A capable Union general, who was promoted beyond his abilities, but whose military career survived his very public failures in command of the Army of the Potomac. Born in Indiana, he entered West Point in 1843, after spending a year working as a tailor. He gained his place at West Point after his father was elected to the Indiana State Senate.
Burnside graduated in 1847 and entered the artillery as a lieutenant. He served in the later part of the Mexican War and also saw some service on the frontier. While serving on the plains he became dissatisfied with the standard army carbine, and designed his own alternative, a breach loading rifle. In 1853, while posted in Rhode Island, he resigned from the army to concentrate on the manufacture of this new rifle. The previous year he had married Mary Richmond Bishop, of Providence, Rhode Island. His new company was based in Bristol, Rhode Island. Although the resulting rifle was a promising weapon, Burnside did not get the government contracts he had been hoping for, and in 1857 was forced to hand over his rights in the company to his creditors. During the civil war the Burnside carbine came into its own. 50,000 were produced during the war, making it one of the most numerous of the many types of carbine in use.
Burnside was now in need of a job. Luckily for him, in the same year George McClellan had left the army and was now working for the Illinois Central Railroad. He was able to find Burnside a job with the railroad. Burnside’s connection with the Illinois Central continued for the rest of his life. After the war he was one of many ex-Generals to be appointed to the boards of railway companies.
Like many ex-army men, Burnside was soon called on to help organise the vast influx of volunteers at the start of the civil war. He organised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and was appointed its colonel. This regiment was one of the first to reach Washington, where he and it made a favourable impression on President Lincoln. This was an important factor in Burnside’s later career. Burnside commanded a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). In the aftermath of the battle he was promoted to brigadier-general of volunteers (6 August 1861) and assigned to command of a training division at Washington.
This was important work, but dull. While carrying it out, Burnside began to work on a plan to seize parts of the southern coastline. This plan would involve a force 12,000 to 15,000 strong, recruited from coastal areas of New England. This force would descend on lightly defended parts of the coast, seize strategically located places on the coast and gain control of the coastal waters of the Confederacy. McClellan approved of this plan, and on 23 October Burnside was officially appointed to raise and command this new force.
North Carolina Coast
By the start of 1862 Burnside was ready to move. The expedition was a great success, capturing Roanoke Island, New Berne, Beaufort and Fort Macon on the North Carolina coast during March and April 1862. Burnside was promoted to major-general on 18 March, while the campaign was still in progress.
While Burnside was winning his victories, McClellan was coming to grief on the Virginia Peninsula. At the end of June he was forced away from Richmond (Seven Days’ Battles), all the time demanding reinforcements. Part of Burnside’s force was detached from operations in North Carolina, and with Burnside in command sent to join McClellan. At the same time Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac, but turned it down. Confident in his ability to command smaller armies, Burnside was not so confident that he could carry the burden of commanding the main army of the Union.
The Army of the Potomac was soon on the move. Complications of rank meant that Burnside missed the Second Battle of Bull Run (he outranked General Pope), but he was back with his men in time for the Antietam campaign. McClellan assigned him to command of an army corps (the 9th) and also of the right wing of the army, composed of his own corps and the 1st Corps under General Hooker. This was to cause problems during the campaign. While Burnside had a wider command, his corps was in the hands of General Reno. Unfortunately, Reno was killed on 14 September. Burnside was not willing to step back into the role of corps commander, but also failed to make sure that the senior division commander realised that he was expected to take over. The result was that the 9th corps was effectively without a command in the crucial days before the Battle of Antietam. This is probably why they launched their attack against one of the strongest points on the Confederate line (now known as the Burnside Bridge). Careful planning and reconnaissance on the previous day would have avoided this mistake.
Despite his relatively poor performance at Antietam, when Lincoln returned to his search for a new commander for the Army of the Potomac it was Burnside he turned to. Although he still felt that he was not capable of performing the job, Burnside finally accepted the role, possibly because the most likely alternative was General Hooker, whom Burnside considered even less suited for high command. On 10 November General Burnside replaced General McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac.
His time in command was not successful. His initial plan was sound. He would march the Army of the Potomac to Fredericksburg, cross the river on pontoon bridges before Lee’s widely separated Confederate forces could unite to stop him, and attempt to capture Richmond. This plan had a great deal to recommend it. When the army reached Fredericksburg on 17 November there were very few Confederates on the opposite bank. Unfortunately there were also no pontoon bridges. By the time the bridges had arrived, so had the Confederates. On 13 December Burnside launched a frontal assault on strong Confederate defences on the hills above Fredericksburg, and was repulsed with heavy losses.
This disastrous defeat did not end Burnside’s command, although he did begin to seriously consider resigning. In January 1863 he made a second attempt to outflank Lee. This time he was defeated by the mud. He had also been opposed by several of his own generals, including Hooker. On 23 January he issued an order dismissing Hooker and two others and removing five more officers from command. Rather than issue the order, he took it to Washington, and presented Lincoln with two alternatives – either approve the order, or replaced him. Lincoln took the second alternative, and removed Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with General Hooker.
This was not the end of Burnside’s active military career. Unlike many failed Generals he had made it clear all along that he did not consider himself suited to command at the very highest level. In March 1863 he was posted to Kentucky, as commander of the Department of the Ohio, with orders to move into East Tennessee, where the population was believed to be strongly pro-Union. His attack was to be timed to coincide with General Rosecran’s attack on Chattanooga, further to the south west.
While in command in Ohio, Burnside found himself entangled in politics. The problem he faced was that there were many Confederate sympathisers in the area, and it was believed that they were passing military secrets to the enemy. To counter this, Burnside issued his General Order No. 38, which made provision for the trial or expulsion of anyone convicted to any of a list of treasonable acts. This soon led to the arrest of Clement L. Vallandigham, a former Congressman, who was actively campaigning against the war. After he made a particularly provocative speech, Burnside had him arrested and tried by a military court, which sentenced him to prison for the duration of the war. President Lincoln intervened, and ordered Vallandigham to be handed over to the Confederates. He soon had to intervene again when Burnside tried to close the Chicago Times and ban the New York World from his department.
Probably fortunately, Burnside’s military duties soon came back to the fore. After lengthy delays in front of Chattanooga, Rosecrans finally made his move in August 1863. Burnside’s expedition progressed well. He captured Knoxville, the main city in East Tennessee, on 2 September. One week later he captured the main Confederate army in East Tennessee at Cumberland Gap. Believing that he had achieved what he had been appointed to do, Burnside once again attempted to resign, but his resignation was refused.
This was fortunate. Burnside was one of the best commanders of small forces in the Union army. He was soon to demonstrate this. Rosecrans’ apparently unstoppable progress had been stopped at the Battle of Chickamauga (19-20 September), and he had been besieged within Chattanooga. This placed Burnside’s command in serious danger of attack. In the middle of November that danger was realised when a major expedition under James Longstreet was detached from the siege of Chattanooga with orders to recapture Knoxville and East Tennessee.
Burnside had been expecting just such a move ever since receiving news of Chickamauga. He had used the time well, concentrating his army south of Knoxville. When Longstreet appeared, he conducted a skilful retreat back to Knoxville, and then defended the town in a siege that lasted from 19 October until 4 December. The possible plight of Burnside was one of U.S. Grant’s main worries when he arrived to take over at Chattanooga. Immediately after defeated General Bragg’s besieging army (Battle of Missionary Ridge, 25 November 1863), Grant dispatched General Sherman to relieve the siege.
In fact the position in Knoxville was not as desperate as Grant had believed. Burnside’s last report before the siege had suggested that he was dangerously short of supplies, but local Union supporters arranged to float food and supplies down the river into Knoxville. When Sherman arrived Burnside actually had more supplies than when the siege began. He had also repulsed Longstreet’s only attempted assault (29 November). When Longstreet learnt that Sherman was close he abandoned the siege, and retreated north east, back towards Virginia.
Burnside was rewarded for his skilful performance at Knoxville with command of the 9th corps. After a period of reorganisation in Maryland, that corps joined Grant on his overland campaign in Virginia. However, it did not join the Army of the Potomac, instead remaining an independent unit, directly under General Grant. As before Second Bull Run, this was because Burnside outranked General Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
This situation held through the battles of The Wilderness and Spottsylvania. After the second battle, Burnside agreed to serve under Meade, and the ninth corps became part of the Army of the Potomac. In that capacity it fought at Cold Harbor and during the siege of Petersburg.
It was this siege that finally ended Burnside’s active military career. One of his officers, a former mining engineered called Henry Pleasants, thought that his men could did a tunnel under the Confederate lines and explode a huge mine under a vulnerable corner of that line. Burnside supported this plan, and was able to get it approved. He selected the fourth division, his freshest, to lead the assault, and made sure they were carefully trained for the attack. The only problem was that the fourth division was made up of black soldiers. The day before the attack, General Meade decided that it was too dangerous to use them in such a risky venture, and withdrew them from the attack.
Burnside’s reaction was fairly unprofessional. Instead of replacing the fourth with his second best division, he had his division commanders draw lots. The result was that the attack on 30 July was led by his worst led division. Burnside himself provided little or no leadership on the day, and the attack was defeated with heavy losses. Meade blamed Burnside, attempted to have him court-martialled and then held a court of inquiry into the failure at the Crater. The court of inquiry sat through August and into September, finally ending on 9 September after seventeen days. The court criticised Burnside for ‘failure to comply with orders and to apply military principles’, but was satisfied that Burnside thought that he had taken the correct actions before the attack. Four other officers were also criticized. Even Grant was (indirectly) criticized, for the failure to appoint a single officer to command all troops taking part in the operation.
The battle of the Crater ended his active career. Soon after the court of inquiry Burnside went on leave, and was never recalled. This may seem harsh, but his working relationship with Meade was clearly broken, and so it was probably the correct course of action. In April 1865, with the war nearly won, Burnside resigned his commission.
After the war he had successful business and political careers, serving as a director of the Illinois Central Railroad (from 1864) and as president of several other railroad companies. He was also elected governor of Rhode Island in 1866, 67 and 68. While in Europe on business in 1870 he became involved in the Franco-Prussian war as a trusted messenger between the two sides. From 1874 until his death in 1881 he served as the Senator for Rhode Island.
Burnside’s period in command of the Army of the Potomac was famously disastrous. However, this should not be allowed to overshadow his great abilities when in commander of smaller forces, as seen on the North Carolina coast in 1862 or at Knoxville in 1863. He was always aware of his limitations, but put his duty to his country above his own concerns when he agreed to replaced General McClellan.