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Who Is Ambrose Burnside

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The “Luckless Soldier”

The army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage are at the core of every Army leader. Although not defined as such values in the mid nineteenth century, Army leaders were held to these characteristics just as leaders of today’s modern Army are. One more famous leader of the War Between the States is Ambrose Burnsides. Known more for his daring fashion sense than his tactics and stratagem, Burnside has gone down in history as the “luckless soldier.” Although beginning and ending his military career with success, his downfalls and failures on the battlefield far outweigh his victories. Not only was Ambrose plagued with lucklessness, he was also indecisive and reckless.

Ambrose Everett Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana in 1824. He became a tailor’s apprentice in his home town until he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1847, low in his class and showed more promise singing and cooking than using tactics and strategy. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery where he accompanied Braxton Bragg’s Battery throughout the Mexican-American War all the way to Mexico City. At the close of the war the then Lieutenant was sent to the New Mexico Territory to fight against the Apaches. In 1849 he was shot through the neck by an arrow and by 1852 appointed to the command Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. While stationed there he married Mary Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1853 he resigned from the Army, yet retaining a position in the state militia. While in Rhode Island he worked on his firearm, the Burnside Breechloading Carbine. The Secretary of War at the time John B. Floyd, decided to arm the army with his carbine, and had Burnside establish many factories for this contract. The works were no sooner completed than another gunmaker bribed Secretary Floyd to accept his contract and reject Burnsides. Burnside was bankrupt, so he went west in and soon found himself working for George B. McClellan, his future commanding officer.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was appointed as Colonel of the 1st Rhode Island volunteer infantry. His initial success in North Carolina brought him much acclaim and got him to the rank of major. A year later Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac. His first action, at Fredericksburg, showed his distinction as a failure to command and lead. Burnsides plan led to a humiliating and costly defeat at Fredericksburg. Burnsides advance upon Fredericksburg was rapid, but later delays, due to poor planning and communication in getting pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River, allowed the Confederates to concentrate their forces along Marye’s Heights and easily repulse the Union attacks. Assaults to the south of town, which were supposed to be the main avenue of attack, were also mismanaged and the initial waves went unsupported. A special truce had to be called to bury the 100,000 Union dead at Fredericksburg, earning the battle the nickname “Burnside’s Slaughter Pen.”

After being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside served in the army in much lesser roles to mediocre degree for the remainder of the war. One such instance was the Battle of the Crater during the Battle of Petersburg. Here Burnside agreed to a ridiculous plan thought up by some crazy Pennsylvania coal miners. The plan was to dig a mine under a confederate fort, and then ignite explosives there. The fort was successfully, but because Burnside was ordered not to use his division of black troops (specially trained for this mission) and had to use untrained white troops, the success came of as a blunder. Burnside received the blame for this fiasco and was sent on leave and never recalled. He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865.

Burnsides post war career was very successful compared to his service record. He became a prominent figure in railroading, was the governor of Rhode Island for 3 terms, and was the National Rifle Association’s first president. Not only was he popular in his time, he left his mark on American pop culture. The term sideburns come from his name due to the strange facial hair style he sported until his death.

Burnside was not a great military leader by a long shot, but he was not the worst. He had his share of victories, and more than his share of humiliating defeats. Some historians attribute his defeats to extraneous circumstances. However, due to Burnsides flamboyant air and his indecisiveness, he could have averted some of his many losses. Good military leaders exuded a sense of direction, Burnside was more of a laid-back carefree individual. In addition to his attitude concerning tactical engagements, burnside was also very indecisive. One example of this was the Battle of Marye’s Heights, during the battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside had ordered pontoon barges so the Army of the Potomac could cross at two key river points. There was a breakdown in communication somewhere in the chain of command. Instead of committing his troops and assaulting his objective, Burnside waited for the pontoons to arrive which allowed Confederate Generals Longstreet and Lee to position their men on the high ground and repel and attack that came from across the river with artillery and infantry. These qualities of hesitance and indecisiveness are not those qualities exhibited by a good military leader.

General Ambrose Burnside had his share of successes and defeats, he became a prominent businessman and politician outside of the military. However, due to his lack of leadership qualities, Burnside will not go down in history as a great military leader.

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