May 23, 1824 – September 13, 1881
After his successful campaign in North Carolina, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was recalled to Washington in June 1862 and offered command of the Union Army of the Potomac following Gen. George B. McClellan’s failed Peninsular campaign. Citing his inexperience, Burnside declined the position and received command of the IX Corps. Following the Union’s disastrous defeat at 2d Bull Run, Burnside was again offered command of the army and again he declined. Burnside’s generalship was poor at the September 1862 Battle of Sharpsburg, Md., where a bridge his men crossed now bears his name, but even still his ability was much superior to the generalship of McClellan, the army commander.
When McClellan was again removed from command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, President Abraham Lincoln did not ask Burnside again. Instead Lincoln appointed Burnside to command the army. This time Burnside reluctantly accepted, but told his fellow generals “that he knew he was not fit for so big a command.” In the next month’s Battle of Fredericksburg, where his men were slaughtered in the attacks on Marye’s Heights, Burnside proved that he had been a competent judge of his own capabilities.
After the disastrous, humiliating January 1863 “Mud March,” the army was taken from Burnside and he was assigned to the command of the Department of the Ohio. There he had considerable success waging war against Southern sympathizers. He ordained that “the habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy will no longer be tolerated.” On the basis of this controversial order he had Copperhead leader Clement L. Vallandigham arrested, tried, and convicted and shut down the Chicago Times newspaper.
Burnside is also credited with the capture of elusive Rebel raider Gen. John Hunt Morgan. In September Burnside took to the field and captured Knoxville and the Cumberland Gap, and then successfully defended Knoxville from a Confederate siege.
During his army career, Burnside was genial and generally well liked by other officers and the Northern press. he enjoyed a number of notable wartime successes, which greatly contributed to the ultimate Union victory. However, his disastrous, ill-advised 1862 attack on Fredericksburg will forever cloud his reputation. Only moderately successful as a corps commander, Burnside performed better with smaller commands. Burnside resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.
After the war Burnside was elected governor of Rhode Island for three consecutive terms and then declined to run again. After an extended tour of Europe, Burnside returned to Rhode Island and was elected U.S. Senator in 1875. He served in the Senate until his death in 1881.
Fascinating Fact: Burnside’s unique style of wearing his beard and mustache became popular, and his name was turned around to give us the word “sideburns.”