Ambrose Burnside

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File:Burnside, Ambrose (1).jpg
Burnside, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E.; half-length

Ambrose Burnside was an important military leader for the Union during the American Civil War.

Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, in Liberty, Indiana. His family had recently moved to this community from South Carolina. Since they were members of the Society of Friends, they opposed slavery and could not continue to live in the South. While Burnside was raised in a Quaker household, no evidence exists that he ever joined a Quaker Meeting.

In 1843, Burnside received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He accepted the appointment, although military duty violated the pacifist doctrine of the Quakers. He graduated in 1847 and ranked fifth out of forty-seven students. Upon graduation, his first assignment was to accompany General Winfield Scott on his expedition against Mexico City in the Mexican War. Burnside saw limited combat, as he was assigned to supply his artillery battery.

Following the Mexican War, Burnside was assigned to Fort Adams, Rhode Island. He was then dispatched to the West to battle the Apaches, but he had returned to Fort Adams by 1852. He then resigned from the army, married, and opened the Bristol Rifle Works. During the Mexican War, Burnside had designed a new carbine that impressed his cohorts. Burnside began to produce this weapon in his gun works. He hoped to receive a government contract for his weapon, but the federal government eventually refused to purchase his weapons. Burnside's factory also caught fire, severely hampering his financial status. He tried to win election to the United States House of Representatives during the late 1850s, but he was unsuccessful in this venture as well. To improve his financial situation, Burnside accepted a position with the Illinois Central Railroad, but as Southern states began to secede from the Union in December 1860, he returned to Rhode Island and helped prepare the Rhode Island militia for war.

Due to his experience in the Mexican War, Burnside received a commission as brigadier general with the American Civil War's outbreak. His initial assignment was to assist General Irvin McDowell in preparing the Army of the Potomac for combat. Burnside led a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run. Although the Union lost this battle, Burnside performed admirably and was promoted to major general, serving as commander of the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. In 1862, as McClellan marched towards Richmond in what became known as the Peninsula campaign, Burnside took the Ninth Corps by ships to North Carolina, where his command captured most major ports in the state, effectively denying the Confederacy use of these harbors for the duration of the war.

In September 1862, McClellan ordered Burnside to leave sufficient troops behind to maintain control of the seized territory and to report to Washington, DC, with the remainder of the Ninth Corps. Burnside arrived in time to participate in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Burnside's corps attacked the right flank of Robert E. Lee's Confederate army. The assault took place across a stone bridge that Confederate forces easily defended. After four hours of trying to cross the bridge, Burnside dispatched a brigade to flank the Confederate forces. This movement succeeded in allowing Burnside to push across the bridge. Expecting McClellan to dispatch additional troops to assist him, Burnside continued to advance. Unfortunately for the Union soldiers, Confederate reinforcements arrived and stalled the Union advance. Lee's men, however, withdrew that evening, effectively giving the Union a victory at Antietam. The bridge that the Ninth Corps had fought so valiantly to take has been known as "Burnside's Bridge" since the battle.

As Lee's army retreated southward, McClellan pursued it very slowly, angering President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Burnside. Burnside debated whether or not to accept command of the Union army. He was a close friend of McClellan and hated to benefit from his friend's downfall. He also lacked confidence in himself to command such a large force of men. At Lincoln's urging, he reluctantly agreed to take charge of the Army of the Potomac.

Military and government officials in Washington, DC, pressured Burnside to take the offensive in the early winter months of 1862. Burnside pursued Lee's army to Fredericksburg, Virginia. While the Union soldiers captured the town, Lee's army fortified the heights overlooking the community. On December 13, 1862, Burnside sent his men against the enemy position. Although the Union soldiers greatly outnumbered the Confederates, the Confederates easily repulsed the Union attack. It was a complete victory for the Confederacy with the Confederates losing five thousand men to the Union's thirteen thousand casualties. Burnside offered his resignation to President Lincoln, who refused to accept it. Burnside tried to attack the Confederates over the next month, but cold weather, rain, and snow forced him to enter winter encampment. These various attempts to attack the Confederates became known by the Union soldiers as "Mud Marches" and helped alienate the men from their commander. Pressure from the United States Congress prompted Lincoln to remove Burnside from command. The general once again offered his resignation, this time from the entire service, but Lincoln again refused. Within a month, Lincoln had made Burnside commander of the Ninth Corps again and dispatched Burnside's command to the Department of the Ohio. Burnside became the ranking commander in the Department of the Ohio at this time.

Upon arriving in Cincinnati, Ohio, Burnside first had to deal with Copperheads living in his district. He issued General Order No. 38. Burnside hoped to intimidate Confederate sympathizers with General Order No. 38.

General Order No. 38 stated:

The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.

Burnside also declared that, in certain cases, violations of General Order No. 38 could result in death.

Most Peace Democrats in Ohio objected to General Order No. 38. Clement Vallandigham, the most well-known Copperhead in the state, helped organize a rally for the Democratic Party at Mount Vernon, Ohio, held on May 1, 1863. Peace Democrats Vallandigham, Samuel Cox, and George Pendleton all delivered speeches denouncing General Order No. 38. Vallandigham so opposed the order that he purportedly stated that he "despised it, spit upon it, trampled it under his feet." He also supposedly encouraged his fellow Peace Democrats to openly resist Burnside and his order. Vallandigham went on to chastise President Lincoln for not seeking a peaceable and immediate end to the Civil War and for allowing General Burnside to thwart citizen rights under a free government.

In attendance at the Mount Vernon rally were two army officers under Burnside's command. They reported to Burnside that Vallandigham had violated General Order No. 38. The general ordered the immediate arrest of the Copperhead. On May 5, 1863, a company of soldiers arrested Vallandigham at his home in Dayton and brought the man to Cincinnati to stand trial.

Burnside charged Vallandigham with the following crimes:

Publicly expressing, in violation of General Orders No. 38, from Head-quarters Department of Ohio, sympathy for those in arms against the Government of the United States, and declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion.

A military tribunal heard the case, and Vallandigham offered no serious defense against the charges, contending that military courts had no jurisdiction over his case. The tribunal found Vallandigham guilty and sentenced him to remain in a United States prison for the remainder of the war.

Vallandigham's attorney, George Pugh, appealed the tribunal's decision to Humphrey Leavitt, a judge on the federal circuit court. Pugh, like his client, claimed that the military court did not have proper jurisdiction in this case and had violated Vallandigham's constitutional rights. Judge Leavitt rejected Vallandigham's argument, agreeing with General Burnside that military authority was necessary during a time of war to ensure that opponents to the United States Constitution, in this case supporters of the Confederacy, would not succeed in overthrowing the Constitution and the rights that it guaranteed United States citizens.

As a result of Leavitt's decision, authorities were to send Vallandigham to federal prison. President Lincoln feared that Peace Democrats across the Union might rise up to prevent Vallandigham's detention. The president commuted Vallandigham's sentence to exile in the Confederacy. On May 25, Burnside sent Vallandigham into Confederate lines.

Burnside did not just deal with troublesome civilians as commander of the Department of the Ohio. He also led his Ninth Corps, consisting of eighteen thousand men, into Kentucky and East Tennessee. From the war's beginning, President Lincoln had hoped to free Unionists in eastern Tennessee from Confederate control. Burnside succeeded in liberating the entire region from Confederate control during the summer of 1863. He then tried to resign his commission, having a personal matter to attend to in Rhode Island. Lincoln again refused, ordering Burnside to hold East Tennessee for the Union at all costs. A Confederate force under James Longstreet marched against Burnside's men. Although outnumbered, the Union soldiers maintained control of East Tennessee.

In 1864, the Ninth Corps was reassigned to the Army of the Potomac. Burnside performed admirably in all of the battles until the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Burnside to dig a tunnel under the Confederate lines protecting Petersburg. The hope was to detonate an explosive under the Confederate lines, allowing Union soldiers to rush through the hole and end the siege. The explosion occurred, but Union soldiers under Burnside's command failed in breaking through the Confederate lines. Grant blamed Burnside and placed him on a leave of absence for the remainder of the war. Several years after the Civil War's end, Grant apologized to Burnside for blaming him for the debacle.

Burnside entered politics following the Civil War. He was elected governor of Rhode Island three times between 1866 and 1868. He also served as one of Rhode Island's senators in the United States Congress from 1870 until his death on September 13, 1881.

See Also


  1. Burnside, Ambrose Everett. The Burnside Expedition. Providence, RI: N.B. Williams & Co., 1882.
  2. "Burnside, Ambrose Everett (1824 - 1881)." Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Http://
  3. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  4. Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. 
  5. Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Cincinnati, OH: Clarke, 1895.
  6. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.