Ambrose Everett Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, near Liberty, Indiana. He was the son of Quaker parents, Edghill Burnside and Pamela Brown Burnside. Burnside received an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1843, and he graduated in 1847. Following graduation, Burnside served in Mexico toward the end of the Mexican-American War, followed by service in the American West. In 1852, army officials appointed Burnside to the command of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. On April 27, of the same year, he married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1853, Burnside resigned his commission in the United States Army to focus his attention on the manufacture of the Burnside carbine rifle. When his industrial efforts failed, financial difficulties forced Burnside to move to Illinois, where he worked for his fellow West Point cadet and future commanding officer, George B. McClellan, at the Illinois Central Railroad.
Army of the Potomac
When the American Civil War began, Burnside raised a volunteer regiment in Rhode Island and he received a commission as a colonel on May 2, 1861. Soon thereafter, he took part in the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). On August 20, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 62 announcing Burnside’s promotion to brigadier general, to date from August 6.
From September 1861 until July 1862, Burnside commanded successful coastal operations off the Carolina coast. During that time, he directed the battles of Roanoke Island (February 7–8, 1862) and New Bern (March 14, 1862), the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. Those successes led to Burnside’s promotion to major general effective March 18, 1862 (General Orders, No. 63, U.S. War Department, June 10, 1862).
Twice in 1862, Burnside declined opportunities to replace his friend, McClellan, as commander of the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), McClellan criticized Burnside for delaying his attack and failing to capture “Burnside’s Bridge.” When President Abraham Lincoln offered the job to Burnside a third time, Burnside accepted. On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order replacing McClellan with Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Burnside’s command of the Army of the Potomac was short-lived. After a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), and the failed offensive known as the Mud March in January 1863, Burnside faced severe criticism from several of his subordinate officers. As the accusations intensified, Burnside requested an audience with President Lincoln on January 23, 1863. During the meeting, Burnside presented General Orders, No. 8 (Army of the Potomac), which proposed dismissing Major General Joseph Hooker from the army (on approval of the President), and also proposed relieving several of Burnside’s subordinate general officers of their command. Burnside demanded that Lincoln either approve the order or accept his resignation. Unwilling to authorize a wholesale dismissal of so many generals, Lincoln instead drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at his own request. On March 16, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered Burnside to proceed to Cincinnati and take command of the Department of the Ohio.
Department of the Ohio
Burnside arrived in the Queen City on March 24 and issued General Orders, No. 27 (Department of the Ohio) taking command the next day. While in Ohio, Burnside issued his controversial General Orders, No. 38 (Department of the Ohio), on April 13, 1863, making it a crime to express public opposition to the war. On May 5, 1863, Burnside had former Ohio congressman and Peace Democrat, Clement Vallandigham, arrested for violating General Orders, No.38 during a speech delivered at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 1. Subsequently, Burnside had Vallandigham tried before a military court, even though he was a civilian.
As commander of the Army of the Ohio, Burnside successfully conducted the East Tennessee Campaign (June 2–September 9, 1863), which wrested control of the eastern portion of the Volunteer State from the Confederacy. Later that fall he foiled Confederate General James Longstreet‘s Knoxville Campaign (November 4–December 14, 1863), securing Union control of Eastern Tennessee for the rest of the war.
Return to the East
During the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Burnside and the 9th Corps to support Major General George Meade‘s Army of the Potomac in its pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. Because Burnside outranked Meade, he reported directly to Grant in what proved to be an awkward command structure. Burnside took part in the battles of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864), North Anna (May 23–26, 1864), and Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12, 1864), and the Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864–March 25, 1865). During the Siege of Petersburg, Burnside commanded the ill-fated Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), prompting Grant to relieve him of his command and place him on leave.
On April 15, 1865, Burnside resigned from the army.
Following the Civil War, Burnside was the director of several railroad companies. On April 4, 1866, voters elected Burnside as Governor of Rhode Island. He served three one-year terms from May 29, 1866 to May 25, 1869. From 1871 to 1872, Burnside was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic Veterans’ Association. In 1871, he served as the first president of the National Rifle Association. On March 5, 1875, Burnside began the first of two terms as a United States Senator from Rhode Island, serving until his death in 1881.
Burnside died from heart disease on September 13, 1881, in Bristol, Rhode Island. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.