Ambrose Burnside

Ambrose Burnside is best known for his leadership as a major general of the Union army in the Civil War and for originating the fashion of sideburns in the United States.


Born in Indiana in May 1824, Ambrose Burnside was a Union major general in the American Civil War and father of "side whiskers," later known as sideburns.

Early Years

The son of a court clerk and farmer, Ambrose Burnside was born near Liberty, Indiana, on May 23, 1824. With the help of his father, Burnside received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1843, but he had a hard time adjusting to his new, regimented life and came close to being expelled several times. He was a good student, however, and despite his troubles with assimilation, Burnside graduated in 1847, 18th in his class of 38 students.

Out of the academy, Burnside was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd Artillery and served during the Mexican-American War. After the war, in 1853, he resigned his commission and founded Bristol Rifle Works, a company that produced breech-loading rifles. The business failed, and Burnside headed back into the military, this time as a major general of the Rhode Island militia.

Civil War

When the Civil War began, Burnside led the Rhode Island Infantry to Washington and was charged with protecting the city. Then, in 1861, Burnside commanded a contingent of infantry during the first battle of Manassas and afterward was made a brigadier general of volunteers for his actions. He took charge of the North Carolina Expeditionary Force, comprising three brigades, and he and his men dug in and established a foothold in North Carolina. The success of the mission provide Burnside with his next rung up the military ladder, as he was soon promoted to major general of volunteers in March 1862.

At the battle of Antietam, Burnside was assigned command of more troops by Union general George McClellan, and by November, Burnside was made commander of the Army of the Potomac. A month later, though, Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated Burnside and his troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg, a hugely lopsided defeat that resulted in more than 13,000 Union deaths.

Soon after, Burnside was relieved of command, but by September of that year, Burnside was again making a difference in the war effort, defeating Confederate general James L. Longstreet and holding Knoxville, Tennessee, until William Sherman and Union reinforcements arrived and forced Longstreet into retreat.

Knoxville put Burnside back in the good graces of his commanders, and he was given command of more troops in support of the Army of the Potomac. Under General Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside participated in the Overland campaign, which included the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor.

His undoing, however, was waiting at the battle of Crater. Burnside had his men fill a Union mine lying under Confederate positions with explosives and detonate them. The explosion divided Confederate troops as planned, but Burnside was slow to exploit the move and Union soldiers were lost. In the aftermath, in April 1865, Burnside resigned his commission.

Postwar and Legacy

In April 1866, Burnside was elected governor of Rhode Island, and he served three one-year terms. He then headed to Washington to represent Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate, but a year into his second term, on September 13, 1881, Burnside died of heart disease.

Beyond his battlefield exploits, Ambrose Burnside is remembered for his distinctive facial hair,a style now known as sideburns, which took its name from Burnside’s own last name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *