Burnside takes command
‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz
AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE did not want the job. He had never wanted the job.
Twice, the president of
the United States had asked him to take it, and, twice, he had refused.
But this time was different. This time, the president was not asking
Burnside to take command of the Army of the Potomac; he was ordering him
to do so. As a loyal officer, Burnside could not refuse, though he made
it clear that he did so against his wishes.
“Had I been asked to take it,” he wrote Gen. in Chief Henry Halleck,
“I should have declined; but, being ordered, I cheerfully obey.”
Burnside was just 38 years old when he assumed command of the army.
As a teen-ager, the Indiana native became a tailor’s apprentice. But the
prospect of life in a tailor’s shop did not suit the boy’s restless ambition,
and, at the age of 19, he enrolled as a cadet at the United States Military
Academy. There, he gained a reputation as a fun-loving, likeable chap.
He loved fun too much, perhaps. In his first year at the academy, he
ranked 207th out of 211 cadets in conduct. The four who fell below him
on the list were sent home. Young Ambrose survived the cut, however, to
graduate four years later, 18th of 38 in his class.
Upon graduation in 1847, Burnside became a second lieutenant in the
artillery. The war with Mexico was just ending, and Burnside spent several
months in Mexico City, wooing the señoritas and gambling at cards. Contemporaries
noted that the young officer had a dangerous habit of raising the stakes
when luck was running against him. As a result, by the time he left Mexico
he found himself greatly in debt.
Bad luck was something of a theme in young Burnside’s life. One tradition
has it that he became engaged to a young lady from Ohio, but when the
minister asked the flighty young woman if she would take Ambrose to be
her husband, she replied, “No, sirree, Bob, I won’t,” and fled the room.
(The story goes that this same woman became engaged to another man a
short time later. The man apparently had heard about his fiancée’s earlier
engagement, for as the wedding began he drew a pistol from its holster,
showed it to his bride, and announced that there would be “a wedding tonight
or a funeral tomorrow.” This time, the woman fulfilled her pledge.)
Burnside had no better success in business. After leaving the army in
1853, he moved to Rhode Island and, borrowing some money, established
the Bristol Rifle Works. Burnside produced a dependable carbine for the
U.S. Cavalry, but when the secretary of war awarded the contract to another
firm, the company went belly up.
Deeply in debt, Burnside turned to an old West Point friend for help.
Like Burnside, George B. McClellan had left the Army to pursue a career
in the private sector, but, unlike Burnside, he had succeeded. By 1858,
McClellan was an executive with the Illinois Central Railroad. When Burnside
wrote to him asking for assistance, he not only offered his friend a job
with the company, but also allowed Burnside to stay at his home until
he could get back on his feet. Thanks to McClellan’s generosity, Burnside’s
future again looked bright.
The Civil War erupted just three years later. McClellan became a major
general of Ohio volunteers, while Burnside was offered command of a regiment
from Rhode Island. Both men enjoyed early success. In a series of small
engagements, McClellan secured western Virginia (now West Virginia) for
the Union, while Burnside—now a brigadier general—secured a foothold on
the North Carolina coast.
As a reward for his success, McClellan was appointed commander of the
North’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac. Burnside, for his part,
was bumped up to major general and eventually received command of the
9th Corps, a unit in McClellan’s army.
The war put a strain on the men’s relationship. McClellan found Burnside
slow (quite an indictment from a man who, himself, moved at a glacial
pace) and blamed him for not promptly attacking at the Battle of Antietam.
Stung by his friend’s criticism, Burnside sulked.
McClellan, too, was coming under fire, however, and, on Nov. 7, 1862,
President Lincoln relieved him of command. In his place, he appointed
Ambrose Burnside. Lincoln had quietly offered Burnside the position twice
before, but the modest general made it clear that he did not feel competent
to command an army. Others shared that view.
“Those of us who were well acquainted with Burnside knew that he was
a brave, loyal man,” wrote Gen. Darius Couch, “but we did not think that
had the military ability to command the Army of the Potomac.
Gen. George Meade voiced a similar opinion about the likeable Midwesterner:
“He had some very positive qualifications, such as determination and nerve,
but he wanted knowledge and judgment, and was deficient in that enlarged
mental capacity which is essential in a commander.”
That Burnside lacked the confidence and ability to command an army was
undoubtedly true, but he had more personal reasons for not accepting the
command. Doing so would have been a betrayal of his friend. So long as
McClellan was in charge of the army, Burnside would not consent to replace
By November 1862, however, McClellan was no longer part of the equation.
The War Department official who brought Burnside the order to take command
of the army, Gen. Catharinus P. Buckingham, made it clear that McClellan
was to be relieved regardless of whether Burnside accepted the position
or not. The only question was who would replace him.
If Burnside refused the command, Buckingham had authority to offer it
to Gen. Joseph Hooker. Burnside and Hooker disliked one another, and,
after much discussion, Burnside finally agreed to take the job, if only
to thwart Hooker's ambitions.
He accepted the position with the greatest reluctance. Meeting a fellow
officer a couple of days later, Burnside remarked “that he had concluded
to take command of the army, but did not regard the subject as one for
congratulation.” To anyone who would listen, Burnside made it clear that
he did not feel competent to lead the army. No one wishes to trust his
life to a man who does not trust himself, and such statements only weakened
“He possessed an excessive self-distrust,” wrote a Connecticut officer,
“and it was creditable to his candor to confess it, and yet it is a question
whether this distrust did not react unfavorably upon the officers and
men of his command.”
George Washington had supposedly voiced similar self-doubts when he
took command of the Continental Army in 1775. Would Burnside turn out
to be another Washington? Or would he join Irvin McDowell, John Pope,
and George McClellan on the growing list of Union generals who had ruined
their reputations fighting on Virginia's “sacred soil?”
Next: The Army of the Potomac marches to Fredericksburg
DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
National Military Park. He is author of two books, “Abraham Lincoln at
City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”