English: “Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, officer of the Federal Army”. Negative: glass, wet collodion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ambrose Burnside got the post most thinking generals in the Eastern Theatre of the US Civil War would have sold their grandmothers to avoid – command of the Army of the Potomac. I never really knew how to take Burnside – in the roll of Union commanders he is often held up as one of the most unsuccessful and incompetent. A little background reading fleshes out the picture more fairly – the man was a good peacetime commander and administrator but such people don’t always make the transition to field command. Burnside started the war as a colonel of volunteers (1st Rhode Island) and was bumped up to brigade command in time for 1st Bull Run. His performance there was what you might expect from an OK colonel given a brigade – OK but nothing more.
From autumn 1861 until summer 1862, Burnside commanded a scratch force of three Maryland brigades dubbed the North Carolina Expeditionary Force. These troops were used to conduct an amphibious campaign that closed most the war.of the North Carolina coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war. That got him a promotion to Major-General and his forces designated as the nucleus of the new 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. If the war started to get on top of Gen. Burnside it was probably at the point he was first offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Sensibly, he refused and one gets the impression that the man understood and accepted his limitations. Following Second Bull Run he was offered command again and again refused.
September 1862 brought Lee’s invasion of Maryland and the battle of Antietam. Burnside’s lacklustre performance at that fight can be partly blamed on McClellan, who had split 9th Corps, putting each of its two divisions at opposite ends of the battlefield. That said, Burnside himself appeared overborne by the situation. His failure to utilise the concealed fords over Antietam Creek meant that his troops were committed to attacking across a bridge covered from high ground by Confederate sharpshooters. This was a major factor in the result of the battle – a tactical stalemate.
McClellan’s less than enthusiastic pursuit of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they retreated lead to his removal. Burnside got the job offer from hell for a third time and reluctantly accepted. He soon understood what political pressure meant as telegram after telegram came from Washington ordering him to attack. His plan for an advance on Richmond was way too ambitious, since everything depended on an easy capture and consolidation of his crossing over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. The ensuing battle fought there on 13 December was a costly and humiliating Union defeat. Failure to exploit breakthroughs on the flanks allowed Lee and Longstreet to dig in along Marye’s Heights and repel frontal assault after frontal assault. It is for these corpse-strewn slopes that Burnside is chiefly and not entirely fairly remembered.
In this book, the authors’ epic reworking of the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign is brought to an enthralling and highly believable conclusion. One of the standard criticisms of alternate history is something along the lines of ‘Why bother with this stuff when there’s so much real histtory out there?’ The answer to that one is that the best alternate history reads like it really could have happened that way. The protagonists’ choices are those that were open to their real-life selves. This book certainly hits the spot in that department. In fact, at various points I had to remind myself that I was reading an alternate history novel and not a novelisation of actual events.
They key points to remember are that Lincoln is determined to preserve the Union and Lee realises that only by forcing Lincoln to discuss terms will the Confederacy gain its independence. This was the mindset of both men in reality too and this gives an added level of realism to the writing. In addition the industrial and economic scales are weighted massively against the Confederacy. The Army of Northern Virginia hasn’t impacted Northern industrial capacity, which is still churning out the material needed to keep the Union armies in the field. Lee must somehow push his increasingly exhausted men to greater and greater efforts, since deep down, he knows that this campaign will decide the war. The action is fast-paced, but with enough tactical detail to please the most demanding Civil War fan.
The Battle of Gunpowder River and the Confederate occupation of Baltimore have brought victory no nearer for Lee. As the book gets underway, he is horrified to learn that Grant’s newly formed and equipped Army of the Susquehanna is advancing down the Cumberland valley, protected by a strong and effective cavalry screen. In the meantime, a smaller Union force under the command of Darius Couch is approaching Baltimore. If Grant cuts Lee’s line of retreat back to Virginia then Lee will have to fight him on his terms, not Lee’s. The strategic importance of the town of Frederick soon becomes apparent to both sides and the armies start to converge. Expect to see familiar faces (for instance one George Armstrong Custer) in unfamiliar situations and yet responding to then as per their historical selves.
Critics of this book (indeed of the whole trilogy) are fond of saying that it’s no fun, because the Confederacy still loses. Sure, there are some scenarios in which the South could have won the Civil War – but not this one. (Try Bevin Alexander’s book ‘How the South could have won the Civil War‘ for some more plausible chances for a Confederate victory). Just because Lee’s boys don’t storm the Washington earthworks, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t credible alternative history.
I’m not going to include any more spoilers about the end of this, except to say that if this had happened in reality the post-war reconstruction would have been very different. A great conclusion and one which makes this trilogy a must for both the serious alt hist fan and the Civil War student looking for something different.