Heroic Burnside

By this point in 1862, Ambrose Burnside’s excellent plan for a late-year campaign had already begun to unravel. His Right Grand Division under Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner stole a march on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and, on November 17, arrived on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, only to discover they had no way to get across the river. Burnside had ordered pontoons to move up to facilitate the river crossing, but no one put the “hurry up” on the order, so the pontoons didn’t arrive in time for Sumner to cross. From there, things only went downhill for him, funneled into a set of increasingly bad options and diminishing opportunities for success.

In the wake of the woe that was the Dec. 13 battle of Fredericksburg, we all but forget why Burnside had been given command of the Army of the Potomac in the first place. He was not only the choice, Lincoln had tried to get Burnside to take command of the army twice before.

The powers-that-be in Washington had plenty of reason to think of Burnside as a rising star, as did the general public. Look, for instance, at this stately portrayal of Burnside from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.

To better understand the choice of Burnside, let’s put ourselves back in the fall of 1862 for a moment, without the benefit of knowing what fate had in store for him.

Burnside had graduated 18 out of 47 in the West Point Class of 1847—a mediocre if not inauspicious showing—and like many classmates, served in the war against Mexico, although he arrived on the scene after the fighting had ended. He served a short stint in the pre-war army but left to pursue what became a lackluster career with the railroad. However, during that time, he burnished his military reputation by inventing a carbine that would bear his name: the Burnside Carbine. (Burnside’s lifelong interest in firearms would eventually led him to be the first president of the National Rifle Association.)

Burnside returned to the army at the outbreak of the Civil War, where he served without distinction at First Manassas. In September, he found himself commanding the North Carolina Coast Expeditionary Force, where his men achieved great success, capturing Elizabeth City, Roanoke Island, and New Bern. These triumphs made Burnside a nationally known figure.

By late July, Burnside found himself transferred to the James Peninsula in Virginia, where he was put in command of the newly created Ninth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Army commander George B. McClellan, Burnside’s friend and one-time business sponsor, was under fire for his poor performance during the Seven Days’ Battles earlier in the month. Sometime on July 26-27, Lincoln sent Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs to meet with Burnside and offer him command of the army. Out of loyalty to his old friend McClellan, Burnside declined. McClellan found his powers diminished nonetheless.

Shortly thereafter, John Pope, leading a new army outside Washington, earned himself a drubbing at Lee’s hands at Second Manassas. In looking for a new commander, General in Chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, once more offered Burnside the Army of the Potomac. However, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, noted with disappointment in his diary that “Burnside declined and declared himself unequal to the position.”

By default, because Lincoln had no one else and so decided to “use the tools we have available to us,” McClellan again rose to power. Although he achieved a victory at Antietam, his subsequent slowness in pursuing the Confederate army led to his eventual replacement. Lincoln needed a man of action, and Burnside’s accomplishments along the North Carolina coast certainly pegged him as one. Burnside’s troubles getting across Antietam Creek in mid-September might have suggested otherwise, but the fog of war and an awkward command structure could have as easily been to blame—and, after all, Burnside did get across and make an impressive late-day thrust. Had McClellan supported him better, things might well have turned out differently, although Burnside, in loyalty to McClellan, would never have publicly pressed that point.

I offer, I admit, a relatively superficial run-down of events. There’s a lot here we could unpack. However, suffice to say, there was enough for the Lincoln administration to reasonably think Burnside presented a reasonable—and perhaps even inspired—option as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside only accepted when told that one of the other options, his nemesis, Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, would get the command instead. Only his sense of duty as a soldier led him to accept. In an officer corps that generally lacked humility, Burnside’s only made him look all the better.

Within the army, reaction to Burnside’s appointment was mixed but mostly overshadowed by distress over McClellan’s removal (although not everyone was sad to see Little Mac go, either). Most of Burnside’s fellow officers liked him but worried that he would not be up to the task—a point Burnside himself had tried to press.

McClellan, for his part, felt bad for his old friend. “His is as sorry to assume command as I am to give it up,” McClellan wrote to his wife. “Much more so. Be sure that all will yet come out well. Old Burn is true & honest—his future will be all that you can wish.” McClellan’s success as a prognosticator was apparently as lacking as his martial prowess.


For more on McClellan’s removal at ECW:

read “The Ends of the War in Rectortown” fr0m April 21, 2020

listen to our ECW Podcast with Chris Mackowski and Kevin Pawlak, “McClellan’s Last Days in Command,” from November 7, 2019

check out the slew of “Additional Podcast Resources” that went with the podcast

read “Could McClellan have been Someone Other than McClellan” from November 7, 2020

see “Hey, General Burnside, Why Don’t We Just Wade Across” from September 16, 2011, for more about why history has remembered Burnside unfairly 

6 Responses to Heroic Burnside

  1. Given what transpired with the pontoons and how that would impact events, I can almost imagine Henry Halleck saying afterwards to Burnside (with apologies to the movie “Animal House”) “You f***ed up, you trusted us!”

  2. Will you be giving an analysis of Burnside and what caused him to change through the rest of the war after Fredericksburg? I’m curious as to what prompted his behavior during the Overland Campaign. He was in independent command with the 9th corps, but he seemed to continually disregard or downplay the orders handed over to him, especially in regards to his actions at Spotsylvania. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what I’ve learned, but he could have done way more and could have dealt some real damage if he had been more aggressive on the Union left (at Spotsy). What could have contributed to this attitude when he seemed so different at the beginning of the war? (I apologize for my newb-ish question).

  3. I’ve read that Burnside could have forded the Rappahannock without the pontoons, and gotten on the southern side of the river before Lee arrived with the bulk of his army. Is that a fair criticism of Burnside?

  4. Excellent points here, Chris. If you “read history forward” and forget how it turns out, Burnside looks like a great choice – and to a certain extent, so does John Pope.

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