On this day in 1862, General Ambrose Burnside assumes command of the Union Army of the Potomac following the removal of George B. McClellan.
McClellan was well liked by many soldiers, and had a loyal following among some in the command structure. However, others detested him, and his successor would have a difficult time reconciling the pro- and anti-McClellan factions within the army's leadership. Furthermore, Ambrose Burnside was not the obvious choice to replace McClellan. Many favored General Joseph Hooker, who, like Burnside, commanded a corps in the army. Hooker had a strong reputation as a battlefield commander but had several liabilities: a penchant for drinking and cavorting with prostitutes and an acrimonious history with Henry Halleck, the general in chief of the Union armies. Halleck urged President Abraham Lincoln to name Burnside to head the Union's premier fighting force.
Burnside was a solid corps commander, but by his own admission was not fit to command an army. The Indiana native graduated from West Point in 1847, and after serving for five years in the military, entered private business. He worked to develop a new rifle, but his firm went bankrupt when he refused to pay a bribe to secure a contract to sell his weapon to the U.S. army. Burnside then worked as treasurer for the Illinois Central Railroad under McClellan, who was president of the line.
When the Civil War erupted, Burnside became a colonel in charge of the First Rhode Island volunteers. He fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, in July 1861 then headed an expeditionary force that captured Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in February 1862. Burnside returned to the Army of the Potomac and was given command of the Ninth Corps, which fought hard at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in September 1862. Afterward, he was tapped for the top position in the army over his own protestations. He reluctantly assumed command in November and proceeded to plan an attack on Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In December 1862, Burnside's army moved toward Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia. His forces attacked Lee's entrenched troops on December 13 and suffered heavy loses.
Within one month, officers began to mutiny against Burnside's authority, and Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac in late January 1863. After the war, Burnside (whose unusual facial hair is said to have inspired the word sideburns) served as governor of Rhode Island and as a U.S. senator. He died in 1881 at age 57.