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If there is any mitigating circumstance in the failure of Ambrose E.Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac it is that he had twice previously refused the post, recognizing his own inexperience, and only accepted at the urging of others who said he had to obey the assignment order.

Last week we published a post about General Braxton Bragg, the most controversial Southern officer of the war, whose reputation was not improved by the first volume of the biography although he may have received some rehabilitation in the second. Now we have Ambrose Everett Burnside, a union general, who sent more of his own men to slaughter than any other commander.

How did such a man stay in command? There are two answers. He was willing to bow to political pressure rather than sound strategy and when Lincoln pressured Burnside to take aggressive action and approve his [Lincoln’s] plan to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond he acquiesced. This plan led to a humiliating Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside’s advance upon Fredericksburg was rapid, but marshaling pontoon bridges for crossing the Rappahannock River failed and his own reluctance to deploy portions of his army across fording points delayed the attack.  Lee concentrated along Marye’s Heights just west of town and easily repulsed the Union attacks. Assaults south of town, supposed to be the main attack, were also bungled, and union breakthroughs went unsupported and the failures of the plan led to enormous casualties because of his repeated, futile frontal assaults,

The second answer is that he was willing to issue and support “political” as opposed to military orders. The best and most prominent example of this is the infamous General Order Number 38, issued by  Burnside on April 13, 1863, while he commanded the Department of the Ohio. Among other issues, the order attempted to make it illegal to criticize the war within Ohio:

That hereafter all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country, will be tried as spies or traitors, and, if convicted, will suffer death. This order includes the following classes of persons: … The habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy will no longer be tolerated in the department. Persons committing such offences will be at once arrested, with a view to being tried as above stated, or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends.

Any kind of opposition to the war was considered sympathy to the enemy, and the order was immediately used as justification to arrest Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, a prominent anti-war leader who was arrested for criticizing the order itself, and to try him in a military court. He was denied a writ of habeas corpus, was convicted by the military tribunal of “uttering disloyal sentiments” and attempting to hinder the prosecution of the war. Sentenced to two years’ confinement in a military prison. A Federal judge upheld Vallandigham’s arrest and military trial as a valid exercise of the President’s war powers.In February 1864, the Supreme Court ruled that it had no power to issue a writ of habeas corpus to a military commission.

From exile in Canada Vallandigham declared himself a candidate for Governor of Ohio, subsequently winning the Democratic nomination in absentia when, outraged at his treatment by Lincoln, Ohio Democrats by a vote of 411 -11 nominated Vallandigham for governor at their June 11 convention. He managed his campaign from his hotel in Windsor, Ontario, where he received a steady stream of visitors and supporters and asked in one speech, “Shall there be free speech, a free press, peaceable assemblages of the people, and a free ballot any longer in Ohio?”  He appeared publicly in Ohio and even attended the 1864 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He wrote the “peace plank” of the platform, declaring the war a failure and demanding an immediate end of hostilities and was included on the Democratic ticket as Secretary of War.

Like many politicians Vallandigham was an attorney by trade and his diligence and flair for court room theatrics were harbingers of both success and failure. In 1871 he was representing a defendant accused of killing a man in a bar room brawl. Vallandigham attempted to prove the victim had in fact killed himself trying to draw his pistol from a pocket while rising from a knee. As Vallandigham conferred with fellow defense attorneys, he showed them how he would demonstrate this to the jury. Grabbing a pistol he believed to be unloaded, he put it in his pocket and enacted the events as they might have happened, shooting himself in the process. Vallandigham proved his point, and the defendant, Thomas McGehan, was acquitted and released from custody.  Vallandigham, however, died of his wound. Burnside did not have the good grace to exit easily after his resignation from the army – the day after Lincoln’s death – but rather hung around serving as governor of Rhode Island and as a senator from that state until his death in 1881.

Burnside    Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c 1991  William Marvel United States. Army Biography,  Burnside, Ambrose Everett, 1824-1881 Hardcover. First edition and printing. xii, 514 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm.  Includes bibliographical references (p. [481]-493) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG  

Ambrose Burnside, the Union general, was a major player on the Civil War stage from the first clash at Bull Run until the final summer of the war. He led a corps or army during most of this time and played important roles in various theaters of the war. But until now, he has been remembered mostly for his distinctive side-whiskers that gave us the term “sideburns” and as an incompetent leader who threw away thousands of lives in the bloody battle of Fredericksburg.

In a biography focusing on the Civil War years, William Marvel reveals a more capable Burnside who managed to acquit himself credibility as a man and a soldier. Along the Carolina coast in 1862, Burnside won victories that catapulted him to fame. In that same year, he commanded a corps at Antietam and the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg. In East Tennessee in the summer and fall of 1863, he captured Knoxville, thereby fulfilling one of Lincoln’s fondest dreams.

Back in Virginia during the spring and summer of 1864, he once again led a corps at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. But after the fiasco of the Crater he was denied another assignment, and he resigned from the army the day that Lincoln was assassinated.

Marvel challenges the traditional evaluation of Burnside as a nice man who failed badly as a general. Marvel’s extensive research indicates that Burnside was often the scapegoat of his superiors and his junior officers and that William B. Franklin deserves a large share of the blame for the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg. He suggests that Burnside’s Tennessee campaign of 1863 contained much praiseworthy effort and shows during the Overland campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg, and at the battle of the Crater, Burnside consistently suffered slights from junior officers who were confident that they could get away with almost any slur against “Old Burn.”

Although Burnside’s performance included an occasional lapse, Marvel argues that he deserved far better treatment than he has received from his peers and subsequently from historians.


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