It has become commonplace to describe the Civil War as America’s ILIAD—the defining epic of our collective memory, the decisive event of our history. Despite, indeed perhaps because of, the best efforts of generations of historians, the American Civil War has become the stuff of myth. One of the most tenacious legends of the War Between the States has been the supposed incompetence of the Union commander, General Ambrose Burnside. Famous for the facial hair which gave American English the word “sideburns,” Burnside presided over two of the most humiliating Federal defeats of the war. As a result, he was saddled with the reputation of being a bumbling if amiable leader, unfit to command more than a regiment. William Marvel, in his brilliant biography BURNSIDE, makes a convincing case that the general has been unfairly maligned.
Marvel argues that historians have uncritically accepted politically charged invective from the Civil War era. A sober examination of the facts reveals Burnside as an able and conscientious soldier. In his first independent command, Burnside waged a successful amphibious campaign along the Carolina coast in 1862. Fresh from this victory, Burnside was transferred to the Army of the Potomac, where he encountered the hostility of its commander, General George McClellan. Marvel believes that when Burnside ascended to the command of the Army of the Potomac, the enmity and dilatoriness of McClellan loyalists among his officers contributed largely to his defeat at Fredericksburg. In 1863, commanding the Army of the Ohio, Burnside conquered and then held strategically important eastern Tennessee. Burnside next returned to the Army of the Potomac as a corps commander. He successfully led his corps through the campaign of 1864 until suffering a severe defeat at the Crater in July. Marvel attributes this defeat to the meddling of Burnside’s superiors, but Burnside became the scapegoat. An exceptionally easygoing and forthright man, Burnside never defended his military career in print, and his inaction contributed to the success of his enemies in blackening his name.
Marvel’s stimulating defense of Ambrose Burnside is a refreshing and important contribution to the literature of the Civil War.