Book Review: Burnside’s Boys: The Union Army’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East

Burnside’s Boys: The Union Army’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East. By Darin Wipperman. Essex, CT: Stackpole Books, 2023. 528 pp. $34.95.

Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw

Darin Wipperman has produced a much needed and interesting account of the often-maligned Union Ninth Corps. Starting a bit slowly, the book begins to really pick up with the Second Manassas Campaign, where Wipperman paints a vivid picture of the mental struggle Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the Corps’ commander, suffers during the campaign. While a friend of Gen. George McClellan, he was not at all pleased with McClellan’s lack of support for Gen. John Pope’s operations in Norther Virginia. McClellan’s desire for Pope to fail were difficult for Burnside to accept.

The Battle of Antietam receives significant coverage, and the author offers a very fair and balanced assessment of the performance of the Ninth Corps and of Burnside. Wipperman is even-handed in his discussion of the challenges the Ninth faced, its failure to take advantage of some opportunities, its lack of alacrity, and the Corps’ overall less than successful performance. It is an interesting and insightful discussion.

If someone is seeking an analysis of Burnside’s Knoxville expedition, the reader might look elsewhere, as only a few pages are devoted to it. Certainly, more depth here would have been appreciated, but as the title suggests, the concentration is on the War in the East.

Cold Harbor receives good treatment, and again the author is fair in his praise and criticism of the Corps and its leader. Opportunities presented themselves and once again a greater sense of urgency and cooperation between corps commanders might have changed the course of events. Certainly, Burnside was not alone in his failings here, they occurred at every level of leadership. Nonetheless, the results were costly, and the opportunity missed was great.

The strongest section of the work was the discussion of the Petersburg Campaign, and in particular the fiasco at the Crater. It was difficult to stop reading as the author discusses the planning of the operation, the construction of the tunnel, and the disaster that followed. Again, Wipperman fairly lays blame at the feet of the men responsible, from Gen. George Meade to Burnside and then down to Gen. James Ledlie. It is a tragic but fascinating story.

Overall, the author paints a picture of the Corps as a group of hard-fighting men who were not always well-led. Burnside comes off about as expected: a good man and soldier who has been promoted beyond his abilities. He was faithful, loyal, and honest, but not aggressive and did not possess the sense of urgency required to succeed as a wartime commander.

The book is well researched and contains good footnotes. There are many first-hand accounts, which serve to bring the reader closer to the action. A number of excellent maps are included, but some additional ones on Cold Harbor and North Anna would have been helpful. Overall, Wipperman has penned a useful and though-provoking work. Anyone interested in the war in the eastern theater would benefit from reading it and pondering the lessons it presents.

3 Responses to Book Review: Burnside’s Boys: The Union Army’s Ninth Corps and the Civil War in the East

  1. I’d like to read how Burnside’s boys thought of the old man, looks like an interesting read. I seem to have it that IX Corps was under Patton in WWII.

  2. It was his astounding bumbling around at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania that amazes me. The light switch goes on briefly at the barrier islands and Knoxville then “click” it goes off. The most frustrating of battlefield commanders.

    1. Burnside, IMO, was one of those people who could make a decent plan, but could not adjust well on the fly when things went differently than planned—IOW, no flexibility.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: