He May Have Been Cool Looking . . .

Published:May 22, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Ambrose Burnside [LC-B813-1625 A]

The other day I was editing an entry about Ambrose E. Burnside, a Union general during the Civil War.* As you can tell from the photograph, this is the same Burnside from whom we get the term “sideburns.” Here’s the thing, though. Burnside may have been cool looking, but he wasn’t from Virginia; he was from Indiana. And he didn’t end up in Virginia, either, or at least not permanently. After the war, he was elected three times the governor of Rhode Island and twice a U.S. senator.

So why’s he in Encyclopedia Virginia? Technically because he was such an important participant in the battles fought on Virginia soil. But I’ve also come to appreciate what a compelling, even tragic, figure he was. Telling his story, however briefly, is exactly what will make the encyclopedia such a great read.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Imagine Burnside on the night of December 13, 1862. He’s commander of the Army of the Potomac, and he has led that rain-soaked army into a bloody disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The carnage is such that, by battle’s end, he is reduced to tears. By which I mean he is openly weeping, right there in front of his men. (It’s difficult to imagine Grant or Sherman giving in to this kind of emotion.) The fault for this defeat is not entirely Burnside’s, but the responsibility is, and he mans up and takes it. His subordinates, however, show him no such loyalty, and soon enough they will conspire to have him dismissed.

Loyalty meant something to Burnside. He had been offered command of the Army of the Potomac not once, not twice, but three times in 1862 before he finally accepted. Some historians have questioned his self-confidence, and that was part of it. He more or less admitted to being above his pay grade. But he was also loyal. After all, the person whose position he’d be usurping was George B. McClellan, a friend of Burnside’s from before the war. Burnside had been bankrupt then, after the federal government suddenly and suspiciously pulled out of a huge contract to purchase a rifle Burnside had invented and then sunk a fortune into manufacturing. McClellan gave him a job when he needed it and he didn’t want to repay the favor by taking his.

I can relate to that.

Things never got much better for Burnside during the war. On his mud-encumbered retreat from Fredericksburg, Confederates mocked his troops with signs that read, “This Way to Richmond.” He caused a huge political scandal in Ohio and was the scapegoat for failure at one of the strangest engagements of the war, the Battle of the Crater in 1864. He managed to do pretty well after the war, though. Besides his political victories, he headed up the Union veterans association and was the first president of the National Rifle Association. Who knew?

Still, I wonder if he was haunted—as I seem to be—by that night at Fredericksburg. The next evening, as both armies collected their dead and wounded, northern lights flashed across the Southern sky—like streaks of blood, according to amazed soldiers. It was a bad omen, and for Burnside one that kept coming true.

* Our contributor, William Marvel, wrote the book on Burnside.

IMAGE: Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside