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Ambrose Everett Burnside

May 23, 1824–September 13, 1881

Ambrose Everett Burnside was an American politician, industrialist, inventor, and one of four generals to command the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. He also served as commander of the Department of the Ohio, where he worked to eradicate opposition to the Union war effort by Peace Democrats and Copperheads.

Ambrose Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, near Liberty, Indiana. He was the son of Quaker parents, Edghill Burnside and Pamela Brown Burnside. Burnside obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1843, and he graduated in 1847. Following graduation, Burnside served in Mexico toward the end of the Mexican-American War, followed by service in the American West. In 1852, Burnside was appointed to the command of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. On April 27, of the same year, he married Mary Richmond Bishop, of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1853, Burnside resigned his commission in the United States Army to focus his attention on the manufacture of the Burnside carbine rifle. When his industrial efforts failed, financial difficulties forced Burnside to relocate to Illinois, where he worked for his fellow West Point cadet and future commanding officer, George B. McClellan, at the Illinois Central Railroad.

When the American Civil War began, Burnside raised a volunteer regiment in Rhode Island and was commissioned as a colonel on May 2, 1861. He participated in the First Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861), and was promoted brigadier general in the regular army on August 6, 1861. From September 1861 until July 1862, Burnside commanded successful coastal operations off the Carolina coast. During that time, he directed the battles of Roanoke Island (February 7 -8, 1862) and New Bern (March 14, 1862), the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. Those successes led to Burnside’s promotion to major general on March 18, 1862. Twice in 1862, he declined opportunities to replace his friend, General McClellan, as commander of the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), McClellan criticized Burnside for delaying his attack and failing to capture “Burnside’s Bridge.” When President Lincoln offered the job to Burnside a third time, Burnside accepted. On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order replacing McClellan with Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside’s command was short-lived. Due to a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), and the failed offensive known as the Mud March in January 1863, Burnside was facing severe criticism from several of his subordinate officers.As the accusations intensified, Burnside requested an audience with President Lincoln on January 23, 1863. During the meeting, Burnside presented General Orders No. 8 (Army of the Potomac), which proposed dismissing Major General Joseph Hooker from the army (on approval of the President), and also proposed relieving a large number of Burnside’s subordinate general officers of their command. The besieged general proceeded to demand that Lincoln either approve the order or accept Burnside’s resignation. Unwilling to authorize a wholesale dismissal of his generals, Lincoln instead drafted General Orders No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863 announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at his own request. On March 16, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry;Halleck ordered Major-General Ambrose Burnside to proceed to Cincinnati and take command;of the Department of the Ohio.

Burnside arrived in the Queen City on March 24 and issued General Order No. 27 (Department of the Ohio) taking command the next day. While in Ohio, Burnside issued his controversial General Order Numbers 38 (Department of the Ohio), on April 13, 1863, making it a crime to express public opposition to the war. On May 5, 1863, Burnside had former Ohio congressman and Peace Democrat, Clement Vallandigham, arrested for violating General Order Number 38 during a speech delivered at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 1. Subsequently, Burnside had Vallandigham tried in a military court, despite the fact that he was a civilian.

As commander of the Army of the Ohio, Burnside successfully conducted the East Tennessee Campaign (June 2 – September 9, 1863), which wrested control of the eastern portion of the Volunteer State from the Confederacy. Later that fall he foiled Confederate General James Longstreet’s Knoxville Campaign (November 4 – December 14, 1863), securing Union of Eastern Tennessee for the remainder of the war.

Burnside was ordered back to the Eastern Theater on April 25, 1864, and he participated in the battles of the Wilderness (May 5 – 7, 1864), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), North Anna (May 23-26, 1864), and Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864), as well as the Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864-March 25, 1865). During the Siege of Petersburg, Burnside commanded the ill-fated Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), prompting General Ulysses S. Grant to relieve Burnside of his command and send him on leave. On April 15, 1865, Burnside resigned from the army.

Following the Civil War, Burnside was the director of several railroad companies, and on April 4, 1866, he was elected as Governor of Maryland, serving three one-year terms. From 1871 to 1872, Burnside was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ association. In 1871, he was chosen as the first president of the National Rifle Association. On March 5, 1875, Burnside began the first of two-terms as a United States Senator from Rhode Island, serving until his death in 1881. Ambrose Everett Burnside died from heart disease on September 13, 1881, in Bristol, Rhode Island. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.

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