November 15, 2022
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
As mentioned in this month’s “Ask the Experts” on page 16, Ambrose Burnside developed and patented the breechloading .54-caliber Burnside Carbine and its unique, conical-shaped brass cartridge shortly before the start of the Civil War. (You can see a photograph of the cartridge on that page.) Burnside was more than a gun and cartridge inventor. He was a military man, a businessman, and a politician. And his surname and distinctive style of facial hair inspired an often-used word still to this day—sideburns.
Ambrose Everett Burnside was born on May 23, 1824, in Liberty, Indiana. His father was a native South Carolinian who freed the slaves he owned when he relocated to Indiana. As a boy, Ambrose attended Liberty Seminary. In 1843, through his father’s political connections, he obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in 1847.
Burnside’s first military appointment was at Veracruz during the Mexican-American War. At the close of the war, Lieutenant Burnside served two years on the western frontier in a light artillery unit that had been converted to cavalry duty. In 1852, Burnside was assigned to Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. In October 1853, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army.
After leaving the Regular Army, Burnside devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the carbine that bears his name. Eventually, Secretary of War John B. Floyd contracted the Burnside Arms Co. to equip a large portion of the Army with the carbine and induced him to establish extensive factories for its manufacture. However, Floyd broke the $100,000 contract with Burnside.
A fire destroyed his factory, ruining him financially, and he was forced to assign his firearm patents to others and then went west in search of employment. He became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he worked for none other than George B. McClellan.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was a colonel in the Rhode Island Militia, and he raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Two companies of this regiment were then armed with Burnside Carbines.
Serving many commands and receiving several promotions in rank, including Commander of the Potomac, which he declined twice before eventually accepting, Burnside participated in numerous battles, including the First Battle of Bull Run, several amphibious campaigns in North Carolina, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
Unfortunately, Burnside failed as a military commander. Fully aware of his mistakes, he accepted full blame for his failures and retired from the U.S. Army in January 1862. However, President Lincoln sent him to command the Department of the Ohio, where he participated in the Knoxville Campaign (Knoxville, Tennessee), the Battle of Campbell’s Station, and the Battle of Fort Sanders. Later, he returned to Maryland, where he fought in the Overland Campaign as an independent command. He also fought at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.
Perhaps Burnside’s worst military campaign was the failed Battle of the Crater of 1864, during which his men suffered high casualties. After the debacle, he was relieved of command and sent on extended leave by Ulysses S. Grant. He resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
After his resignation, Burnside was employed in numerous railroad and industrial directorships. He served on many military veteran commissions and associations, and he was chosen as the first president of the National Rifle Association in 1871. In 1874, he was elected as a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island.
Ambrose Burnside died suddenly of angina pectoris on September 13, 1881. While he was not one of our greatest military commanders, he was a firm patriot, and he invented an iconic military firearm that used a very unique cartridge. According to one historian, Burnside was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, never scheming, conniving, or backbiting.