Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881) was a U.S. military officer, railroad executive and politician best known for serving as a Union general during the Civil War (1861-65). Burnside first saw combat in the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. He later led an expeditionary force in North Carolina and then served during the Maryland Campaign at the Battle of Antietam. Although he was reluctant to take the post, in November 1862 Burnside was placed in charge of the Union Army of the Potomac. He was removed from command in January 1863 after the devastating Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside next held a departmental command in Ohio and then participated in the defense of Knoxville in the fall of 1863. He would later resign from duty in the wake of his unit’s failure during the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. After the Civil War Burnside worked as a railroad director and later served as a U.S. senator and governor of Rhode Island. He died in 1881 at the age of 57.

Ambrose Burnside: Early Life

Ambrose E. Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, on May 23, 1824. The son of a court clerk and farmer, Burnside spent his youth working as a tailor before his father helped secure him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1843. Burnside was successful in his studies but struggled to adjust to the strict nature of military life and was nearly dismissed after accumulating several demerits. Despite this, his academic record saw him finish 18th out of 38 in his class in 1847.

Did you know? Civil War General Ambrose Burnside was known for his unusual style of facial hair, which included a bushy beard and moustache along with a clean-shaven chin. These distinctive whiskers—originally dubbed “burnsides”—later inspired the term “sideburns.”

Burnside was commissioned as an artillery officer, and his unit served on garrison duty during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). He next served on the western frontier and was wounded in the neck by an arrow during fighting against the Apache in 1849. In 1852 he was stationed at Ford Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. During this time he met and wed Mary Richmond Bishop, a local woman from Providence.

Burnside resigned from the army in 1853 and began designing a new kind of breech-loading carbine rifle—an idea he had developed during his time on the frontier. This “Burnside carbine” initially failed as a business venture, and Burnside was forced to sell his patent to cover his debts. Despite this, the gun would later find widespread use as a cavalry weapon during the Civil War. Burnside next served as a general in the Rhode Island militia, and then as a treasurer for the Illinois Central Railroad, which was operated by his former West Point classmate and friend George McClellan.

Ambrose Burnside: Civil War Service

Burnside helped organize a regiment of Rhode Island militiamen at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and his unit was one of the first to arrive in Washington, D.C. Burnside served in the early Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) as a colonel, and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers shortly thereafter.

In September 1861 Burnside was placed in charge of an expeditionary force in North Carolina, and for the next several months he oversaw a series of raids and amphibious attacks on the southern coastline. Burnside claimed Roanoke Island and the town of New Bern, North Carolina, with relative ease, and his campaign helped establish a long-lasting base of operations for the Union blockade of the Atlantic coast. Burnside’s successes earned him a promotion to major general of volunteers, and the bulk of his force was transferred back to George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. During this time Burnside—known as an exceedingly modest man—twice turned down an opportunity to succeed McClellan as head of Union forces.

Burnside’s next major combat operation came as a corps commander during the Maryland Campaign in September 1862. At the Battle of Antietam, Burnside’s ineffectiveness in rallying his troops across a stone bridge—later known as “Burnside’s Bridge”—resulted in a delayed Union attack, and the battle ended as a tactical draw.

Ambrose Burnside: Command of the Army of the Potomac

In November 1862 Burnside was ordered to take charge of the Army of the Potomac after McClellan was relieved from duty. He reluctantly accepted and immediately ordered a bold advance toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. Burnside met with heavy delays in crossing the Rappahannock River, which allowed General Robert E. Lee to assemble his Army of Northern Virginia outside the town of Fredericksburg. In the ensuing Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside’s forces made a series of failed frontal assaults against Lee’s nearly impregnable defenses, resulting in a decisive Confederate victory and almost 13,000 Union casualties.

Burnside attempted to rally his demoralized army for a second offensive, but the plan—later known as the Mud March—was thwarted by heavy rains and failed to materialize. Believing that his officers had been insubordinate during the campaign, Burnside asked Lincoln to either relieve several generals from duty or accept his resignation. Lincoln chose to remove Burnside from command, replacing him with General Joseph Hooker in January 1863.

Ambrose Burnside: Later Civil War Service

Burnside was subsequently assigned to command of the Department of the Ohio in March 1863. The area was known for harboring antiwar sentiment, and Burnside caused a minor controversy when he arrested a politician named Clement Vallandigham on charges of sedition. Burnside next participated in the Knoxville Campaign in the fall of 1863. He outmaneuvered Confederate General James Longstreet and was able to successfully hold the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, until he was reinforced by General William T. Sherman.

In the spring of 1864 Burnside regained control of his old corps and participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. At the Siege of Petersburg in July of 1864, Burnside played a crucial role in an audacious plan to dig a mine under the Confederate position and then detonate explosives to create a gap in the defensive lines. The plan was poorly managed, and Burnside’s force sustained 3,800 casualties.

In the wake of what became known as the Battle of the Crater, Burnside was placed on leave. He remained absent from the army until April 1865, when he tendered his resignation shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Ambrose Burnside: Later Life

After the war Burnside went on to a distinguished civilian career, serving as the director of several railways as well as the first president of the National Rifle Association. He served as the governor of Rhode Island from 1866 to 1869, and in 1874 he was elected as a U.S. senator. Burnside would serve in Congress until his death in 1881 at the age of 57.

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