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Home » HISTORY » RHODE ISLAND » Victors Write History and Fiction
Ambrose Burnside's Statue
Victors Write History and Fiction

By Nicholas H. Kondon | October 18, 2010

Nick Kondon investigates the truth behind why Burnside's Bridge was named after the famous Rhode Islander.

Ambrose Burnside
Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

To grow sideburns and to limber up have more in common than you think.   Both expressions are associated with Rhode Island’s own son, Ambrose Burnside.   As for the first, Burnside stood out remarkably among his fellow men by virtue of his enormous, styled, and flawless sideburns.   He cultivated sideburns that began just below his ears, migrated south to his carotid arteries, and then curved north until they joined one another immediately under his nose.   So it was General Burnside whose name was first (mockingly) associated with this hirsute fashion.   But the limbering up part has a far more serious side to it.

Burnside was an achiever at most things, but not all.   He graduated West Point in 1843, eighteenth in a class of 38, and went on to be recognized as an inventor, a railroad executive, Rhode Island’s 30th governor, and a United States senator.   During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of Major General and had a bridge named after him.   That’s where the limbering up comes in.

Burnside’s Bridge crosses Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland and it was a central salient at the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history.   Between dawn and dark on September 17, 1862 Federal troops suffered 12,400 casualties, and the Army of the Confederacy suffered 10,300.   During the battle, there was a casualty every 1½ seconds - a man died every 5 seconds.   No event in American history comes close to matching this loss.

Burnside's Statue

The battle, like many Civil War battles, is known by two names.   This is because northern armies moving south named battles from their point of reference (Antietam), while armies of the south moving north named them from a different view (Sharpsburg).   Victors write history, and so most of us know about the Battle of Antietam.   In Dixie, you’ll be corrected.

The overall command of Union forces that day fell to General George McClellan who ordered Burnside to limber up, take, and cross what was then known as Rohrbach’s Bridge.   To limber up meant to attach field guns (cannons) to a two wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle called a limber, aboard which sat a limber chest, or ammunition box.   Once in position, the guns would be unlimbered, charged, and fired, until they were limbered up again to change location.   But Burnside, angered at McClellan’s reorganization of the Rhode Islander’s forces, did not limber up – at least not until 10:30 in the morning, five hours after the battle began.   Had he not sulked, the Civil War might have ended on that day.

A few revisionist historians paint a glorious picture of Burnside and regiment racing toward a critical bridge, guns limbered to wild-eyed, snorting horses, hell bent for the fight.   But the reality was quite different.   We know that McClellan sent at least four messengers to Burnside urging him to take the bridge.   The irony here is that McClellan might have been the greatest hesitator in the entire Union army.   But, to each urging, Burnside replied that he was trying to do just that.   At last, McClellan’s final message ordered Burnside to take the bridge at once, “even if it costs 10,000 men!”

Burnside's Grave

Too late.   By this time, the bridge was clogged with corpses and debris, and the delay had allowed the southern General, A.P. Hill, to counter-attack Burnside’s position.   Burnside lost whatever courage he might have had, and withdrew his forces.   Had he not shirked away that morning in pique, he would have seized the bridge and cut off Robert E. Lee’s well executed retreat.   Thanks to Burnside, Lee lived to fight many other battles – battles that killed thousands of men on both sides.   Yet the bridge is named for Burnside who failed utterly.   Many, if not most, think that the bridge naming, like the sideburn attribution, was mockery, but more likely it was United States senators looking after one of their own.

General, governor, senator Ambrose Burnside is buried at Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery, but for a view of him in all his splendor, visit the tiny Burnside Park across from the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence.   There, astride a magnificent steed, sits the bronzed general, displaying a military bearing that belies his battlefield failures.   Except for its pigeons, Rhode Island treats him very kindly indeed.

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