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Ambrose Burnside and his Carbine
By Rob Behr“Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.”
It is ironic that a successful firearms designer, much-maligned general of the Union Army and first president of the National Rifle Association should be remembered not for his place in history, but for his facial hair. Ambrose Burnside, because of his bushy oddly-manicured beard, left an indelible impression on the American public by adding the term “Sideburns” to the English lexicon.
By October, 1853, Burnside had resigned from the United States Army to pursue the design and manufacture of an innovative breech-loading cavalry carbine. Burnside’s design used a lever that tipped the breech upward and away from a fixed barrel. Once exposed, a cone-shaped cartridge, also designed by Burnside, was dropped into the breach and rotated into alignment with the bore as the lever was closed. A cap was then placed on the nipple and the rifle was ready to fire.
It is this cartridge that is the true innovation of Burnside’s design. Other breechloaders of the day tended to leak gas around the breech when fired. Burnside encapsulated the 500 grain bullet with a flange, much like a cone holds a dollop of ice cream. This flange created a seal between the chamber and barrel gap when the breech was tipped into place.
Ballistically, the bullet was typical for the day and unimpressive by modern standards. Driven by 65 grains FF black powder, the .54 caliber ball left the 21-inch barrel at about 950 fps. It produced about 1002 ft-lbs of energy. For the time period, however, it was an outstanding cartridge in a handy and accurate carbine.
The Burnside carbine beat out 17 competing designs during tests held at West Point in 1857, but this did not result in a large scale sale to the American government. It wasn’t until 1861 and the advent of the Civil war that a contract was offered for 55,000 carbines to outfit the Union Cavalry.
Political intrigue and economic setbacks kept Burnside from reaping the rewards of his labor. By 1858, Burnside had lost an expensive congressional race in Rhode Island, suffered the loss of his military contract and the destruction of his factory to a catastrophic fire. He was eventually forced to assign his carbine patents to rivals and seek work with the Illinois Central Railroad. His boss was George B. McClellan, future commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac. He would work for him again at a place called Antietam.
Ambrose Burnside’s track record in the Civil War is one remembered for two major blunders and one common misquotation regarding his prowess. At the battle of Antietam, Burnside’s IX Corps was tasked by General McClellan with securing a small bridge located on the southern flank of the Union lines. Instead of fording the shallow stream out of sight of Confederate riflemen, he ordered attack after attack onto the narrow bridge. The bridge was eventually secured, but a cost of men and time the rendered the capture strategically useless. A.P. Hill was able to check this advance with his Confederate division and Antietam became a stalemate. Burnside’s failure at the bridge allowed Lee to disengage from the battle and preserve his army.
Two years later at Petersburg, the tide of war had changed significantly in favor of Union material and manpower. The city, while not under a classic siege, was under significant attack by entrenched Union troops. Hoping to break the deadlock, Burnside agreed to a plan proposed by a regiment comprised mainly of Pennsylvania coal miners.
The plan called for a tunnel that would eventually stretch 511 feet and fifty feet below the Confederate battlements. Upon reaching Confederate lines, the tunnel turned at right angles 75 feet on a side to parallel the defenses of a strongpoint called Elliot’s Salient. Approximately 8,000 pounds of gunpowder were placed into the mine which was now about twenty feet directly below the battlements. It was then backfilled to contain the blast.
Burnside had dedicated United States Colored Troops to attack the salient once the mine was detonated. These troops had been specially trained for more than two weeks to attack along the edge of the crater, forcing their way into the city to secure the Jerusalem Plank Road. Hours before the attack was to begin, General Meade overrode Burnside’s plan to use these specially trained troops for political reasons and instead ordered that one of the three white divisions under his command lead the attack. Burnside selected the replacement command by lot, with the duty falling to Brig. General James H. Ledie’s division.
Ledie failed to brief his troops on the attack plan which led to a profound tactical failure when the mine was detonated. Thrown into disarray by the destruction of Elliot’s Salient, Confederate troops were slow to regroup against the Federal assault. Ledie’s troops rushed into the blast’s crater only to become trapped by Confederate fire. Unable to exploit their initial advantage, the Union troops were slaughtered and finally forced from the field.
Burnside was relieved of command a month later and given the majority of the blame for the losses at the Battle of the Crater. History has since scapegoated Burnside as one of several incompetent Union generals that were unable to secure important victories that could have shortened the war. Most famously a book called “From the Jaws of Victory” (1971) written by Charles Fair credited Abraham Lincoln with the quote, “Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.” Fair later explained that the quote was a publication error associated with his publishers Simon on Schuster, but the damage had been done and the quote became enshrined in the Burnside story. He never actively commanded again and formally resigned on April 15, 1865 at war’s end. His carbine had enjoyed a more successful career.
By war’s end, the Burnside would be the third most produced Civil War carbine, placing only behind the Sharps and the prolific Spencer models. At least 43 Union cavalry regiments were using the Burnside by 1864. Astonishingly, during the same time period, seven Confederate units were also at least partially outfitted with the same weapon.
A talented gun designer and perhaps unjustly branded as incompetent battlefield commander, Burnside was politically active in the last years of his life. He served three one-year terms as the governor of Rhode Island. In 1871 he was chosen as the first president of the National Rifle Association. Despite of his role in American History, Burnside is remembered not for his accomplishments but for his unusual facial hair. He is remembered for his sideburns.