Ambrose E. Burnside (1824–1881)


Ambrose E. Burnside was a major general in the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Instantly recognizable for his bushy sideburns (the term itself is derived from reversing his last name), Burnside was one of four men to command the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. Offered the job twice previously—following George B. McClellan‘s failed Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and following the Second Battle of Manassas later that summer—he turned it down, citing his own lack of experience and encouraging his peers and, subsequently, historians to question his self-confidence. When he did take command of the army, he led it into disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), perhaps the Union’s most lopsided defeat of the war. After his corps was badly defeated at the Battle of the Crater (1864) he went home on a leave of absence from which he was never called back to duty. Burnside’s dismal reputation is probably unfair, however. He was an innovative engineer but an unlucky general who was often made a scapegoat for larger failures.

Ambrose Everett Burnside was born May 23, 1824, near Liberty, Indiana, and finished near the middle of his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1847. After serving garrison duty in the Mexican War (1846–1848) and two years on the western frontier, he resigned his commission in 1853, settled in Rhode Island, and was issued a patent for the breech-loading Burnside carbine. The weapon, however, proved popular only after Burnside had gone bankrupt attempting to manufacture it. While treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, he worked for McClellan, a friend from West Point.

Burnside's Expedition Map

Burnside began his service in the Civil War as colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, but after the First Battle of Manassas (1861), he was made a brigadier general. In charge of what would later become the Army of the Potomac’s Ninth Corps, he battled gale-force winds, seasickness, and knee-deep swamps to seize and occupy Roanoke Island and the North Carolina sounds, victories that helped to solidify the Union navy’s blockade of the Atlantic coast.

Several months later, in July 1862, Burnside’s corps joined the Army of the Potomac and, after Second Manassas, he refused command of the army for the second time, partly out of loyalty to his old friend McClellan. At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, Burnside’s supposed delay in attacking from the left flank infuriated McClellan. (In fact, McClellan tried to excuse his own uncoordinated assaults by exaggerating the amount of time it took Burnside to make his attack.) In the meantime, McClellan’s refusal to pursue Confederate commander Robert E. Lee aggressively after the battle incensed U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, who replaced his commander with Burnside. His attack on Fredericksburg in December was suitably aggressive, but it was also a disastrous loss for Union forces that involved repeated frontal assaults on heavily fortified Confederate lines. By the end of the battle, Burnside was intensely frustrated and offered to personally lead a final charge before being dissuaded by his subordinates. The engagement’s failure was due in part to misunderstandings with Major General William B. Franklin, who had commanded the Union left; subversion by Franklin’s generals led to Burnside’s removal early in 1863. But this came only after a disastrous, rain-soaked retreat known as the “Mud March,” during which nearby Confederate pickets held up signs that mockingly read, “This Way to Richmond.”

Burnside Accepts Command of the Army of the Potomac

As commander of the Department of the Ohio in May 1863, Burnside attempted to impose military discipline on the civilian population by arresting Ohio’s outspoken antiwar politician, Clement L. Vallandigham, on charges of sympathizing with the enemy. Vallandigham’s conviction by military tribunal marked a low point both in Burnside’s career and in the Lincoln administration, which supported the arrest and the attendant suspension of habeas corpus. (Vallandigham, a Democrat, would be nominated for Ohio governor in 1864 while in exile in North Carolina.) That summer of 1863 Burnside liberated East Tennessee from Confederate control, but after the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, Major General William Rosecrans unfairly blamed Burnside for not coming to his aid, although he could only have done so by abandoning East Tennessee.

Burnside returned to Virginia and led the Ninth Corps through the Overland Campaign and into the siege of Petersburg in the spring of 1864. After the entrenched Union and Confederate forces fought to a stalemate outside the city, Burnside encouraged the remarkable idea of excavating a 511-foot-long mine that would end twenty to thirty feet beneath a Confederate artillery battery at Colquitt’s Salient. After nearly a month of digging, the mine was packed with explosives and detonated, after which the Ninth Corps assaulted the Confederate lines. Incompetent generals in the leading division compromised the attack, however, and when Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant called off the operation, Burnside’s men became trapped in the explosion’s crater, serving as easy targets for what a Confederate general later described as a “turkey shoot.” Afterward, Grant issued Burnside a leave of absence and never called him back to duty.

Gen. Burnside's Quick Step

Although Burnside has been lampooned as a particularly poor general, that reputation is not fully deserved. He tended to give his subordinates too much latitude, a policy that succeeded so long as those subordinates were experienced professionals, but the amateurs who rose to the top through battlefield attrition required a tighter rein than he was accustomed to administering. The worst charges against him, however, have been filed by those who found him to be a convenient scapegoat for themselves or their allies.

Following the war, Burnside was three times elected governor of Rhode Island and was twice elected to the U.S. Senate. He was president of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans association, and, in 1871, became the first president of the National Rifle Association. He died on September 13, 1881, in Bristol, Rhode Island.

May 23, 1824
Ambrose E. Burnside is born near Liberty, Indiana.
July 1, 1847
Ambrose E. Burnside graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point near the middle of his class and is commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd Artillery.
November 1, 1853
Ambrose E. Burnside resigns his commission in the U.S. Army and organizes Bristol Rifle Works in order to manufacture his invention, the Burnside carbine.
April 16, 1861
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Ambrose E. Burnside is commissioned colonel of the 1st Rhode Island Volunteers.
July 21, 1861
Ambrose E. Burnside and his 1st Rhode Island Volunteers participate in the First Battle of Manassas.
August 6, 1861
After the First Battle of Manassas, Ambrose E. Burnside is appointed brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers.
February 8, 1862
Union Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside captures Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
March 14, 1862
Union Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside captures Newbern, North Carolina.
March 18, 1862
Ambrose E. Burnside is promoted to major general.
September 17, 1862
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside commands the Army of Potomac's Ninth Corps at the Battle of Antietam. He is criticized by his commander, George B. McClellan, for being too slow to attack.
November 8, 1862
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside accepts command of the Army of the Potomac after twice declining the promotion.
December 13, 1862
Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia crush Union general Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg in one of the most lopsided defeats of the war.
January 25, 1863
Rather than fire the Union generals who had conspired against Ambrose E. Burnside, including John Newton, President Abraham Lincoln replaces Burnside with Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
March 16, 1863
Union general Ambrose E. Burnside is assigned command of the Department of the Ohio.
September 2, 1863
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside liberates the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, from Confederate control.
April 25, 1864
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside leads a reorganized and reinforced Ninth Corps from fighting in Tennessee back to the Army of the Potomac in Virginia.
July 30, 1864
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside leads the Ninth Corps to defeat at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg. After the battle, Burnside is effectively relieved of his command.
April 15, 1865
Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, once commander of the Army of the Potomac, resigns his volunteer commission.
April 4, 1866
Ambrose E. Burnside is elected governor of Rhode Island and serves three one-year terms.
March 5, 1875
Ambrose E. Burnside begins his first term in the U.S. Senate representing Rhode Island.
June 8, 1880
Ambrose E. Burnside is reelected to the U.S. Senate representing Rhode Island.
September 13, 1881
Ambrose E. Burnside dies of heart disease in Bristol, Rhode Island.
  • Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
APA Citation:
Marvel, William. Ambrose E. Burnside (1824–1881). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/burnside-ambrose-e-1824-1881.
MLA Citation:
Marvel, William. "Ambrose E. Burnside (1824–1881)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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