drilling a 4,200 foot tunnel through the mountains. He knew what he was doing. Some of his boys in the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers were miners, so it fell to them to dig the shaft.

The finished tunnel was about 400 feet long and packed with 320, 25-pound kegs of black powder. At 3:15 a.m. the fuse was lit. A half hour passed. No explosion. What had gone wrong. Several very nervous ex-miners crawled into the tunnel to find the trouble. The fuse had snuffed out at a splice. The miners relit the fuse and skedaddled out of the tunnel as fast as they could. At 4:45 the greatest man-made explosion ever set on the North American continent ripped the ground -- a low rumbling, then a massive swelling, then a tremendous rising. The fort and and the men in it were lifted high into the air. Confederate losses from the explosion alone were 287 killed.

What should have been a total Union victory turned into a turkey shoot. General James H. Ledlie's First Division reached the crater -- 60 feet wide, 170 feet long and 30 feet deep. Instead of charging around it, they ran directly into it. By this time, the shell-shocked Confederates had regained their composure and ran to the edge of the crater, firing down on the men inside. Since the sides of the crater were too steep to climb, the men inside were trapped. What was worse was that Ledlie's men were almost leaderless. During the whole time Ledlie was safe in his tent behind the lines, nursing a bottle of rum.

Incredibly, more men were sent into the crater. Soon they were packed so tightly together that a man was unable to use his rifle. As some Union soldiers attempted to escape back to their own lines, they were strafed by Confederate infantry. It was a bloodbath. Meade finally took matters in hand at nine o'clock and ordered a general withdraw.

Total Confederate casualties, including those killed in the explosion, were 1,182. The total Union casualties were set at 3,793. General Grant later wrote that the Battle of the Crater "was a stupendous failure" and the fault belonged to Burnside and Ledlie. Ledlie was sent home on sick leave and never returned to the army. A court of inquiry report on the battle was devastating to Burnside. He went home on leave and stayed there.

So was Ambrose E. Burnside the hero or the goat? The question is still unanswered today. He appeared to have some military ability, considering his success at First Manassas and on the North Carolina Coast. And he boldly held out in Knoxville, Tennessee, against the assault of General James Longstreet until reinforcements arrived. But his failures were spectacular -- thousands of men killed and wounded, tons of government supplies destroyed.

Burnside had a habit of hoping against hope. He would throw wave after wave of men -- as he invariably did at all three of his largest failures -- hoping to break the Confederate lines, and always without success. He also had the unfortunate tendency to assign vital tasks to inferior officers

History has not been kind of Ambrose E. Burnside, remembering him mainly as a murderous bumbler. However his military record did little to tarnish his political future after the war. He was elected as Governor of Rhode Island three times and, later, served in the senate.

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