Across from Kennedy Plaza in Burnside Park there is a statue honoring a man on a horse in a military uniform. This man is General Ambrose Everett Burnside. He was the fourth of nine children, and was born to Edghill and Pamela Burnside of Liberty, Indiana on May 23, 1824. As a young boy, Burnside attended the Liberty Seminary until his mother’s death in 1841. Cutting short his education, Burnside’s father apprenticed him to a local tailor. After learning the trade, Burnside elected to utilize his father’s political connections to obtain an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1843.
Graduating in 1847, he then served in the Mexican War. In 1849, Burnside was wounded in the neck during a fight with the Apaches in New Mexico. Twice Burnside was offered command of the Army at the Potomac and twice he refused. Burnside knew he was best at a Corps command level. He proved himself a successful commander at the battle of South Mountain, giving General McClellan a chance to destroy Lee’s army at Antietam. But McClellan attacked piecemeal. General Burnside made a good fight at a stone bridge but he had received orders late in the day. He was slow in taking the bridge, giving General Lee time to build his lines.
Lincoln, upset that Lee’s army wasn’t destroyed at Antietam, all but ordered General Burnside to take command. Burnside did so, knowing Lincoln’s eyes were on him pressing him to take action. General Burnside attacked General Lee at the battle of Fredericksburg. Everything that could go wrong did. The Union army suffered a terrible defeat. Later in the war, General Grant would lose at Cold Harbor to General Lee.
Burnside resigned but was given a command at Corps level in Ohio. Once again he proved his value by coming up with one of the most lopsided victories of the Civil war, winning the Battle of Fort Sanders outside Knoxville, TN. He defeated General Longstreet, who had 3,000 men to Burnside’s 440, inflicting over 800 causalities to his 13. With this outstanding victory he was assigned to Grant’s army. Bad luck fell on him again at the Battle of the Crater where General Meade placed blame on Burnside for a defeat at that battle. But it was Meade who changed Burnside’s battle orders, orders that would have led to victory.
What made General Burnside a man to admire was that he knew his limitations. When given a command he could handle, he did great service for the Union cause. His victories took important territory from the enemy. In 1852, Burnside was ordered East and placed in command of Fort Adams in Newport, RI. At the outbreak of the American Civil War Burnside became a colonel in the Rhode Island Volunteers. After fighting successfully at Bull Run, he was promoted to Brigadier General in the Union Army. He developed a reputation as a dashing commander. During this period he is said to have popularized the fashion of side-whiskers (later known as sideburns).
On April 27, 1852, Burnside married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, RI. The following year, he resigned his commission from the army (but remained in the Rhode Island Militia). Burnside settled in Bristol, RI. There he became involved in the manufacture of firearms. In 1856, Burnside invented a highly successful breech-loading rifle. Establishing the Burnside Arms Company, he succeeded in obtaining a contract from Secretary of War John B. Floyd to equip the US Army with the weapon. This contract was broken when Floyd was bribed to use another arms maker. Shortly thereafter, Burnside ran for Congress and was defeated. His election loss, coupled with a fire at his factory, led to his financial ruin.
After the war, Burnside was successful in his engineering business and served as governor of Rhode Island (1866-69) and as a US Senator (1875-81). Ambrose Burnside died in Bristol, RI on September 13th, 1881.