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Ambrose Burnside – Weapons Designer, Politician, and Reluctant General

By: Friedrich Seiltgen

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought December 11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia and Spotsylvania County, and was a battle of many firsts.

It was an early battle of the Civil War and one of the most lopsided victories for the Confederacy. The battle between Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee saw more troops engaged than any other Civil War battle with a total of almost 200,000 men. It was also the first instance of a major river crossing during combat.

The Confederate forces were outnumbered by more than 40,000 men, but after the smoke cleared, it was the Union army that suffered almost three times the number of casualties of the Southern forces. The governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, viewed the battlefield and would later report to President Lincoln that Fredericksburg was not a battle, it was “butchery.” Lincoln became so despondent of the news that he wrote in his journal, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”

On November 7, 1862 Union Gen. George McClellan, on orders from Washington, turned the command of the Army of the Potomac over to Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside understood his limitations as a military tactician and had refused the command twice before. This time it was different. It was rumored that the reluctant Burnside only took the command because it would have gone to Gen. Joseph Hooker, whom Burnside hated. Within days, Burnside proposed a major change in battle plans and wished to advance 40 miles to the Confederate capitol of Fredericksburg. President Lincoln approved Burnside's plan and ordered him to march quickly.

Burnside arrived in Stafford Heights, on the outskirts of Fredericksburg on November 17. The speed at which Burnside arrived put Gen, Lee at a disadvantage. The Confederates were greatly outnumbered. Now the only thing standing in the way of victory was the Rappahannock River. As all the bridges crossing the Rappahannock had been destroyed, Burnside ordered pontoon bridges to Stafford Heights. Murphy’s law delayed the arrival of the floating bridges long enough, so when the pontoons finally arrived, so had the Army of Northern Virginia! The pressure was on Burnside for a quick, decisive win. But with winter weather getting worse, the unopposed river crossing thwarted, Confederate reinforcements arriving and dug in, the prospects of a quick victory faded.

Burnside ordered three bridges be built to cross the river and attack Confederate forces. On December 11, Union engineers began laying their pontoons. About halfway to the opposite side, Union forces started taking gunfire from the riverfront houses. Nine attempts at bridge building were thwarted, and Burnside changed his tactic to raining steel on the Rebels. Burnside ordered his artillery unit to blast the confederates out of Fredericksburg with its 150 artillery pieces. The shelling went on for almost two hours, firing more than 7,000 rounds. After the bombardment ceased, the bridge builders went back to work and were promptly greeted by musket fire!

Burnside continued ordering frontal attacks. But with rebel forces entrenched on the high ground of Marye’s Heights, the attacks proved to be disastrous and generated a staggering number of casualties. Burnside would try to gain a victory with a January 1863 offensive against Lee, but the winter rains caused the offensive to be bogged down. The” Mud March” would be the end of Burnside’s career. He offered his resignation to President Lincoln, who accepted it, replaced him with General Hooker, and reassigned Burnside to other duties.

The Reluctant General
The Battle of Fredericksburg is another fascinating tale of the Civil War. But here’s the rest of the story! After his defeat at Fredericksburg and the subsequent mud march, Burnside could be called the reluctant general. His military career was undistinguished. Prior to the Civil War, he obtained an appointment to West Point and graduated 18 out of 47 in 1847. As a 2nd Lt., he was sent to Mexico to fight in the Mexican-American War, but ended up with garrison duty in Mexico City as the fighting had ceased. Burnside was then sent to the western frontier to protect mail routes from Apache Warriors. He was then reassigned to Fort Adams in Newport Rhode Island.

The Inventor
Apparently, the boredom at Fort Adams allowed Burnside to pursue another activity – weapons design. In 1853, Burnside sketched designs for a Breech Loading .54 caliber carbine using a new cone-shaped cartridge that eliminated gas leakage (most of the time) from the breech by sealing the gap between breech and barrel. The rifle used a brass cartridge with a small hole in the base. Once the trigger was pulled, the hammer struck a percussion cap that sparked and exposed the cartridge to sparks causing detonation. The rifle could be distinguished by its lack of a fore-end and its dual trigger guards. One trigger guard was lowered, and it caused the breech to tilt up and expose the cone-shaped cavity.

Although this design helped eliminate gas leakage, the main complaint was that the cartridge would stick in the breech after firing. The first model (there were to be five models altogether) was about 40 inches long with a 22-inch barrel. It had a muzzle velocity of 950 fps and was effective to about 200 yards. Burnside requested and was given permission from the secretary of war to work with Springfield Armory on the design. Burnside resigned his commission in October 1853 and was made commander of the Rhode Island militia. He then formed the Bristol Firearm Company, and in 1857, Burnside’s carbine would beat out 17 other competitors for the contract to produce the next army carbine.

The Buchanan administration placed an order for Burnside rifles. Burnside built factories for mass production, but a competitor allegedly bribed the secretary of war $100,000 to break the contract with Burnside. This, coupled with a failed congressional bid and a fire at the factory, forced Burnside into financial ruin and caused him to sign over the rights to his Carbine.

Initially, there were not many orders, but the outbreak of the Civil War changed that quickly, and an initial order for 55,000 rifles was placed. The Burnside Carbine would become the third most popular weapon of the Civil War, the carbine of choice for Union Cavalrymen, and a few Confederate Cavalrymen who recovered Burnside Rifles from fallen Union soldiers. Some 65,000 Burnside rifles were purchased by the army for use until its replacement by the Spencer rifle, some of which were produced by Burnside’s Bristol Rifle Company near the end of the Civil War.

Burnside also created another “invention” without trying. He was known for his distinctive “muttonchops” facial hair. His name evolved from Burnside to the corrupted term “sideburn,” giving a moniker to the style of facial hair!

The Politician
Burnside became the first president of the NRA at its inception in 1871. He would later go on to become the Gov. of Rhode Island for three years. He then spent time in Europe as a diplomat attempting to mediate during the Franco Prussian War. In 1874, Burnside was elected by the U.S. Senate as Senator for Rhode Island until his death in 1881.

His disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg and his loss at the Battle of the Crater proved his successful careers as an inventor, diplomat, industrialist, and politician all suited him better than the military.

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He currently conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.