GMIH-001 Ambrose Burnside


Ambrose Burnside

Ambrose Burnside is the namesake of the popular facial hair known as “sideburns” because of his unique facial hair.

Burnside lived from 1824-1881 and was a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was given an appointment to West Point in 1843 and like so many of his generation, he served in the Mexican-American War before fighting in the American Civil War.

Burnside in the American Civil War

Burnside with the First Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry

Burnside with the First Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry

At the start of the war Burnside was a Brigadier General in the Rhode Island Militia. Like many others during the Civil War, Burnside recruited a group of volunteers from back home to follow him into the Union Army. When he brought his group to the Union Army he was commissioned a Colonel.

Bull Run

The Union Army, as a rule, named battles for geographic features near the battle. The Confedarates favored man-made features such as bridges, towns, or railroad stations when it came to naming battles.

Cannon on Bull Run Battlefield

Bull Run Battlefield

The first great battle of the American Civil war was Bull Run (called Manasseh by the Confederates). Burnside fought in that battle without distinction. Critics point out that he deployed his troops piecemeal and was fairly ineffective. The one thing that dis stand out was that when General Hunter was wounded in the Battle of Bull Run, Burnside took over his command.

Promotion to General

After his 90-day regiment was mustered out of service, Burnside was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and was assigned to train provisional brigades in the new Army of the Potomac.

He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.

George B. McClellan

Major General George B. McClellan

Major General George B. McClellan

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was the commander of the Army of the Potomac. While McClellan had a genius for organization and training he was not aggressive enough in the field to suit President Lincoln. After McClellan failed in the Peninsula Campaign, Ambrose Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside felt loyal to McClellan and decided to decline the promotion.

The Second Battle of Bull Run was another stunning loss for the Union Army and as a result there was a major shake-up and Burnside was again offered the command of the Army of the Potomac. He again declined.

Eventually McClellan was removed from command after failing to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee after Lee retreated from Antietam. Burnside was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac and was inclined to refuse but when he learned that upon his refusal command would go instead to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (whom Burnside disliked) Burnside reluctantly agreed.

On Toward Richmond

President Lincoln pressured Burnside to take immediate and aggressive action. So Burnside made plans to attack Richmond, Virginia (the capitol of the Confederacy).

However, the attempt resulted the humiliating and costly defeat at Fredericksburg (Virginia). Burnside accepted full blame and offered to retire from the Army, but this was refused. Burnside’s critics of Burnside called him the “Butcher of Fredericksburg.”

General Order No. 38

Burnside offered to resign his commission altogether but President Lincoln could not spare him. Instead, Burnside was placed back at the head of the IX Corps and sent to command the Department of the Ohio. This command encompassed Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois.

Antiwar sentiment was high in these Western states. Burnside was disturbed by this trend, Burnside issued General Order No. 38, which declared that “any person found guilty of treason will be tried by a military tribunal and either imprisoned or banished to enemy lines”.

A prominent opponent of the war denounced President Lincoln as a “tyrant” and arrested for treason, tried and sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of the war. Burnside next turned his attention to the Chicago Times newspaper. Burnside ordered it to cease printing.

Lincoln had a public relations disaster. Remembering the section of General Order No. 38 which declared that offenders would be banished to enemy lines, Lincoln ordered the person Burnside had arrested for treason freed from jail and sent to Confederate hands. Lincoln also ordered the Chicago Times to be reopened. Lincoln warned all his generals not to arrest civilians or close newspapers without permission.

Other Battles

Burnside also fought at the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Again, he served without distinction.

The Crater

Petersburg crater aftermath 1865

Petersburg crater aftermath 1865

At Petersburg, Virginia the Confederate and Union armies bogged down in a stalemate of trench warfare. A regiment of former coal miners in the 48th Pennsylvania suggested that the Union Army dig a mine under the Confederate entrenchments and blown a hole in the line so the Union could penetrate the Confederate lines. Burnside agreed to the plan.

This became know as the Battle of the Crater. General Meade foolishly ordered Burnside not to use his division of black troops for the attack even though they had been specially trained for this mission. Burnside was forced to use untrained white troops instead. Unable to decide which division to choose as a replacement, Burnside had his three subordinate commanders draw lots.

The division chosen had a commander who did not brief his men on what was expected and was during the battle was drunk behind the lines of fighting. Of course he provided no leadership in such a state. The men entered the huge crater instead of going around it. The were trapped and subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties, .

Burnside was relieved of command sent on “extended leave” by Grant. Burnside was not recalled to during the remainder of the war. Burnside finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War later exonerated Burnside, and placed the blame for the Union defeat at the Crater on General Meade for requiring the specially trained USCT (United States Colored Troops) men to be withdrawn.


Ambrose Burnside's Unique Facial Hair

Ambrose Burnside’s Unique Facial Hair

Ambrose Burnside is probably best know for his unique facial hair. Burnside grew joining strips of hair in front of his ears to his mustache but with chin clean-shaven; the word burnsides was coined to describe this style.

The syllables were later reversed to give sideburns.


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