Grand Army of the Republic
Ambrose E. Burnside, the third Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was born May 23, 1824, the fourth child of 14 children parented by Edghill and Pamelia (Brown) Burnside in Liberty, Indiana. As a boy he schooled as much as possible at several local places in the area, but although his father held an anti-slavery view of his southern past, after the death of his wife he was forced to place Ambrose in an indentured servitude situation as a way to deal with the raising of all his children. This experience set the tone of Ambrose Burnside's character as a servant of his President and the people later in his life.
Ambrose Burnside attended West Point and graduated in the top one-third of his class in 1847. Upon his commission he immediately rushed to join General Winfield Scott's expedition during the War with Mexico, traveling from West Point to Mexico at his own expense. By the time he arrived the war was over, but the occupation was as hot and at times just as violent as the war. Burnside was attached to Braxton Bragg's 3rd U.S, Artillery, converted to cavalry and guarded Scott's supply and communications from Mexico City to Vera Cruz. After the return of the American Army, Burnside participated in the Apache Wars of the 1850s and became a highly respected officer in the campaign.
Burnside was appointed Colonel in command of the Rhode Island Brigade at the beginning of the Civil War and opened the 1st Battle of Bull Run. During the battle, he took command of General Hunter's Division and afterwards was promoted, at President Lincoln's request, to the rank of Brigadier General. When his West Point friend General McClellan took command of the Army of the Potomac Burnside was again promoted to Major General in command of the famous 9th Corps.
Burnside consistently displayed his loyalty and willingness to put the cause before his own personal gain throughout the war, and he was highly respected by Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, Ulysses Grant and Philip Sheridan for that. Secretary of War Stanton viewed Burnside as one of the best commanders in the field, but felt Burnside needed to watch the officers around him more closely, because McClellan let him down at the Battle of Antietam and Generals Franklin, Hooker and others let him down at Fredericksburg. Burnside's ability to command in combat was never questioned, but on three noted occasions Army politics undermined Burnside and Lincoln knew it.
Burnside's crowning achievements in the Civil War were his invasion of the coast of North Carolina and East Tennessee. When Grant went east to begin his Overland Campaign in 1864, he took two men with him that he trusted to do battle with Robert E. Lee, Philip Sheridan and Ambrose Burnside. Although George Meade (the Victor at Gettysburg) was still in command of the Army of the Potomac, he had lost the confidence of the President. Grant determined he would attack Lee with two separate armies, as he did at the Battle of Chattanooga the previous year. The two separate armies were under Meade and Burnside, with Burnside superior in rank to Meade. This caused a problem and Burnside offered to serve subordinate to Meade for the good of the cause. Meade was temporarily satisfied with the arrangement, but not Grant. As Grant's campaign progressed the main reason why Burnside was sent home on leave, not to be recalled after the Battle of the Crater was due to Meade's desire to get Burnside out of his way. A court of inquiry exonerated Burnside of any fault. The military panel led by General Hancock actually complimented Burnside for his actions. At Appomattox, Grant said of all the men most deserving to be present for Lee's surrender, was Burnside. Ambrose Burnside was present at Ford's Theater the night President Lincoln was assassinated just below his balcony and one of the last persons Lincoln gazed at before his murder.
In 1866, General Burnside was elected Governor of Rhode Island and re-elected in 1867. Burnside was a co-founder of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and served as the first President of the NRA, while serving as National GAR Commander-in-Chief in 1871. He was admired by Generals Grant and Sheridan as an expert small and long arms sharpshooter and as an outstanding horseman. In 1871, while on a European Good Will business trip he was asked by the State Department and the American Consulate in London to broker the release of Americans trapped in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, which he successfully accomplished. He was then asked to negotiate the terms of peace that eventually ended the crisis and saved Paris from certain destruction. For that he received the highest respect and admiration from Count and Field Marshal Otto Von Bismarck and King Louis Napoleon, III. Burnside was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1875, but died just prior to his sure re-election in 1881. As one of the Senate leaders of the post Civil War Republican Party, he was a champion of all manner of veterans' issues, labor and public education while serving his first term as Chairman of the Labor and Education Committee. During Reconstruction, as one of the most outspoken Senate leaders insisting on following the vision of Abraham Lincoln, "With Malice Towards None," Burnside rekindled the admiration and great respect of Southerners such as James Longstreet and South Carolina U.S. Senator Wade Hampton, who he fought against several times during the war.
Burnside was elected Commander-in-Chief of the GAR at the fifth National Encampment held in Boston, Massachusetts on May 11, 1871. He was re-elected Commander-in-Chief at the sixth National Encampment held in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 9, 1872. He was the first Department Commander of the Rhode Island GAR in 1867, and one of the earliest members of Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). Past Commander-in-Chief, Major General of the Army, former Rhode Island Governor and U.S. Senator, Ambrose E. Burnside died September 13, 1881, at the age of 57, of a heart attack at his home near Bristol Rhode Island, called Edghill Farm. His body was laid in State at the Rhode Island State House, Providence City Hall and the Nation's Capitol, viewed by thousands of mourners on the eve of the death of President James Garfield, who died six days later, due to assassination. Both Houses of Congress in Washington as well as the cities of New York, Boston, and Providence closed all public activity for a day of mourning. He was one of the most loved and appreciated citizens in Rhode Island History. Burnside was buried with full military honors headed by the National GAR, National MOLLUS, all Rhode Island GAR Posts and the Rhode Island State Militia, next to his wife Mary in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island. In his eulogy to Burnside, historian and Reverend Augustus P. Woodbury conveyed, Burnside was perhaps one of the greatest patriots of the 19th Century, wrongly authored about his military career, and completely misunderstood, except by President Abraham Lincoln, who admired him immensely for the quality of his service during the Civil War.
Past Department Commander, Rhode Island Department
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Commander, Rhode Island Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Coventry, Rhode Island
To learn more about Ambrose Burnside, go to: Rhode Island's Own: Part I.