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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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