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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

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 him.

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 Burnside's position.

“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.”