Major General Ambrose
Army of the Potomac Commander
Major General Ambrose Burnside twice declined command of the Army of the Potomac because of self-doubt about his ability to lead such a large army. President Lincoln insisted that he was the most qualified man for the position, and he accepted the command on November 9, 1862. General Burnside quickly moved his 225,000 man army toward Fredericksburg, Virginia to begin a campaign to capture Richmond. Slow delivery of pontoons to build bridges delayed crossing of the Rappahannock River. This delay allowed Confederate General Robert E. Lee time to position his 90,000 man army on the high ground behind Fredericksburg. When the Battle of Fredericksburg finally occurred, it was a disaster for the Army of the Potomac. Next, General Burnside unsuccessfully attempted to move his army to another crossing point with the infamous "Mud March." President Lincoln was given an ultimatum to replace some Army of the Potomac senior commanders that had been disloyal to General Burnside or to accept his resignation. President Lincoln accepted General Burnside's resignation on January 26, 1863.
General Burnside had more success with smaller commands. His brigade fought well at the Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run. He led the 9th Corps in a successful expedition that captured two ocean ports in North Carolina. He commanded the 1st and 9th Corps at the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam. His Corps sustained massive casualties and took too long to cross an old stone bridge over Antietam Creek. The bridge was defended by only 350 sharpshooters on a ridge above the bridge. It came to be known as "Burnside's Bridge." This delay in crushing General Lee's right flank allowed the army under General A. P. Hill to reach the battlefield and prevent a decisive Union victory. After his time as Army of the Potomac Commander, he served in the West. He successfully defended Knoxville, Tennessee against the attack of General James Longstreet's army. Later, General Burnside rejoined the Union Army in the East as Commander of the 9th Corps. They fought at the Battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. He approved a plan to create a break in the line at Petersburg by tunneling under the Confederate defenses and setting off a massive explosion. The explosion on July 30, 1864 created a crater, and 3,793 of Burnside's men were killed as they tried to cross through the crater. General Burnside was given an extended leave after the incident, and he was never recalled.
Ambrose Burnside was born into a Quaker family on May 23, 1824 in Liberty, Indiana. His mother encouraged him to pursue a military career. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1847. He was 5th in a class of 47. During the Mexican War, he handled supply duties. He was wounded in a fight with Apache Indians in the New Mexico Territory in 1849. He married Mary Bishop from Rhode Island on April 27, 1852. Soon, he resigned from the U. S. Army to manufacture a breech-loading carbine rifle that he had designed. The U. S. Government did not sign a contract to buy the weapon, and he was forced to assign the patent for the weapon to his creditors. Incidentally, this carbine became one of the best rifles used in the Civil War.
Ambrose Burnside was elected Governor of Rhode Island three times. He was twice elected Senator from Rhode Island. He died on September 13, 1881. Ironically, he may be most remembered for his lamb chop whiskers which became know as "sideburns."
CLICK TO RETURN TO OTHER SOLDIERS' STORIES