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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 31

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This is the grave of Ambrose Burnside

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Ambrose Burnside, Rhode Island’s gift to the Civil War and to the history of facial hair, was born in Indiana, the son of a South Carolina planter who freed his slaves and moved north. He went to West Point and graduated in 1847 and was sent to Mexico but arrived there after the cessation of hostilities in the American war of conquest of expand slavery. In 1852, he was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island. There he married and made the state his home for most of the rest of his life. He left the Army in 1853 and started his own firearm company. He became close friends with George McClellan in the 1850s when he briefly worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, where his future commander also worked. He ran for the House from Rhode Island as a Democrat in 1858 but was crushed.

When the Civil War began, Burnside raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry and was named a colonel. In August 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. He had some success as a commander in eastern North Carolina. He was then moved to Virginia where he participated in the disastrous Peninsular Campaign. When George McClellan was canned after that disaster, Burnside was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac. Loyal to McClellan, he refused. After John Pope received command of the Army of Virginia and then failed miserably at the Second Battle of Manassas, Burnside once again received a command offer. Once again, he refused. At Antietam, Burnside moved so slowly, even McClellan lost patience with him. After that battle, McClellan was finally relieved for the last time and this time Burnside reluctantly accepted the offer of commander, only accepting it because he hated Joe Hooker and didn’t want to fight for him.

This was an unfortunate choice, although it’s not like Lincoln had good options in 1862. Lincoln ordered Burnside to be aggressive and move on Richmond. This led to the Battle of Fredericksburg. This was not a good day for the Union.

The Butcher of Fredericksburg offered to resign. That offer was refused. He was relieved of his command in January 1863 and replaced by Hooker. He was exiled to the Department of the Ohio, a backwater without any action. But Burnside took it upon himself to crack down on those he thought treasonous. He famously arrested the anti-war Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham for treason in 1863, forcing Lincoln to figure out what to do with war opponents the military arrested. Lincoln was not happy about Burnside creating a martyr for antiwar Democrats.

Burnside was brought back to Virginia under Grant’s command in 1864. There he had an idea. Let’s dig a trench under Cnfederate lines during the siege at Petersburg, blow the soldiers up, and then attack. The resultant disaster wasn’t entirely his fault because George Meade gave a last minute order not to use the black troops trained for this action (trained in fact because their lives were considered worth less than whites). Burnside then chose a regiment by chance to attack after the blast. Unfortunately, they marched straight into the crater. The Battle of the Crater was a massacre. At this point, Grant put Burnside on extended leave and his participation in the war ended.

Burnside became a very conservative Republican after the war, serving as a three-time governor of Rhode Island and then as senator until he died in 1881. Much to my amusement, during Occupy, which in Providence took place in Burnside Park, the activists draped the Burnside statue in an anarchist flag, but must have made him roll over in his grave.

Ambrose Burnside was a truly terrible general. But he is the only general to lend his name to a style of facial hair. Pretty much worth Fredericksburg and the Crater.

Ambrose Burnside is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island.

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  • N__B

    Erik –

    Would you rather have Burnside’s linguistic legacy or Hooker’s?

    • rea

      That story about Hooker is one of those things that probably is not true–but should be.

  • Murc

    I haven’t done an exhaustive study of Burnside or anything, but I’ve always liked one thing about him: that he usually attempted to take responsibility for his failures, unlike McClellan and, indeed, many other generals.

    Also too: I would go so far as to say that the Battle of the Crater wasn’t just not entirely Burnside’s fault, but almost wholly not his fault. It was an excellent idea, a simple idea, and it would have worked splendidly if other people involved hadn’t fucked it up spectacularly.

    • rea

      In particular, Burnside had a division of black troops train for weeks for the assault. Meade insisted they be replaced with white troops, who captured the crater–and sat there, since they didn’t know what to do next.

    • Lurking Canadian

      This is my view, too. Burnside is an almost unique figure (I presume there are others like him, but I don’t know who they are). The world is full of colossal fuck ups. However, other than Burnside, every other colossal fuck up I’m aware of (especially in the context of worthless Union generals) blames everybody else around him for what went wrong, and maintains a supreme confidence in his own superiority.

      McLellan probably went to his grave certain that he was the new Napoleon, and he would have done a much better job than the gorilla and the butcher. That’s a much more common phenomenon.

    • Warren Terra

      It was an excellent idea, a simple idea, and it would have worked splendidly if other people involved hadn’t fucked it up spectacularly.

      I don’t think this argument usually sticks. It certainly didn’t for, say, Churchill at the Dardanelles.

      • Hogan

        I’m not sure the Dardanelles was an excellent idea:

        Thus, by mid-January, Churchill and the Admiralty were close to committing the fleet to steaming forty miles up a narrow waterway defended by forts equipped with heavy guns, and also by numerous batteries of mobile howitzers. Traditionally, a bombardment of forts by ships was abhorred in the Royal Navy. The idea that naval guns should be used against land-based artillery had been condemned by Nelson, who had declared that “any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool.” Mahan had elaborated: “A ship can no more stand up against a fort . . . than the fort could run a race with a ship.” The primary mission of warships, these authorities declared, was to control the seas by sinking enemy warships, not to attack forts, which, no matter how many times they are hit, always refuse to sink.

        Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel

        • Warren Terra

          Churchill’s idea was to take some obsolete, otherwise useless battleships, steam right past the coastal forts without trying to destroy them, and to appear in the Istanbul harbor and blow the crap out of the civilian population of the Ottoman capital. Essentially a terrorist suicide bombing on a larger scale, and probably a war crime by contemporary standards (though maybe not by the standards of later wars involving heavy bombers), and utterly callous of the men he was asking to do the suicide bombing, but reasonably feasible (when the Dardanelles campaign started, the Ottomans’ coastal forts were relatively ineffective).

          In the event, essentially none of Churchill’s notion survived, and the plan that was put into action was ill-conceived and incoherent. But: Churchill was still in charge, and still liable.

        • Colin Day

          David Dixon Porter didn’t sink Fort Fisher, but his ships took out the heavy guns, softening it up for the ground assault.

      • Porlock Junior

        EDIT: This and the post by Hogan seem to differ even on the sense of the posting we’re responding to. Oh well.

        I don’t quite see how this follows. By my recollection (for what it’s worth) of Liddell Hart’s account (for what it’s worth), Churchill was out of any operational control of his pet project, from the start of its execution, and was not happy about that.

        And is there anyone who thinks that the execution of that plan, by other people, was competent?

        There remains the question whether it could have been a good idea in the first place. BHLH seems to be in a minority there, finding that the plan embodied some of his principles of the Indirect Approach to warfare, incuding Attack The Junior Partner. FWIW.

        • Warren Terra

          Churchill was out of any operational control of his pet project, from the start of its execution, and was not happy about that.

          And is there anyone who thinks that the execution of that plan, by other people, was competent?

          Oh, sure. But the point is: Churchill is still deeply hated by many and still blamed by history for having caused the disaster in the Dardanelles, even though what he did was to start in motion a campaign that he didn’t get to steer and that in the event was completely unlike what he proposed. This makes it a perfect example of the point that others’ poor execution almost never works as an excuse for failure – not even when it’s an extremely factual explanation.

    • Woodlark

      On the one hand, about the only person who believed in the crater plan was Burnside. The plan was invented by the colonel of a Pa. regiment which was full of coal miners. Meade thought the plan was crazy; Burnside convinced Grant to try it. Burnside was right.

      On the other hand, the reason the plan failed was that when Meade rejected the black division, Burnside chose by lots among his other divisions (not regiments); and the division which “won” was led by an incompetent drunk. He spent the whole battle in the rear, drinking. THAT accounts for a lot of the reason why the troops didn’t know what to do after moving into the crater.

      And that’s on Burnside. You gotta know your personnel. He shouldn’t have picked the division with the drunk general.

      • Schadenboner

        Could it have been a poison-pill choice by him?

  • Mudge

    During his time in Eastern Tennessee he was competent, but he was under Sherman/Grant, not McClellan. It is quite ironic that McClellan would be impatient with slowness, considering he knew Lee’s plans at Antietam and sat on his butt for a day.

    Burnside has both whiskers and the Burnside bridge at Antietam as legacies.

    • Bruce Vail

      Burnside sometimes gets blamed for the failure to destroy the Confederate army at the battle of Antietam, too.

      Couple years back, we rented some canoes and took the boys on a day trip paddling down Antietam Creek, including under Burnside’s Bridge. Pretty cool.

    • rea

      It’s always been a mystery to me why Burnside’s men didn’t simply wade the creek, rather than spend hours trying to force their way across the bridge.

      • ColBatGuano

        Yeah, I’ve walked along Antietam Creek several times and have always wondered the same thing. In September it would have been 1-2′ deep at most. Also, calling it “Burnside’s Bridge” is the height of irony.

        • Ol_Froth

          For the same reasons why taking the bridge was so hard. The embankment on the Confederates’ side of the creek is extremely steep and heavily wooded. Hard to get troops up there under fire. Also, the downstream ford required a cross field march, and faced the same difficulties as the bridge crossing…a few rifle companies on the wooded hill could easily hold up the assault. As it was, Burnside did take the bridge, and had McClellan poured the V Corps over it in Burnsides’ wake, the Civil War ends that day. Instead, McClellan refused to commit V Corps, they remained out of combat for the entire battle.

          • ColBatGuano

            But the 400 Confederate defenders were concentrated above the bridge with only pickets up and downstream from the bridge itself (which is why the assault at Snavely’s Ford worked). The amount of fire Union troops crossing upstream 400 yards or so would have been minimal. The fact that Burnside hadn’t scouted the area around the bridge before the morning of the 17th is another point against him.

            Yes, Burnside did eventually take the bridge 3 or so hours after beginning the assault. Then he halted his troops to re-arm delaying another two hours. If he launches his final assault at 1 pm, the Confederates are routed from Sharpsburg before A.P. Hill’s corps can arrive.

    • Porlock Junior

      Another not-quite legacy on the linguistic side: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, attributed to Lincoln and used about Burnside. Not quite, though:
      http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/07/jaws-of-victory/

  • Jhoosier

    Man, people from Indiana. I tell ya…

  • Bruce Vail

    May be that Rhode Island’s gift to the Civil War was Gen. George Sears Greene, not Burnside. He is credited by some with saving the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

    He was no slouch in the facial hair department, either:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_S._Greene

  • Sounds like Burnside was just ahead of his time.

    He’d have fit right in circa 1916.

    • Lurker

      Yap. Even the mining idea was something that was tried repeatedly in the WWII. It is not a bad way to make a breakthrough, but you need to be able to exploit the whole in the enemy front.

      The Syrian civil war has seen siege mining, so it is not a completely antiquated method.

      • Porlock Junior

        And in World War I. Made it into literature too: ask Lord Peter Wimsey about his post-traumatic stress disorder, to use a term from a couple of generations later.

        (For some values of “Literature”)

    • rea

      He invented the idea of trenches protected by wire entanglements at Knoxville, although barbed wire wasn’t really invented until a few years later.

    • Murc

      There’s a colorable argument that the first battle of World War I was the Battle of Petersburg.

  • cpinva

    in fairness to Burnside, his battle plan for FDBG. was actually a pretty good one. it had the troops crossing the Rappahannock River over pontoon bridges, before Lee’s troops even knew they were there. it was very much dependent on the element of surprise. unfortunately, the Quartermaster Corp. failed to deliver the necessary pontoons on time, element of surprise lost. it’s what happens next that ruins Burnside, and ends up causing the loss of 1,000’s of Union troops, in a wasted effort.

    when Burnside was told that the pontoons to build the bridges had not arrived with or before the troops, he considered his options, and went with the worst one: waiting until the pontoons finally arrived, and continuing on with the original plan, though the element of surprise success hinged on had already been lost. the engineers putting the bridges together were under constant enemy fire, being picked off by snipers right and left. as the troops were crossing over the now completed bridges, they too were under constant enemy fire, again being picked off right and left.

    finally, to cap off this now disaster of a campaign, the plan called for the capture/destruction of Lee & and his troops situated atop Marie’s Heights, a hill with steep sides, giving whoever occupies the top of it an unfettered view of anyone coming up. the Union troops never had a chance, between cannon and musket fire, at nearly point-blank range, wave upon wave of them were routinely slaughtered. to everyone but Burnside, this was an obvious failed attack, his officers had to convince him to finally call it off. even Lee and his troops were appalled. that didn’t stop the killing, but they were impressed with the bravery (or stupidity, take your pick) of the Union soldiers.

    • ColBatGuano

      Also, if he had reinforced his assault on the left, several miles south of the town, while maintaining pressure near Marye’s Heights he might have been able to force Lee to retreat. For some reason, Union generals early in the war were just terrible at flank attacks.

      • Ol_Froth

        The main assault was supposed to be on the left, but when Meade broke through Jackson’s lines, Franklin, who was in command of the left, failed to exploit the breakthrough. The attacks on Maryes Heights were intended to tie down that flank and prevent Lee from shifting troops to support Jackson. The question is why Burnside continued to attack once it was clear that the assault on the left failed. Some speculate that Burnside wanted to keep the pressure up to prevent Lee from counterattacking until he could get the army back on the north side of the Rappahannock.

        • ColBatGuano

          If the main assault was to be on the left, why wasn’t Burnside there to make sure Franklin supported it? Again, just terrible tactics on his part.

    • Tracy Lightcap

      Glad to see someone give Burnside his due. There wouldn’t have been a battle at all at Fredericksburg if the folks in DC had, you know, obeyed orders. His plan was actually a good one and could have forced Lee to give battle in a disadvantageous position before Richmond if it had succeeded. After he had to wait, however, he still had a good idea of how to force Lee off the Heights and where he wanted him. Again, as so often in battles not run by Grant or Sherman, the US commanders failed to press the attack.

      I’ve always thought that Burnside made the best of a bad situation at Fredericksburg. He couldn’t retreat; he’d been hired to close with Lee and fight it out. He should have shown more tactical flexibility when the attack on the Heights ran into trouble, but, again, the Army of the Potomac was tired of retreating.

      As to Antietam: Burnside did what he was ordered to do. If McClellan had struck the center while Burnside was moving the war could have ended that day, as said above. A.P. Hill was just arriving and could have been caught crossing the river.

      And, yes, the Crater was Meade’s fault, not Burnside’s. Meade was never an attacking general.

      Soooooo … not a great commander, but nowhere near as bad as his post-war rep made him out to be.

      • Ol_Froth

        Eh, I disagree with Meade not being an attacking general. As a division and corps commander, he was extremely aggressive. He was furious when Hooker called off the assault at Chancellorsville. He’s knocked for not following up after Gettysburg, but he was also low on ammunition (especially artillery ammo) and dealing with thousands of casulties. He commanded the AoP straight through the end of the war.

        Post war, he wasn’t the sort of man to toot his own horn, and much of his reputation was shaped by Dan Sickles, who activly attacked him while trying to build his own legacy.

        He wisely refused to attack at Mine Run after scouting the strength of the Confederates position, and urged Grant not to attack at Cold Harbor, for the same reason. FWIW, Grant never refused Meade’s counsel after Cold Harbor.

  • LFC

    Good post, but there’s a typo:
    After John Pope received command of the Army of Virginia

    Shd read Army of the Potomac, of course

    • rea

      Nope–Pope’s command was titled the Army of Virginia–a device to place Pope in active command without the political hassle of removing McClellan from command of the A. of the P.

      • EliHawk

        And also to unify the three minor armies with separate commanders that kept getting beat in detail by Jackson’s numerically inferior force in the Shenandoah into one coherent unit.

      • LFC

        thks, I stand corrected.

  • wjts

    Ambrose Burnside was a truly terrible general. But he is the only general to lend his name to a style of facial hair.

    Bad men with good facial hair is nothing new. I wear my own hair/sideburns in the style of noted fascist crackpot Paolo Di Canio.

  • celticdragonchick

    I can’t really agree with the “terrible general” part. He was suited for some things, and not so well suited for others. He was not so adept at quick maneuver warfare…but he showed real innovation with siege warfare.

    • liberalrob

      It’s easy to look back and say “well, he stupidly kept sending his troops charging uphill over open ground in penny packets, in the face of a well-entrenched force, practically begging them to be slaughtered. Therefore he was a terrible general.” And maybe he was. But he had been a competent Corps commander, if not particularly brilliant…and he was handicapped by infighting amongst his subordinates as well as facing a strategic situation far worse than he expected or perhaps appreciated. His actions make me think “inexperienced general” rather than outright “incompetent general.” I have more sympathy for Burnside than I do for Hooker, who had a golden opportunity presented to him and inexplicably choked.

      • Ol_Froth

        He was blessed with a talented subordinate in Jesse Reno. After Reno’s death at Fox’s Gap, Burnside was without his right arm, much as Lee was after Jackson’s death.

        I also think he receives far too little credit for what he accomplished on the coast of North Carolina, he essentially invented amphibious warfare while securing a huge swath of coast for the Federals.

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