Ambrose Everett Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana on May 23, 1824, one of nine children of Irish and Scottish ancestry born to Edghill and Pamela (Brown) Burnside. His father had been a South Carolina slaveholder who moved to Indiana after freeing his slaves. Edghill Burnside became a legislator in his adopted state–a position that enabled him to secure a West Point scholarship for his son Ambrose. After graduation in 1847, young Lieutenant Burnside was assigned to an artillery unit but arrived in Mexico City too late to see actual combat in the short-lived Mexican War.
In spring 1848, Burnside was given a post at Fort Adams in Newport–the start of his lifelong connection with Rhode Island. In 1853 he resigned his army commission to open a company in Bristol for the manufacture of carbines. Although the original company failed, it was reorganized in 1860 as the Burnside Arms Company and manufactured breech-loading carbines under patents Burnside supplied to his creditors. During the Civil War the government bought over 55,000 of these Burnside carbines.
Despite resigning his commission, Burnside’s military career was far from over. The legislature appointed him major general of Rhode Island militia in 1855, and upon the outbreak of Civil War, Burnside became colonel of the first Rhode Island Regiment and fought at First Bull Run. In October, 1861, after becoming friendly with President Lincoln, Burnside was given an independent command as brigadier general of volunteers. In early 1862, he conducted a successful amphibious campaign along the coast of North Carolina in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. His exploits earned him a commission as major general in March 1862, and he joined his old friend McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula. In command of the right wing of McClellan’s forces at the pivotal battle of Antietam, Burnside has been unfairly accused of delays on the offensive that might have transformed the military draw into a decisive victory. That such criticism was ill-founded became evident when Burnside (despite his own reluctance) replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November, 1862. When Burnside’s plan to outflank Lee’s army was foiled in the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg and in the infamous January, 1863 “Mud March” that followed the Union defeat, Burnside was removed as army commander.
Burnside was next assigned to head the Department of the Ohio, comprising Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Kentucky. In this theater he performed with considerable success, repulsing Confederate raids into Indiana and Ohio and liberating East Tennessee. Burnside was recalled to command his old Ninth Corps in General Grant’s 1864 Virginia Campaign, fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. At the Battle of the Crater, however, he drew criticism from his antagonistic immediate superior George G. Meade, when the Ninth Corps failed in its assault on Peterburg. This July, 1864 clash was Burnside’s last battle.
In post-war civilian life Burnside prospered as a railroad executive and engineer. Very engaging and popular, both with his soldiers and fellow citizens, Burnside was elected governor of Rhode Island three times–in 1866, 1867, and 1868 as a Republican (despite his prewar Democratic leanings). As chief executive, he unsuccessfully supported a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed Civil War soldiers who were naturalized citizens to vote without the requirement of owning real estate.
In 1874, General Burnside, whose unusual facial whiskers gave “sideburns” to the language, became a U.S. Senator. During his tenure, Burnside chaired the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on Foreign Relations. Notably, he fought for a bill allowing black applicants special admissions privileges at West Point. While serving his second term, he was stricken with a heart attack and died at Edghill, his Bristol home, on September 13, 1881.