Biography of Civil War General Ambrose Burnside Part 2

About the biography of Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, his mixtures of failures and bad luck as a military leader, his legacy of sideburns.

GEN. AMBROSE BURNSIDE (U.S., Civil War)

Relieved of his command early in 1863, the unlucky general was next officially reprimanded by President Lincoln when, while heading the Dept. of the Ohio, he "court-martialed" ex-Congressman Clement Vallandigham for an antiwar political speech and closed the Chicago Tribune when that paper protested. Finally, Burnside was transferred back to the 9th Corps he had originally commanded when he enlisted (Burnside's Peripatetic Geography Class, as it was called because it traveled so widely on foot), only to face a final spectacular defeat at the battle of Petersburgh in 1864. Again it was a daring scheme that caused his downfall. Burnside approved a plan to dig a tunnel under the Confederate lines, fill it with high explosives, and attack at the moment the charges were set off. Sad to say, the tunnel was built, the attack made, and the attack repulsed. General Burnside was relieved of his command by a court of inquiry, in fact, nearly drummed out of the Army.

All of Burnside's failures hinged on "ifs." If engineers had built pontoon bridges in time for his Fredericksburg attack, he might not have been routed. If it hadn't unexpectedly rained, his "Mud March" wouldn't have come about. If he had been allowed to use the crack black troops he wanted to at Petersburgh instead of an untrained white regiment, his attack there might have been successful. Perhaps these "ifs" account for the fact that he remained so popular, for he went on to be elected as governor of Rhode Island for 3 terms, 1866-1869, and U.S. senator for 2 terms, from 1875 until his death in 1881, aged 57.

But his winning personality and patriotic spirit probably played a more important role in his political triumphs. From the constant publicity given him, the flamboyant Burnside hat that he wore in the field came to be called after the big bluff and hearty general, as were the burnside whiskers or burnsides he affected. Innovative as ever, he had chosen to wear the hair on his face in a new way, shaving his chin smooth below a full moustache and big muttonchops or sidebar whiskers. Thousands imitated him, and his burnsides, because they were only on the sides of the face, were soon called sideburns, this reversal of Burnside's name having nothing to do with his military reversals, though that might have been appropriate. The word sidebars probably also influenced the inversion, but, whatever the case, Burnside's name became one of the best known eponymous words. Though the general's whiskers have long since gone out of style, sideburns are even more popular today than they were in his time, the word now applied to any continuation of hair down the side of a man's face.

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