Ambrose Burnside was a senior Union general during the American Civil War who was criticised by some as being promoted to a rank outside of his real military ability. Outside of the American Civil War, Burnside was also a successful politician who became a state governor and US Senator.
Ambrose Burnside was born on May 23rd 1824 in Liberty, Indiana. His education was disrupted when his mother died in 1841. Burnside took up work in a tailor’s but he quickly turned his attention to the army and joined the US Military Academy at West Point in 1843. After graduating in 1847, Burnside joined the 2nd US Artillery. He served on the western frontier where one of his superior officers was Braxton Bragg. After serving in Nevada, New Mexico and Rhode Island, Burnside resigned his commission in 1853.
Burnside then spent his time designing and perfecting the Burnside carbine that was produced by the Burnside Arms Company. He won a $100,000 contract to supply the US Army, which was withdrawn as a result of unscrupulous behaviour by a rival gun manufacturer – he bribed J B Lloyd, the Secretary of War. To make matters worse, his newly built arms factory burnt down. Burnside had to sell the patent to his Burnside carbine to a rival to pay off his debts. He then found work as the treasurer to the Illinois Central Railroad.
Burnside had his commission renewed when the American Civil War broke out in April 1861. He became a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia and quickly became a brigade commander. His men fought at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Burnside took charge of volunteers in August 1861 and was set the task of training men who would join the Army of the Potomac.
Burnside was given the command of the North Carolina Expeditionary Force and between September 1861 and July 1862, he conducted a highly successful campaign along the coast of North Carolina which denied 80% of the state’s coastline to Confederate shipping. For this work, Burnside was promoted to major general and his men became the 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac but he turned this down because he did not believe he had the necessary experience.
At the Battle of Antietam, Burnside had command of both the 9th and 1st Corps. However, both corps fought at either end of the battlefield – as ordered by General McClellan – and he ordered Burnside to concern himself with just 9th Corps. However, Burnside refused to accept this and sent orders to 1st Corps as well as directly commanding 9th Corps. His men got bogged down at what is now called ‘Burnside Bridge’ on the Antietam battlefield. Burnside requested more men to force through an attack but McClellan would not send any.
On November 7th 1862, Burnside was given command of the Army of the Potomac. Abraham Lincoln ordered him to be more aggressive than McClellan. Burnside targeted the Confederate capital, Richmond. This met with the President’s support. To Lincoln, Burnside appeared to be a lot more decisive and robust than his more cautious predecessor. However, the advance on Richmond, led to the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Burnside offered to resign from the Union Army but this was refused. However, a number of subordinate generals in the Army of the Potomac were openly critical of Burnside in his leadership during the Battle of Fredericksburg. He called on them to be dismissed but was himself removed from his command and replaced by General Joseph Hooker – one of his foremost critics.
Lincoln did not want to lose Burnside as a military commander and gave him command of the Department of Ohio. In this command, he arrested anyone who spoke out against the war and tried them in a military court, even if they were civilians.
Burnside met with greater military success in his capacity as commander of the Department of Ohio, such as at the Battle of Campbell’s Station and the Battle of Fort Sanders. He fought in the Overland Campaign (May 1864) with his 9th Corps, which now stood at 21,000 men. Along with other components of the Union army, 9th Corps helped to besiege Petersburg. By digging under the Confederate positions and igniting a charge of explosives, Burnside managed to severely damage the defences of the Confederates based there. What happened next is known as the Battle of the Crater. Burnside had trained a division of African Americans to enter Petersburg once the mine had been exploded. They had been trained to go around the crater and to take advantage of the chaos and confusion that was expected in the defenders lines. However, was ordered that his Africa American troops could not be used and white troops who had not been trained were used. It led to a disastrous attack where the attackers went into the actual crater and found that they could not get out easily. They were easy prey for the Confederate sharpshooters that surrounded the crater. Men were shot as they tried to crawl out of the crater. The attack that should have been relatively easy had Burnside been allowed to do as he wanted to, proved to be a disaster.
Burnside was sent on leave by General Ullyses Grant and relieved of his command. A court of inquiry placed the blame for the high casualty rate on Burnside. He resigned his commission on April 15th 1865.
Burnside worked in a number of senior positions in various railway companies. He was also Governor of Rhode Island between 1866 and 1869. Burnside was also the first president of the NRA (National Rifle Association). In 1874, he was elected Senator for Rhode Island and was re-elected in 1880.
Ambrose Burnside died on September 13th 1881.