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How did Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside end up in Blountville?

Ned Jilton II • Sep 25, 2019 at 1:00 PM

This weekend is the Battle of Blountville Civil War reenactment at the Old Hawley Farm on 1173 Hawley Road, near the airport.

In the past I have written much about the battle and the people of Blountville, but I have hardly touched on the Union general in overall command.

In the evening of Sept. 22, 1863, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside arrived in Blountville. Earlier, Union forces under his command had driven the Confederates out of the town towards Zollicoffer (Bluff City). Now the general was planning to clear out the rest of the region the next day.

But who was Gen. Burnside? What was the story of the man that was close to achieving one of President Abraham Lincoln’s fondest goals, to liberate East Tennessee from the Rebels.

Burnside graduated 18th in his class from West Point in 1847 and was a classmate of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill. He received a brevet second lieutenant commission with the 2nd Artillery during the Mexican-American War. But the fighting was over by the time he arrived so he spent most of his time on garrison duty in Mexico City.

In 1853, Burnside resigned his commission and begin working on a new design for a breech-loading rifle. The “Burnside carbine” was a successful rifle but political dealings undercut the military contract for the weapon. By the time of the Civil War Burnside’s rifle was left behind in favor of Henry and Spencer repeating rifles.

The start of the Civil War was also the start of a roller coaster ride of successes and failures for Burnside. He organized the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, and at the Battle of First Manassas, as a brigadier general, he would command a brigade and outrank a then Col. William Tecumseh Sherman who was also at the battle.

While Manassas was a disaster for the Union army, Burnside’s performance was good enough to earn him a bigger command.

In September of 1861, Burnside led three brigades in a successful amphibious assault against the North Carolina coast, including a victory at the Battle of Elizabeth City, closing more that 80% of the state’s ports to Confederate shipping.

Following his success in North Carolina, Burnside was given command of a corps in Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam. During the battle, Burnside struggled to capture and cross a key bridge against Confederate opposition. In fact, since the battle it has been called Burnside’s bridge because of the problems there.

When Burnside finally did get his forces across the bridge he moved to cut off Gen. Robert E. Lee’s route of retreat. Just as he was about to succeed, his old classmate from West Point, Gen. A.P. Hill, arrived with reinforcements and repulsed his attack.

Lincoln was disappointed that Gen. McClellan failed to renew the attack and allowed General Lee to escape back over the Potomac River, so he put Burnside in command of the Union’s biggest army. Even though Burnside himself said he was not ready for such a command.

Burnside tried to do his best and quickly advanced toward Richmond by way of Fredericksburg, but the late arrival of a pontoon bridge to cross the river allowed Lee to take up strong positions in the hills around the town.

Burnside refused to change his plans and attacked head-on, sending wave after wave of troops up Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights. The slaughter was so bad it prompted Lee to say “it is good war is so bad, lest we grow too fond of it.”

An emotional Burnside wanted to lead a finial charge up Marye’s Heights but other officers stopped him. In the end he withdrew from Fredericksburg.

Burnside would make one last attempt against Lee at Fredericksburg, but his flanking march became mired in mud during heavy rains and would go down in history as “Burnside’s Mud March.”

Having twice failed, Burnside submitted his resignation to Lincoln. But Lincoln had other ideas and placed Burnside in command of the Department of the Ohio.

Burnside would go on to establish the camps where many East Tennessee cavalry troopers and soldiers would train and he would help put an end to the raid through the North by Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Then Burnside would gather his forces and march south into Tennessee. He occupied Knoxville and then begin moving east.

And that brings us back to Sept. 22 when Burnside arrives at Blountville.

What happens next? You might learn that if you go to the Battle of Blountville this weekend or read my column next week.

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