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 United States Senator. As a Union Army general in the American Civil War, 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 Battle of the Crater. His distinctive style of facial hair became known as sideburns, derived from his last name. He was also the first president of the National Rifle Association.
First Bull Run:
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 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, 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 on August 2, 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, and 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. 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 U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, opposed by vessels of the Confederate Navy's Mosquito Fleet; the latter were supported by a shore-based battery of four guns at Cobb's Point (now called Cobb Point), near the southeastern border of the town. The battle was a part of the campaign in North Carolina that was led by Burnside and known as the Burnside Expedition. The result was a Union victory, with Elizabeth City and its nearby waters in their possession, and the Confederate fleet captured, sunk, or dispersed.
In recognition of 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 of volunteers on March 18, 1862. 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 opportunity, because of his loyalty to McClellan and the fact that 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 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, 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 an 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." Although the IX Corps eventually broke through, 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 when he tried to refuse, the courier told him that the command would go instead to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (whom Burnside disliked). 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 personally lead an assault of the IX 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. Burnside's detractors labeled him the "Butcher of Fredericksburg".
In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several 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.
Although Burnside offered to resign his commission altogether, 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. Since this was a quiet area with little activity going on, 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. Thoroughly disturbed by this trend, Burnside began issuing a series of orders forbidding "the expression of public sentiments against the war or the Administration" in his department, which 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. Despite the Congressman's protests that he was the victim of simply expressing his opinions in public, a military court tried him and found him guilty of violating General Order No. 38. He was thus sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of the war. Vallandigham 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. Remembering the section of General Order No. 38 which declared that offenders would be banished to enemy lines, Lincoln finally decided that this was a good idea, and 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. 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 former coal miners in his corps, the 48th Pennsylvania: dig a mine under a fort named Elliot's Salient in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. Because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered, only hours before the infantry attack, not to use his division of black troops, which had been specially trained for this mission. He was forced to use untrained white troops instead. He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots. The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie's men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.
Burnside was relieved of command on August 14 and sent on "extended leave" by Grant. Burnside was never recalled to duty during the remainder of the war. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, "I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed." He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
The 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.
Inventory Number: CDV 179