Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ambrose Burnside: A likeable bumbler

Behind those fierce muttonchops, a less-confident Ambrose Everett Burnside resided.

I’ve been tracking the Union general the past few weeks, through the written word and a visit to hallowed ground.

I'm reading “The Horrid Pit,” wich details the fiasco at the Crater during the Petersburg siege in summer 1864.

Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s IX Corps, approved a subordinate’s idea of blowing a line in the Confederate defenses, followed by a sweeping attack that would roll up Lee’s exhausted army and perhaps end the war.

It did not end that way. Poor communication with his superiors and subordinates turned the assault into a disaster, with Union troops cowering in the Crater and Rebels pouring hot lead into them.

A subsequent inquiry and Gen. Ulysses Grant’s anger at Burnside basically finished his military career.

Things appeared much brighter two years earlier, when Burnside earned a few small victories and led an assault late on Sept. 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek.

Just this week, I made a brief tour of the Antietam battlefield, spending a few moments at Burnside Bridge, where the general’s troops finally squeezed their way across the stone bridge, pushing pesky Georgians from their deadly perch.

Critics say Burnside did not do adequate reconnaissance before the attack, and commander Gen. George B. McClellan told an aide, “Tell him if it costs 10,000 men he must go now."

At the moment Union army appeared poised to shatter the weary Confederate right, A.P. Hill’s men arrived from Harpers Ferry, West Va., and stalled the assault. Lee’s army was saved.

Months later, Abraham Lincoln put Burnside in charge of the entire army, a command Burnside knew he was not qualified to lead. Burnside sent wave after wave of men to their deaths at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Born in Indiana, the general was a West Pointer who fought in the Mexican War. He went bankrupt after getting into the carbine-manufacturing business in the 1850s. He saved the family’s finances by working for railroads before the Civil War.

Alan Axelrod, author of “The Horrid Pit,” describes Burnside this way:

“Ambrose Burnside did not seem a man spun on the wheel of tragedy. Far from it. Dark he most certainly was not. His popularity sprang not just from his concern for his command, but from his all-around likeability. Happy-go-luck, many called him.”

Grant called Burnside liked and respected, but unfit to command an army. Burnside, known to be obstinate and unimaginative, agreed. He probably should never have been promoted beyond colonel.

Often, it seemed, he was the victim of plain bad luck.

Author Jeffrey Wert wrote this about the general’s demotion after Fredericksburg: “[Burnside] had been the most unfortunate commander of the Army, a general who had been cursed by succeeding its most popular leader and a man who believed he was unfit for the post. His tenure had been marked by bitter animosity among his subordinates and a fearful, if not needless, sacrifice of life.”

Burnside, who died at 57 in 1881, got back into railroad work after the war. His legacy is the term “sideburns,” a play of his name and distinctive facial hair.

I don’t know exactly why I am drawn to Burnside. He was simple, honest and friendly. Although much of his legacy is bleeding his troops, I find him to be a sympathetic everyman who got swept into circumstances that were just too much for him.

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