Ambrose Everett Burnside

Ambrose Everett Burnside, Union General

May 23, 1824–September 13, 1881


Union General




Old Burn


“Probably very few of the general officers in the army have seen more dark hours than I have.”

In January 1862, an armada of nearly one hundred vessels—gunboats, transports, steamers, and various other shallow-draft types—wound its way out of Chesapeake Bay, heading south. It carried a precious cargo: Union soldiers, most of whom were none too pleased at the notion of braving the Atlantic in storm season. Their leader was Ambrose Burnside, known for a carbine that bore his name and for the fact that he could be identified at quite a distance by the flamboyant wings of facial hair that hugged his face. Concerned by the fear of weather spreading through his soldiers, the general transferred his headquarters from the sturdiest ship in the flotilla to the Picket, a dinky little thing that would surely be the first to disappear beneath a wrathful sea. The move was intended to inspire confidence by example, the sort of gesture that Burnside loved and that sprang from a sincere concern for the welfare of his men. Not quite a month later, in the wake of fighting on Roanoke Island, he would come across a wounded lieutenant and order him placed on the Picket to receive the services of his staff physician. The lieutenant, an ordinary officer of the ranks, never forgot that moment.

General Burnside’s magnificent facial hair was a legend in its own time. The style was known as burnsides for many years after; eventually the words were reversed, resulting in the sideburns we know today.

Generous, engaging, and intelligent, Burnside was a likable guy who had lots of friends and admirers. By the end of the war, however, he had acquired just as many, if not more, detractors. One of the most ill-starred of Union generals, “Old Burn” is an example of how bad things happen to good people—a man whose ability could not save him from lousy luck, bad decisions, and military debacles of historic dimensions.

But none of those things hampered the operation heading south from Chesapeake Bay that winter in 1862. Conceived with the help of his friend George McClellan, Burnside’s mission was to take the war to the North Carolina coast in a daring amphibious campaign. The weather did indeed play havoc with his ships, but without loss of life, and by February 8, he had safely landed his division on Roanoke and taken 2,500 prisoners in a hot, quick fight. With the island secured and occupied, he took his special landing force to the mainland, capturing New Bern and Beaufort in March, and striking all along the North Carolina coast until he was recalled north in July. The whole campaign came off nearly without a hitch and was a smash hit with the folks back home. Burnside had removed the North Carolina coast as a haven for blockade runners and provided another base of operations for the Union. Unlike so many other Northern generals by this time, Ambrose Burnside was still considered hot stuff.

He had risen to such lofty heights from humble beginnings. Born the fourth of nine children to a court clerk in Indiana, he was apprenticed to a tailor and ended up practicing the trade for a while until his appointment to West Point. “Burn” racked up an astounding 198 demerits as an academy plebe, just two short of the limit, mostly because of his penchant for visiting friends at unauthorized times. Fortunately, he was almost as smart as he was convivial and managed to graduate eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight. He was sent to Mexico at the tail end of the war, arriving just in time for the soul-destroying boredom of garrison duty. Transfer to Rhode Island offered a pleasant change of pace, until he found himself out west again chasing hostiles. He got an arrow in his neck and lived to tell the tale.

Setting his sights—literally—on something at once more lucrative and less dangerous, Burnside resigned in 1853 and went back east to become an entrepreneur. He had designed a cavalry carbine that promised to be more efficient than anything presently in use, and after fleshing out the design, started turning it out at the Bristol Rifle Works in Rhode Island. There he became a man of some stature, getting an appointment as a major general in the state militia and even making an unsuccessful run for Congress. But he had staked his fortune on a promise from the secretary of war that Burn, in his agreeable naïveté, treated like a contract for his rifles. When the “deal” fell through, so did Burn’s business, and he was forced to sell everything. Now a married man with little in the way of financial prospects, he headed west in search of opportunities, where his good friend George McClellan got him a job at the Illinois Central Railroad.

It was back in Rhode Island, however, where his destiny awaited him. When war broke out in 1861, William Sprague, the state’s governor, hoped Burn would come back and organize the First Rhode Island Infantry. He accepted, and after marching the regiment to Washington, Burnside was put at the head of a brigade, which he led well enough at Bull Run to be commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers.

Already drawing the favorable attention of President Lincoln, Burnside was placed in charge of the North Carolina scheme. There, from the organization of the ships to the training of the troops to the relatively efficient actions on Roanoke and beyond, the general exhibited strong administrative skills and a gift for getting the most out of his subordinates. But it was also a campaign, from beginning to end, against inferior numbers and desultory organization. It had yet to be seen how he would handle Confederates who were at their best. Nevertheless, promoted to major general and given command of the Ninth Corps, Burnside’s star was on the rise. Indeed, Lincoln—in the throes of his frustration with McClellan—offered the whole Army of the Potomac to him, though the ever-loyal Burn begged off, sincerely insisting that he wasn’t up to it and that his friend was the better man for the job.

Whether or not that was true, neither he nor Little Mac performed brilliantly the following September at the epic clash along Antietam Creek. To Burnside was assigned the role of left hook: The Ninth Corps was to cross the creek at a stone bridge and nearby fords, massing on the opposite side to assault and crumple Lee’s right wing. Unfortunately, Burnside’s reconnaissance of the fords wasn’t thorough enough, requiring part of his corps to march farther south in search of traversable crossing points. And his efforts to seize and secure the bridge (which has ever since borne his name) in the face of fire from the Confederates proved unimaginative, time-consuming, and costly. He was not able to get his corps organized on the far bank until midafternoon, by which time the Federal attacks farther north on the Rebel left had already been repulsed. Marching toward the town of Sharpsburg, it looked as if Burnside’s attack, though late, might just crumple Lee’s exhausted line—until A. P. Hill’s Rebels appeared, having been force-marched all the way from Harpers Ferry, and waded into Burnside’s flank. The Ninth Corps fell back, and the battle was over.

So was McClellan’s career, though it would take another two months to become reality. By that time, he had finally gotten the Army of the Potomac moving in pursuit of Lee, only to have it snatched from his grasp and handed to his friend. Lincoln and War Secretary Stanton had had quite enough of the Young Napoleon, and as far as they were concerned, Burnside was going to take command if it had to be stuffed down his reluctant throat. Burnside accepted out of a sense of duty.

Such a development was hard on a man like Burnside, who put much stock in the ties that bind. Though his relationship with McClellan had been strained for months, another casualty of the waspish Philadelphian’s descent into paranoid delusion, Burn was not a man to test friendships quite so openly as he felt himself doing now. Nevertheless, duty was duty, and after an emotional farewell to his old West Point chum, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac set about doing his job.

He had quite a chore ahead of him, not least because he was a virtual unknown outside the Ninth Corps, replacing a figure thoroughly beloved in the ranks. He would never truly win over the officers of the Army of the Potomac, many of whom squirmed under his command, missed their precious Little Mac, and anticipated an excuse to disgrace Burnside.

They soon got one, and it was a doozy. Charged by the Lincoln administration with keeping the pursuit of Lee in motion, Burnside had to find a safe place to cross the Rappahannock and get at the Army of Northern Virginia. He settled on a place calledFredericksburg, developing a plan which seemed sound enough: By quickly deploying his army there and crossing the river with the help of the Union army’s train of pontoon bridges, he could be in a position to threaten Richmond and bring a fight with Lee’s army before it was able to concentrate. But it didn’t work out that way. To begin with, Burnside failed to get his troops at the point across from Fredericksburg quickly and all at once. As units began to mass, they tipped Lee off to the idea and inspired him to occupy the high ground behind Fredericksburg in anticipation of a crossing. But the worst misfortune may not have been Burnside’s fault. Owing to bureaucratic incompetence that went all the way up to General in Chief Henry Halleck, the pontoon bridges—seminal to the whole operation—did not arrive until November 25, by which time the Army of Northern Virginia had been able to concentrate its strength. Pressed to make a move before the end of the year, Burnside decided to go ahead in December with a plan whose crucial element of timeliness had expired and to force a crossing in cold weather at a location that clearly seemed well defended.

After laying the pontoons under fire on December 11 and clearing the town of enemy resistance on the 12th, the battle descended into a bloodbath on the 13th. Though some progress was initially made on the Confederate right, the focus of the clash ultimately shifted to Lee’s left, where Rebels under James Longstreet crouched behind a stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights, a crest that overlooked Fredericksburg proper. Into their furious fire marched wave after wave of Union manhood, blown into oblivion by an unrelenting tempest of lead. As superheated Confederate gun barrels fouled from the furious pace, blue-clad bodies began to carpet the ground in great writhing heaps, producing a vision of mortality that left onlookers agape in horrified disbelief. Burnside, aghast, offered to personally lead another attempt the following day, as if joining the panoply of dead and dying across the river was the only way to redeem his honor. He was talked out of it.

In a day of fruitless assaults, the Army of the Potomac had reaped nearly 13,000 casualties. Fredericksburg became a byword for Union death and failure.

Burnside, still feeling pressured to pull off an offensive as soon as possible, planned to make another attempt at the Rappahannock farther downstream before year’s end. But the horror show at Fredericksburg had rendered his position all but untenable. Convinced that his plan was dangerous, officers in his command took the idea directly to Lincoln, who canceled it. Obviously, morale in the Army of the Potomac was approaching nil. Outraged by the virtual mutiny in his own ranks, Burnside nevertheless pressed ahead with yet another plan to cross the river, this time upstream from Lee’s position. This one needed no human intervention to veto it, for the weather did just fine on its own. January rains turned the Virginia roads into every teamster’s worst nightmare, and the army soon found itself utterly immobilized. Referred to even in official reports as the “Mud March,” it was the final nail in Burnside’s coffin, and he knew it. Buffeted by the weather into a perfect rage over the disloyal sentiment that was now widespread, Burnside prepared for the president’s consideration a document that authorized the firing of five prominent officers in the Army of the Potomac and the outright dismissal of four others from the service altogether. Lincoln instead accepted the transfer of just one: Burnside.

Sadly, command of the army would go to one whose name had been mentioned in Burnside’s message of dismissal: Joseph Hooker, an inveterate enemy. But such were the politics of war. Lincoln hadn’t given up on Old Burn, and soon sent him west to command the Department of the Ohio, where he ran into some other thorny wartime politics. Faced in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky with what appeared to be pervasive anti-Lincoln sentiment, Burnside issued General Order Number 38, which threatened execution for all those found guilty of benefiting “the enemies of our country.” Even the expression of pro-Confederate sentiments warranted banishment to enemy lines, or worse. Of all those who found the dictum acutely intolerable, one stood out: Clement L. Vallandigham, a staunch Peace Democrat and former Congressman from Ohio whose purpose in life had become the public excoriating of Lincoln and his unconstitutional policies. After speaking out against Order 38, the vituperative Vallandigham was promptly arrested by agents working for Burnside, jailed, and tried before a military court—enough, by itself, to send the protestor’s system into a rage-induced infarction. Though Vallandigham was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment until the end of the war, the president thought it better to banish him to the Confederacy. Vallandigham eventually made his way to Canada and ran for the Ohio governorship in absentia. He lost.

The Department of the Ohio was full of military responsibilities as well. Burnside oversaw the capture and incarceration of John Hunt Morgan, the celebrated Rebel raider, only to see him escape the following November. And Burn advanced to Knoxville, enduring a siege by Longstreet’s Rebels until relieved by William T. Sherman, a campaign for which he received the Thanks of Congress. But despite these laurels, the war would end back east for Burn, where it began.

By the spring of 1864, his old Ninth Corps had been recruited back up to strength, and he was placed at the head of it. In Grant’s relentless and gory Overland campaign, a lackluster Burnside—gripped by vivid memories of Fredericksburg—led his men with reluctance and a lack of bold imagination (which, to be fair, had never been his strong suit anyway). That uneasiness still remained when the war in the east settled into the siege of Petersburg, partly accounting for the final—and most bizarre—catastrophe of Burnside’s military career. In June, the commander of a Pennsylvania regiment in the Ninth Corps approached him with an intriguing idea. Using his men’s coal mining expertise, the officer proposed digging a tunnel under the enemy salient opposite his unit, filling it with explosives, and detonating it. A tactic as old as siege warfare itself, the plan was intended to create a gap in the enemy’s defenses that infantry could quickly exploit and, so it was hoped, break the trench-enforced stalemate.

Burnside approved and took the idea to Grant, who reluctantly gave the OK. The Pennsylvania men did indeed know their stuff: In about a month of hard work in the heat of July, they excavated a five-hundred-foot shaft culminating in two lateral tunnels that formed a giant “T” running beneath the Confederate works. Very early on the morning of July 30, they detonated eight thousand pounds of gunpowder in their makeshift subterranean gallery, instantly obliterating some three hundred hapless Confederates and hurling enough earth into the sky to leave a thirty-foot-deep crater that stretched over 150 feet along the shattered Rebel line. The Southerners were quick and efficient in their recovery, however, and the Union infantry who were intended to exploit the enormous gap were poorly led and disorganized. The crater became a mass grave for many of them. A court of inquiry laid the majority of blame on Burnside as corps commander, who—though badly served at the crater by both his subordinates and his superior George Meade—patiently accepted the verdict and all that it meant. After returning from leave and awaiting orders that never materialized, he offered his resignation in April 1865.

And so ended the convulsive Civil War career of Ambrose Burnside. Disgraced in military circles, he remained an iconic figure to many in the North, particularly in Rhode Island. He served three consecutive and fairly popular terms as governor of his adopted state and was later elected to the United States Senate. He had one final wartime adventure, however, and one that spoke to his trustworthy, genuine nature and his belief in the essential goodness of men. Having traveled to London on business in 1870, Burnside took the opportunity to cross the channel and witness the climactic final act of the Franco-Prussian War being played out in the siege of Paris. It wasn’t long before Old Burn had ingratiated himself to the Prussians and secured a pass into the embattled city, where he endeared himself to the French as well. Soon he became an envoy, shuttling messages between the two camps in an earnest effort to secure peace. But like so many of his good intentions, the effort came to naught. He died a decade later from heart failure, and has ever since remained a symbol of controversy and human limitations.


Like most newly minted young officers during the final months of the war with Mexico, Ambrose Burnside found garrison duty a royal bore. He dealt with it by gambling often, a habit that apparently got the better of him. By the time he was transferred to Fort Adams back east, the guy had accrued six months’ salary worth of gambling debts. Reassignment to Rhode Island spared him the trouble of doing something about it.

Financial troubles seemed to follow Old Burn wherever he went. During his tour of duty in New Mexico around 1850, he took over the quartermastering responsibilities of his little post for want of officers and eventually became associated with $5,700 in army funds that were unaccounted for. Though the bookkeeping error (or embezzlement) may have been somebody else’s, Burnside was held responsible for it, a debt that dogged him even after he resigned from the army. But his most intriguing money mishap must be the one that involved A. P. Hill, who made a loan to his friend Burn before the outbreak of war that was never repaid. In the eleventh hour of the Battle of Antietam, after elements of Hill’s Light Division had made their dramatic entrance on the battlefield and thwarted the Federal Ninth Corps in its flanking attack, one of the Confederate general’s men pointed out to him that it was Old Burnside they had foiled. “Don’t you know him?” asked the fellow. “I ought to,” quipped Hill. “He owes me $8,000!”


Inspired by his experience fighting Indians on the western frontier, Burnside’s carbine design was an excellent one. After a few modifications, he acquired a patent for the firearm in 1856, and established his Bristol Rifle Works. It was an impressive accomplishment and testament to Burn’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. But his damnable luck reared its ugly head once again, ruining what seemed a foolproof enterprise. Given the impression by Secretary of War John Floyd in 1857 that the war department intended to buy thousands of his carbines, Burnside shot himself in the foot by failing to secure a real contract, borrowing capital to churn out guns that had nowhere to go. When Floyd went with someone else, the bottom fell out of poor Burn’s venture. To his investors and creditors went everything, from the weapon’s patent to the rifle factory to his old uniform. Burnside had to start all over again from scratch, as if his industrial adventure never happened.

The worst part, ironically, is that the rifle was such a good one. The army ended up buying more than 55,000 Burnside carbines during the Civil War, making it the third most commonly used weapon of its type by Federal cavalry. And the man whose name it bore saw not a penny of that tremendous profit.


Those magnificent swatches of whiskery goodness that cradled General Burnside’s face were a legend in their own time. In postwar America it became customary to refer to the style as burnsides, a word that evolved over time to describe only those patches of hair that grew along the side of the face to the jawline. Not long after that, the word was reversed, and sideburns was born—a curious legacy indeed for a man who patented a rifle design and presided over the ignominious slaughter of thousands of young men.

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