General Ambrose Burnside, USA — Civil War Snapshot

General Ambrose Burnside. Image Source: Library of Congress.

General Ambrose Burnside (1824–1881) rose to the rank of Major General in the United States Army during the Civil War (1861—1865). Burnside led Union forces to important victories on the East Coast early in the war. However, he was controversial and fell out of favor when his plan to break the Siege of Petersburg led to the disaster known as the Battle of the Crater. Burnside is perhaps most well-known for his trademark facial hair, known as “burnsides.”

When the American Civil War started, Ambrose Burnside raised a volunteer regiment in Rhode Island. On May 2, 1861, he received a commission as a Colonel in the U.S. Volunteer Army. Soon after, he took part in the First Battle of Bull Run. On August 20, 1861, the War Department promoted him to Brigadier General. For the next nine months, Burnside successfully commanded operations off the Carolina coast, including the Battle of Roanoke Island and the Battle of New Bern. Those battles marked the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. They also led to Burnside’s promotion to Major General effective March 18, 1862. However, his forces failed to capture “Burnside’s Bridge” during the Battle of Antietam.

Battle of Antietam, Burnside Bridge, Photograph
Burnside Bridge. Image Source: National Park Service.

General Burnside Replaces McClellan

On November 5, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order replacing Major General George C. McClellan with Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside’s command of the Army of the Potomac was short-lived, due to the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the failed offensive known as the Mud March in January 1863. Afterward, Burnside faced severe criticism from several of his subordinate officers, and President Lincoln relieved him of command.

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
President Abraham Lincoln. Image Source: Wikipedia.

On March 16, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered Burnside to go to Cincinnati and take command of the Department of the Ohio. After he took command, Burnside issued a controversial order 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 the order. Burnside had Vallandigham tried before a military court, even though he was a civilian, and sentenced to prison for the rest of the war.

General Burnside Faces Longstreet in Tennessee

As commander of the Army of the Ohio, Burnside successfully carried out the East Tennessee Campaign and countered the Confederate Knoxville Campaign of General James Longstreet.

General Burnside and the Disaster at Petersburg

In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Burnside and his forces to support Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Burnside took part in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. During the Siege of Petersburg, Burnside commanded the ill-fated Battle of the Crater, prompting Grant to relieve him of his command and place him on leave. On April 15, 1865, Burnside resigned from the army.

General Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War — 1861

  • When the Civil War started, Ambrose Burnside raised a volunteer regiment in Rhode Island and was commissioned as a Colonel on May 2, 1861.
  • Burnside participated in the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
  • He became a Brigadier General in the U.S. Regular Army on August 6, 1861.
  • From September 1861 until July 1862, General Burnside commanded successful coastal operations off the Carolina coast.

General Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War — 1862

  • General Ambrose Burnside commanded the Battle of Roanoke Island (February 7–8, 1862) and the Battle of New Bern (March 14, 1862), which were the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.
  • Burnside was promoted to Major General on March 18, 1862.
  • Because of his friendship with Major General George B. McClellan, Burnside declined the offer to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, following McClellan’s failure in the Peninsula Campaign (March–July 1862) and defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28 – 30, 1862).
  • McClellan criticized General Burnside’s failure to take “Burnside Bridge” at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), which allowed Confederates to bring up reinforcements, resulting in a stalemate in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
  • General Burnside was assigned to command the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862, after McClellan was relieved of command.
  • Burnside commanded the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862).
  • He accepted full blame for the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg), and offered to retire from the U.S. Army, but President Lincoln refused.
Battle of Antietam, Illustration, Kurz and Allison
Battle of Antietam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

General Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War — 1863

  • After a second failed offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s army in January 1863, known as the Mud March, General Burnside again offered to resign his command — and President Lincoln accepted.
  • On March 16, 1863, Burnside was reassigned to the Department of the Ohio.
  • On April 13, 1863, General Burnside issued General Order Number 38, 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 Order Number 38 during a speech delivered at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 1, 1863.
  • General Burnside had Vallandigham tried in a military court for violating General Order Number 38, despite the fact that Vallandigham was a civilian.
  • Burnside successfully commanded troops during the Knoxville Campaign in the autumn of 1863.

General Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War — 1864

  • Ambrose Everett Burnside was ordered back to the Eastern Theater on April 25, 1864, and participated at 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), as well as the Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864–March 25, 1865).
  • Following a Union fiasco at the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), General Ulysses S. Grant relieved Burnside of command and placed him on leave.
Battle of the Crater, 1864, Illustration, Waud
This illustration by Alfred R. Waud depicts the Battle of the Crater. Image Source: Library of Congress.

General Ambrose Burnside in the Civil War — 1865

  • On April 15, 1865, General Ambrose Burnside resigned from the army.