Ken Burns Classroom

Maj. General Ambrose Burnside

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside
1860-1895. Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, officer of the Federal Army. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.), photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.


Ambrose Burnside’s roller-coaster military career included early Civil War successes, a bloody draw at Antietam, and selection as general of all Union armies, succeeding his friend George McClellan. He grew up in Indiana and attended West Point. By the time he’d graduated in 1847, Burnside had adopted his trademark muttonchop whiskers—a style from which the term “sideburns” (a play on Burnside’s name) was derived. Known for his habitual good humor, he was fond of gambling, and had a reckless penchant to wager until his last dollar was gone. Burnside had a major impact on the Civil War. He conducted a successful campaign along the Carolina coast, with perhaps the first amphibious landings in the war. His triumphs there were the earliest significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater and he was promoted to major general.

Burnside’s successes, however, have been overshadowed by his colossal failures. At Antietam, Burnside forced his troops into repeated assaults across a narrow bridge dominated by Confederate sharpshooters, when a careful reconnaissance of the area would have revealed several easy fording sites out of range of the enemy. In the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside threw away thousands of lives in a series of futile frontal assaults. In January 1863, he launched an offensive beset by rain, aborted before it began, and derisively remembered as the “Mud March.”

In the trench warfare of Petersburg, Virginia, Burnside supported a plan to tunnel under the Confederate lines and plant explosives, creating a breach. At the last minute, not permitted to use the black soldiers trained for the mission, Burnside’s commanders sent white troops directly into the pit, made infamous as “Burnside’s mine.” Trapped, the men were fired on relentlessly and killed in massive numbers. General Grant called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” Burnside was relieved of command. Denied another mission, he resigned from the army on April 15, 1865, the day that Lincoln was assassinated. Later Burnside would serve as Rhode Island’s governor and U.S. Senator, and the first president of the National Rifle Association.

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