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Ambrose Burnside

1824-1881

Edited Appleton's American Image Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

 

BURNSIDE, Ambrose Everett, soldier, born in Liberty, Ind., 23 May, 1824; died in Bristol, R. I., 3 Sept., 1881. The Burnside family is of Scottish origin. Having followed the fortunes of Charles Edward the pretender until his final defeat at Culloden in 1746, the founders of the American branch emigrated to South Carolina. The revolt of the American colonies against Britain divided them, some joining the patriots, others remaining loyal to the crown. Among the latter was James, grandfather of Ambrose, who was a captain in one of the regiments of South Carolinian royalists. When it became certain that the revolution would be successful, he in company with others whose estates were confiscated, escaped to Jamaica, but eventually obtained amnesty from the young republic and returned to South Carolina. After his death, his widow and her four sons migrated to Indiana, manumitting their slaves from conscientious motives. 

Edghill, the third of these sons,  settled in the new town of Liberty, and in 1814 married Pamelia Brown, another emigrant from South Carolina. He taught school for a time, and,  having some legal knowledge, was in 1815 elected associate judge of the county court, and subsequently clerk of court, which office he held until 1850. Ambrose, the fourth of nine children, was born in a rude log cabin at the edge of the wilderness. The village schools were exceptionally good  for a frontier town, and at seventeen he had acquired a better education than most boys of his age; but his father could not afford to give him a professional training, and he was indentured to a merchant tailor. After learning the trade, he returned to Liberty and began business as a partner under  the style of "Myers & Burnside, 5ierchant Tailors." 

Conversation with veterans of the second war  with Great Britain interested him in military affairs. He read all the histories and other books bearing on the subject that he could procure,  and local tradition is to the effect that Caleb B. Smith, congressman from the district, entering the shop to have his coat repaired, found the young tailor with a copy of "Cooper's Tactics" propped up against the "goose " and kept open by a pair of shears, so that he could study and work at the same time. Some conversation followed, and the congressman was so impressed by the intelligence and appearance of the young man that  he sought his appointment as a cadet at the military academy, and, although the first attempt was a failure, fortune at last favored him, and he entered the class of 1847, when there were at the academy more than a score of future generals, including McClellan, Hancock, and "Stonewall" Jackson. 

The war with Mexico was nearly over when Burnside was graduated; but he accompanied one of the last detachments of recruits to the conquered capital, and remained there as second lieutenant of the 3d artillery during the military occupation of the place. Then followed years of life in garrison and on the frontier, including some Indian fighting. 

In 1852 he married Mary Richmond, daughter of Nathaniel Bishop, of Providence, R. I., and in November of the same year resigned his commission, having invented a breech-loading rifle, the manufacture of which he wished to superintend. In August, 1857, a board of army officers reported favorably upon the Burnside breechloader; but the inventor would not pay his way among the underlings of the war department, and was forced to go into bankruptcy. He devoted all his personal property to the liquidation of his debts, sought employment, found it at Chicago, under George B. McClellan, then vice-president of the Illinois central railroad, and, by practicing strict economy, he eventually paid every obligation. 

In June, 1860, he became treasurer of the Illinois central railroad, his office being in New York City. In the autumn of that year he visited New Orleans on business, and gained an insight into the movement for secession that shook his lifelong faith in the democratic party. So confidently did he anticipate war that he set his business affairs in order, and was ready to start at once when, on 15 April, 1861, Gov. Sprague, of Rhode Island, telegraphed for him to take command of the 1st regiment of detached militia. On 20 April the regiment left Providence by sea, and marched, with the other battalions that had been hurried forward, from Annapolis to Washington, reaching the capital on 26 April. The preliminary operations about Washington soon culminated, owing mainly to popular outcry and political pressure at the north, in the premature advance of the federal army, and the battle of Manassas or Bull Run (21 July). Col. Burnside commanded a brigade on the extreme right of Hunter's division, which was detached from the main army early in the morning, and sent across an upper ford to turn the confederate left. The movement was anticipated by the enemy, and a sharp engagement took place, at the beginning of which Gen. Hunter was wounded, leaving Burnside in command. 

The Confederates were forced back, losing heavily, until nearly noon, when they were re-enforced by Gen. Johnston's advance brigade under Jackson, who stemmed the tide of fugitives, and there won his name of "Stonewall." By this time Burnside's ammunition was exhausted, and his command had to fall back. It made no further aggressive movement, but retained its organization after the rout of the main army, and on the retreat toward Washington. A period of comparative inactivity followed, during which Col. Burnside's regiment was mustered out on the expiration of its term of service. On 6 Aug., 1861, he was commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers, and given a command composed of the three-year regiments then assembling at Washington. 

On 23 Oct., Gen. Burnside was directed to organize a "coast division" with headquarters at Annapolis. This force was largely composed of regiments recruited on the New England coasts, and was intended for operations along the lower Potomac and Chesapeake bay. The plan was changed, however, the expeditionary force was largely increased, and, on 12 Jan., 1862, a corps of 12,000 men, on a fleet of forty-six transports, sailed from Hampton Roads with sealed orders, directing them to rendezvous in Pamlico sound by way of Hatteras inlet. Within twenty-four hours a heavy gale arose, which lasted nearly two weeks, scattered the fleet, and imperiled its safety. On 25 Jan., however, all the vessels had passed through Hatteras inlet and were safe in the sound. On 5 Feb. the fleet, with an escort of gun-boats, moved toward Roanoke island, a fortified post of the confederates, and engaged the gun-boats and batteries. Within a few hours a landing was effected, and on 8 Feb. the confederate position near the middle of the island was carried and the garrison captured, numbering 2,500 men. The possession of Roanoke island gave command of the extensive land-locked waters of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, and was one of the earliest substantial successes of the national arms. Newbern, N. C., was occupied, after a sharp struggle, on 14 March. The surrender of Fort Macon and Beaufort soon followed, and, when Gen. Burnside visited the north on a short leave of absence, he found himself welcomed as the most uniformly successful of the federal leaders.

During the campaign in the Carolinas and the early summer following, the army of the Potomac, under McClellan, had been defeated before Richmond, and had in turn repelled the confederates at Malvern Hill. Burnside relinquished the command of the department of North Carolina, and, with his old divisions reorganized as the 9th corps, was transferred to the army of the Potomac, which held the north shore of the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg. The chief command was offered to Burnside, but he resolutely declined it, frankly declaring that he did not consider himself competent. On 27 June the order was issued relieving McClellan and placing Pope in command. The fortunes of the confederacy now seemed so distinctly in the ascendant that it was determined at Richmond to assume the offensive. The preparations for the movement were at once known in Washington, and the administration urged Gen. Pope to create a diversion along the line of the Rappahannock. This he attempted, but was foiled almost at all points, and the army of Virginia, as it was temporarily designated, fell back sullen and demoralized after a second defeat at Manassas, upon the defenses of Washington, where Burnside was again asked to take command, but again declined. 

In its extremity, the administration again called upon McClellan, who in a remarkably short time brought order out of chaos and re-inspired the army with a degree of confidence. By this time Lee's advance had crossed the Potomac near Sharpsburg, and Burnside was sent to meet him with the 1st and 9th corps. He left Washington Sept. 3. On 12 Sept. he met the enemy's pickets at Frederick City, and on the 14th encountered the confederates in force at South Mountain, and very handsomely dislodged them from a strong position. The energy of this movement was probably not anticipated by Gen. Lee. 

He retreated to Antietam creek, threw up entrenchments, and awaited attack. To Burnside's 9th corps, on the morning of the battle of Antietam (Sept. 17), was assigned the task of capturing and holding a stone bridge. This was done at a terrible sacrifice of life; but it was the key of the position, and, according to a high Confederate authority (Edward A. Pollard, the historian), if the bridge could have been re-captured, the result of the battle of Antietam would have been decisive. The army remained in the neighborhood of Sharpsburg until early in November, when McClellan was relieved, and on 10 Nov. Burnside reluctantly assumed command. At this time the Confederate army was divided, Longstreet and Jackson commanding, respectively, its right and left wings, being separated by at least two days' march. McClellan and Burnside were always warm personal friends, and the former gave his successor in command the benefit of his projected plans.

A month passed in reorganizing the army in three grand divisions, under Generals Sumner, Franklin, and Hooker, with the 11th corps under Sigel as a reserve. The plan was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and, if possible, crush the separated wings of the confederate army in detail. The movement began 15 Nov., and four days later the army occupied the heights opposite Fredericksburg, but with the river intervening and no pontoon-train ready. The responsibility for this failure has never been charged to Gen. Burnside, nor has it ever been definitely fixed upon any one save a vague and impersonal "department"; but it necessitated a fatal delay, for Lee had moved nearly as rapidly as Burnside, and promptly occupied and fortified the heights south of the river.

 During the period of enforced inaction that followed, Gen. Burnside went to Washington and expressed his doubts as to the policy of crossing the river, in view of the failure of the attempt to divide Lee's. forces. But he was urged to push a winter campaign against Richmond, and, returning to the front, gave orders to place the bridges. This was gallantly effected in the face of a sharp resistance, Fredericksburg was cleared of the enemy, and on 13 Dec, the whole national army had crossed and was in position south of the Rappahannock. The situation in brief was this: South and in the rear of Fredericksburg is a range of hills irregularly parallel to the course of the river; the space between is a plateau well adapted for the movement of troops. This was occupied by the national army in the three grand divisions specified, Sumner holding the right, Hooker the centre, and Franklin the left. 

The Confederates occupied the naturally strong position along the crest of the hills, and were well entrenched, with batteries in position. Longstreet commanded the right wing, and Jackson the left. The weak point of the Confederate line was at its right, owing to a depression of the hills, and here it was at first intended to make a determined assault; but, for some reason, orders were sent to Franklin, at the last moment, merely to make a demonstration, while Sumner attempted to carry Marye's hill, which, naturally a strong position, was rendered nearly impregnable by a sunken road, bordered by a stone wall, along its base. The best battalions in the army were sent against this position; but the fire of artillery and infantry was so severe that nothing was gained, although the struggle was kept up till nightfall, Gen. Hooker's division being the last to attack, only to be repelled as its predecessors had been. Burnside would have renewed the attack on the next day, but Sumner dissuaded him at the last moment, and that night the whole army re-crossed the river, having lost, in killed, wounded, and missing, more than 12,000 men. Some of these, however, afterward returned to their regiments.

The Confederate loss was 5,309. Insubordination was soon developed among the corps and division commanders, and Burnside issued an order, subject to the president's approval, summarily dismissing several of them from the service, and relieving others from duty. The order, which sweepingly included Hooker, Franklin, Newton, and Brooks, was not approved, and Gen. Burnside was superseded by Maj.-Gen. Hooker.

Transferred to the department of the Ohio, with headquarters at Cincinnati, Burnside found himself forced to take stringent measures in regard to the proceedings of southern sympathizers on both sides of the river. On 13 April, 1863, he issued his famous general order defining certain treasonable offences, and announcing that they would not be tolerated. Numerous arrests followed, including that of Clement L. Vallandigham, who was tried by military commission for making a treasonable speech, was found guilty, and sentenced to imprisonment during the remainder of the war. This sentence the president commuted to banishment, and Vallandigham was sent within the lines of the Confederacy. The democrats of Ohio thereupon nominated him for governor, but he was defeated by a majority of more than 100,000.

In August, 1863, Burnside crossed the Cumberland mountains at the head of 18,000 men, marching 250 miles in 14 days, causing the Confederates, who had their headquarters at Knoxville, to make a hasty retreat. He pushed forward, and Cumberland Gap was captured, with its garrison and stores. Attacked by Longstreet, with a superior force, Gen. Burnside retreated in good order, fighting all the way to Knoxville, where he was fortified and provisioned for a siege by the time Longstreet was ready to invest the place. This movement, according to Gen. Burnside's biographer, was made, on his own responsibility, to draw Longstreet away from Grant's front, and thus facilitate the defeat of Gen. Bragg, which soon followed. The siege of Knoxville was prosecuted with great vigor for a month, when the approach of Gen. Sherman compelled Longstreet to raise the siege.

Immediately afterward Gen. Burnside was relieved, and devoted himself to recruiting and reorganizing the 9th corps. In April, 1864, he resumed command at Annapolis, with the corps nearly 20,000 strong. Attached once more to the army of the Potomac, this time under Gen. Grant, he led his corps through the battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, and the operations against Petersburg. In these latter engagements the corps suffered very heavily, and Gen. Meade preferred charges of disobedience against Burnside, and ordered a court-martial for his trial. This course was disapproved by Gen. Grant, and, at Burnside's request, a court of inquiry was ordered, which eventually found him "answerable for the want of success." He always held that the failure was due to interference with his plan of assault, and before a congressional committee of investigation much testimony was adduced to show that this was really the case.

Gen. Burnside resigned from the army on 15 April, 1865, with a military record that does him high honor as a patriotic, brave, and able officer, to whom that bane of army life, professional jealousy, was unknown. He always frankly admitted his own unfitness for the command of a large army, and accepted such commands only under stress of circumstances. Returning to civil life, he became at once identified with railroad construction and management.

He was elected governor of Rhode Island in April, 1866, and re-elected in 1867 and 1868. Declining a fourth nomination, he devoted himself successfully to the great railroad interests with which he was identified. He went to Europe on business during the height of the Franco-Prussian war, and, as a soldier, naturally wished to witness some of the siege operations before Paris. Visiting the Prussian headquarters at Versailles simply in a private capacity, he found himself called upon to act as an envoy between the hostile forces, which he did, passing back and forth under a flag-of-truce, endeavoring to further negotiations for peace. In Paris, and among the German besiegers, he was looked upon with the greatest curiosity, and, although his efforts at peace-making were unsuccessful, he secured the lasting respect and confidence of both sides.

In January, 1875, after his return to this country, he was elected U. S. senator from Rhode Island, and in 1880 was re-elected. He took a leading position in the senate, was chairman of the committee on foreign affairs, and sustained his life-long character as a fair-minded and patriotic citizen. His death, which was very sudden, from neuralgia of the heart, occurred at his home in Bristol, R.I. The funeral ceremonies as-stoned an almost national character, for his valuable services as a soldier and as a statesman had secured general recognition, and in his own state he was the most conspicuous man of his time. Burnside was a tall and handsome man of soldierly bearing, with charming manners, which won for him troops of friends and admirers. He outlived his wife, and died childless. See "Life and Public Services of Ambrose E. Burnside," by Benjamin Perley Poore (Providence, 1882) -- Edited Appleton's Cyclopedia American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

 

 

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