American Civil War: Major General Ambrose Burnside

Ambrose Burnside during the Civil War
Major General Ambrose Burnside. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Major General Ambrose Everett Burnside was a prominent Union commander during the Civil War. Having graduated from West Point, Burnside saw brief service in the Mexican-American War, before leaving the US Army in 1853. He returned to duty in 1861 and had some success the following year when he commanded an expedition to North Carolina. Burnside is best remembered for leading the Army of the Potomac to a disastrous at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Later in the war, he succeeded in capturing Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan as well as capturing Knoxville, TN. Burnside's military career came to an end in 1864 when his men failed to achieve success at the Battle of the Crater during Siege of Petersburg.

Early Life

The fourth of nine children, Ambrose Everett Burnside was born to Edghill and Pamela Burnside of Liberty, Indiana on May 23, 1824. His family had moved to Indiana from South Carolina shortly before his birth. As they were members of the Society of Friends, which opposed enslavement, they felt they could no longer live in the South. As a young boy, Burnside attended Liberty Seminary until his mother's death in 1841. Cutting short his education, Burnside's father apprenticed him to a local tailor.

West Point

Learning the trade, Burnside elected to utilize his father's political connections in 1843, to obtain an appointment to the US Military Academy. He did so despite his pacifist Quaker upbringing. Enrolling at West Point, his classmates included Orlando B. Willcox, Ambrose P. Hill, John Gibbon, Romeyn Ayres, and Henry Heth. While there he proved a middling student and graduated four years later ranked 18th in a class of 38. Commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant, Burnside received an assignment to the 2nd US Artillery.

Early Career

Sent to Vera Cruz to take part in the Mexican-American War, Burnside joined his regiment but found that the hostilities had largely been concluded. As a result, he and the 2nd US Artillery were assigned to garrison duty in Mexico City. Returning to the United States, Burnside served under Captain Braxton Bragg with the 3rd US Artillery on the Western Frontier. A light artillery unit that served with the cavalry, the 3rd helped protect the routes west. In 1949, Burnside was wounded in the neck during a fight with the Apaches in New Mexico. Two years later, he was promoted to first lieutenant. In 1852, Burnside returned east and assumed command of Fort Adams at Newport, RI.

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside

  • Rank: Major General
  • Service: US Army
  • Nickname(s): Burn
  • Born: May 23, 1824 in Liberty, Indiana
  • Died: September 13, 1881 in Bristol, Rhode Island
  • Parents: Edghill and Pamela Burnside
  • Spouse: Mary Richmond Bishop
  • Conflicts:  Mexican-American War, Civil War
  • Known For: Battle of Fredericksburg (1862)

Private Citizen

On April 27, 1852, Burnside married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, RI. The following year, he resigned his commission from the army (but remained in the Rhode Island Militia) to perfect his design for a breech-loading carbine. This weapon used a special brass cartridge (also designed by Burnside) and did not leak hot gas like many other breech-loading designs of the time. In 1857, Burnside's carbine won a competition at West Point against a multitude of competing designs.

Establishing the Burnside Arms Company, Burnside succeeded in obtaining a contract from Secretary of War John B. Floyd to equip the US Army with the weapon. This contract was broken when Floyd was bribed to use another arms maker. Shortly thereafter, Burnside ran for Congress as a Democrat and was defeated in a landslide. His election loss, coupled with a fire at his factory, led to his financial ruin and forced him to sell the patent for his carbine design.

The Civil War Begins

Moving west, Burnside secured employment as the treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad. While there, he became friendly with George B. McClellan. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Burnside returned to Rhode Island and raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. Appointed its colonel on May 2, he traveled to Washington, DC with his men and quickly rose to brigade command in the Department of Northeast Virginia.

He led the brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, and was criticized for committing his men piecemeal. Following the Union defeat, Burnside's 90-day regiment was mustered out of service and he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 6. After serving in a training capacity with the Army of the Potomac, he was given command of the North Carolina Expeditionary Force at Annapolis, MD.

Sailing for North Carolina in January 1862, Burnside won victories at Roanoke Island and New Bern in February and March. For these achievements, he was promoted to major general on March 18. Continuing to expand his position through the late spring of 1862, Burnside was preparing to launch a drive on Goldsborough when he received orders to bring part of his command north to Virginia.

Army of the Potomac

With the collapse of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in July, President Abraham Lincoln offered Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac. A humble man who understood his limitations, Burnside declined citing a lack of experience. Instead, he retained command of IX Corps which he had led in North Carolina. With the Union defeat at Second Bull Run that August, Burnside was again offered and again declined command of the army. Instead, his corps was assigned to the Army of the Potomac and he was made commander of the army's "right wing" consisting of IX Corps, now led by Major General Jesse L. Reno, and Major General Joseph Hooker's I Corps.

Photo of Ambrose Burnside on horseback.
Major General Ambrose Burnside, 1862. Public Domain

Serving under McClellan, Burnside's men took part in the Battle of South Mountain on September 14. In the fighting, I and IX Corps attacked at Turner's and Fox's Gaps. In the fighting, Burnside's men pushed back the Confederates but Reno was killed. Three days later at the Battle of Antietam, McClellan separated Burnside's two corps during the fight with Hooker's I Corps ordered to the northern side of the battlefield and IX Corps ordered south.


Assigned to capture a key bridge at the south end of the battlefield, Burnside refused to relinquish his higher authority and issued orders through the new IX Corps commander, Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, despite the fact that the unit was the only one under his direct control. Failing to scout the area for other crossing points, Burnside moved slowly and focused his attack on the bridge which led to increased casualties. Due to his tardiness and the time needed to take the bridge, Burnside was unable to exploit his success once the crossing was taken and his advance was contained by Major General A.P. Hill.


In the wake of Antietam, McClellan was again sacked by Lincoln for failing to pursue General Robert E. Lee's retreating army. Turning to Burnside, the president pressured the uncertain general into accepting command of the army on November 7. A week later, he approved Burnside's plan for taking Richmond which called for a rapid movement to Fredericksburg, VA with the goal of getting around Lee. Initiating this plan, Burnside's men beat Lee to Fredericksburg, but squandered their advantage while waiting for pontoons to arrive to facilitate crossing the Rappahannock River.

Unwilling to push across local fords, Burnside delayed allowing Lee to arrive and fortify the heights west of the town. On December 13, Burnside assaulted this position during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Repulsed with heavy losses, Burnside offered to resign, but was refused. The next month, he attempted a second offensive which bogged down due to heavy rains. In the wake of the "Mud March," Burnside asked that several officers who were openly insubordinate be court-martialed or he would resign. Lincoln elected for the latter and Burnside was replaced with Hooker on January 26, 1863.

The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Department of the Ohio

Not wishing to lose Burnside, Lincoln had him re-assigned to IX Corps and placed in command of the Department of the Ohio. In April, Burnside issued the controversial General Order No. 38 which made it a crime to express any opposition to the war. That summer, Burnside's men were key in the defeat and capture of the Confederate raider Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan. Returning to offensive action that fall, Burnside led a successful campaign which captured Knoxville, TN. With the Union defeat at Chickamauga, Burnside was attacked by the Confederate corps of Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

A Return East

Defeating Longstreet outside Knoxville in late November, Burnside was able aid in the Union victory at Chattanooga by preventing the Confederate corps from reinforcing Bragg's army. The following spring, Burnside and IX Corps were brought east to aid in Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant's Overland Campaign. Initially reporting directly to Grant as he outranked the Army of the Potomac's commander, Major General George Meade, Burnside fought at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania in May 1864. In both cases he failed to distinguish himself and often was reluctant to fully engage his troops.

Failure at the Crater

Following the battles at North Anna and Cold Harbor, Burnside's corps entered the siege lines at Petersburg. As the fighting stalemated, men from IX Corps' 48th Pennsylvania Infantry proposed digging a mine under the enemy lines and detonating a massive charge to create a gap through which Union troops could attack. Approved by Burnside, Meade, and Grant, the plan went forward. Intending to use a division of specially trained Black troops for the assault, Burnside was told hours before the attack to use White troops. The resulting Battle of the Crater was a disaster for which Burnside was blamed and relieved of his command on August 14.

Battle of the Crater. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Later Life

Placed on leave, Burnside never received another command and left the army on April 15, 1865. A simple patriot, Burnside never engaged in the political scheming or backbiting that was common to many commanders of his rank. Well aware of his military limitations, Burnside was repeatedly failed by the army which should never have promoted him command positions. Returning home to Rhode Island, he worked with various railroads and later served as governor and a U.S. senator before dying of angina on September 13, 1881.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Ambrose Burnside." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Ambrose Burnside. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Ambrose Burnside." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).