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  Name:  Ambrose Everett Burnside
  Born:  May 23, 1824
  Died:  September 13, 1881

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Burnside, Ambrose Everett (May 23, 1824–September 13, 1881)

Ambrose Burnside was inventor of a breech–loading rifle, Union general during the Civil War, businessman, governor of Rhode Island, and United States senator.  His unusual style of facial hair was copied by subordinate officers and became known as “sideburns.”

Ambrose Everts Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, in Liberty, Indiana, to Pamelia Brown Burnside and Edghill Burnside, a court clerk and farmer.  Young Ambrose was educated at local schools until 1840, when he became a tailor’s apprentice in the nearby town of Centreville.  He returned to Liberty in 1842 to open a tailor’s shop with a partner.  His father, who was serving in the state legislature at the time, used political connections to secure his son an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Ambrose Burnside entered the institution on July 1, 1843, and, although a large number of demerits nearly prevented it, he graduated four year later, ranked 18 out of 38.  Whether through choice or clerical error, his middle name was changed while at West Point to Everett.  Commissioned a second lieutenant with the 3rd Artillery, Company C, he arrived in Mexico City on December 9, 1847, too late to see action in the U.S.–Mexican War.  Gambling in the idle time of the next few months put him in debt. 

In the spring of 1848, Burnside was transferred to Fort Adams at Newport, Rhode Island.  The next year, he was assigned to help protect the Santa Fe Trail in the new territories of the American Southwest.  His skill in skirmishes against Apaches earned him the recognition of national political leaders and promotion to first lieutenant in December 1851.  Engagement in frontier warfare also motivated him to invent a breech–loading rifle to replace the awkward muzzle–loader.  In early 1852, he was named commander of Fort Adams and on his way back to Newport delivered documents to President Millard Fillmore from Colonel James Graham of the Mexican–U.S. Boundary Commission.  Later that year, he married Mary Bishop Richmond, whom he had met while first serving at the fort.  The couple would have no children. 

In October 1853, Burnside resigned from the army and moved with his wife to Bristol, Rhode Island, where he founded the Bristol Rifle Works to manufacture his breech–loading carbine.  Initial sales were slow but satisfactory.  In 1855–1857, he served as major general of the Rhode Island Militia.  President Franklin Pierce appointed him to serve on the Board of Visitors at West Point for 1856.  The next year, Burnside became the Democratic nominee for Congress, but lost the election.  When Secretary of War John Floyd reneged in early 1858 on his promise of a large army contract for the breech–loading rifles, Burnside was forced to turn over his assets in the company to help pay his heavy debt.  His former schoolmate at West Point, George B. McClellan, who was then an executive with the Illinois Central Railroad, gave Burnside a job as cashier for the company’s land department.  He lived with McClellan in Chicago for two years, paying half his salary to debtors, until promoted in 1860 to treasurer of the railroad’s office in New York City, where Burnside moved with his wife.  He did not share in substantial profits made by the Bristol Rifle Works during the Civil War.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, Burnside, at the request of Republican Governor William Sprague, recruited the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Regiment and was appointed its colonel.  They traveled to Washington, D. C., where Burnside made a good impression on Abraham Lincoln when the president visited the regimental camp.  On May 2, the 1st Rhode Island began 90 days of federal service under General Irwin McDowell, and on July 21 saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), which ended with a Union retreat.  At the end of the three–month enlistment with Rhode Island, Burnside was named on August 6 as a brigadier general of volunteers in the federal army, and began organizing recruits at Annapolis, Maryland, for an amphibious assault against North Carolina ports.  Under his leadership the Union campaign succeeded in early 1862 by taking Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds (January), Roanoke Island (February), New Bern and Beaufort (March), and Fort Macon (April).  On March 18, 1862, Burnside was promoted to major general.

In July 1862, Burnside was assigned command of the 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  Dissatisfied with the leadership of General George B. McClellan, President Lincoln twice offered (in July and early September) command of the entire Army of the Potomac to Burnside, who refused to replace his friend and former benefactor.  In September, McClellan placed Burnside in charge of the right wing of the reorganized Army of the Potomac.  Although Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, McClellan and his subordinate officers were criticized, then and now, for failing to defeat outright or effectively pursue the Confederates.  Burnside lost hours by insisting that his soldiers fight their way across a bridge over Antietam Creek, which he learned belatedly was fordable at another point.  However, Burnside’s defenders claim that he accounted himself better than McClellan or other subordinate commanders at Antietam.   

On November 7, 1862, President Lincoln relieved McClellan and gave command of the Army of the Potomac to Burnside, who accepted reluctantly.  Burnside’s strategy was to cross the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and then march south to the Confederate capital of Richmond.  Delayed arrival of the pontoon bridges, however, allowed Lee time to amass his Confederates.  On December 11–12, Union troops took Fredericksburg, but failed to break the Confederate line at Marye’s Heights and retreated back across the Rappahannock on December 15–16.  The Union suffered 12,600 casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg against only 5300 for the Confederacy.  The defeat was a sharp blow to Union morale, which Burnside tried to recover by planning another crossing of the Rappahannock north of Fredericksburg.  The campaign began on January 20, 1863, in mild weather, but two days of steady rain made roads impassible and forced Burnside to return his men to camp.  He requested that President Lincoln dismiss four subordinate generals, including Joseph Hooker, who had criticized the “Mud March.”  Instead, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863.

On March 25, 1863, Burnside was placed in charge of the Department of the Ohio (Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois).  In April, he issued Order No. 38, which defined treasonous acts to include expressing sympathy with the Confederate cause.  The most famous case under its authority was the arrest, military trial, and imprisonment of Clement Vallandigham, a leading Peace Democrat and former congressman from Ohio.  (Subsequently exiled to the Confederacy by President Lincoln, Vallandigham made his way to Canada and, in 1864, back to Ohio, where he was ignored by military officials.)  In July 1863, Burnside successfully defended Ohio and Indiana against cavalry raids by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who was captured.  Returning to the offensive on the field, Burnside secured eastern Tennessee for the Union by taking Knoxville on September 2 and the Cumberland Gap seven days later.  In November and December, he defended Knoxville from attacks by Confederate General James Longstreet.

On January 28, 1864, Congress approved a resolution officially thanking Burnside and his men “for their gallantry, good conduct and soldierly endurance.”  He began recruiting for the 9th Corps, Army of the Potomac, on January 12 and assumed its command on April 13.  It saw action in General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, including the Battles of the Wilderness (May 5–7), Spotsylvania (May 8–21), and Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12), and in Grant’s Richmond–Petersburg Campaign, where Burnside was the commander at the disastrous Battle of the Crater (July 30).  There, the Union planned to tunnel under the Confederates, explode a mine, and take advantage of the surprise and chaos by breaking through the Confederate line.  Burnside trained a division of black soldiers, the only fresh Union troops, to lead the assault, but was overruled at the last minute by General George Meade.  The explosion created a crater in which the tired Union troops were easy targets, and the ensuing battle resulted in 4000 Union casualties compared to 1300 for the Confederacy.  Meade convened a Court of Inquiry that assigned fault to Burnside, who was shortly thereafter granted leave.  He resigned on April 15, 1865, six days after the Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

After taking leave from the U.S. Army in 1864, Burnside had been named a director for the Illinois Central Railroad Company.  Over the next three years, he became president of other transportation–related businesses:  the Cincinnati and Martinsville Railroad Company (1865); the Rhode Island Locomotive Works (1866); and the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad Company and the Narragansett Steamship Company (both in 1867).  He also reentered politics as a Republican.  He was elected by large majorities to three terms as governor of Rhode Island (1866, 1867, and 1868).  In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant sent him to Europe as an official neutral observer of the Franco–Prussian War.  His unofficial mission to mediate a peace settlement failed through no fault of his own.  He was elected in 1874 and reelected in 1880 to the United States Senate, where he served as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee (1877–1878) and of the Foreign Relations Committee (1881).  Ambrose Burnside died at his estate outside Bristol, Rhode Island, on September 13, 1881.

Sources consulted:  G. J. F., “Burnside, Ambrose Everett,” Dictionary of American Biography, pp. 309–313; Michael C. C. Adams, “Burnside, Ambrose Everett,” American National Biography Online,–00106.html; “General Burnside,” Harper’s Weekly, November 29, 1862, pp. 753–754; “Major–General Burnside,” New York Illustrated News, November 22, 1862, p. 35; and William Marvel, Burnside (The University of North Carolina Press, 1991).


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