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.