Battle of the Crater

Burnside returned to the war's eastern theater in the spring of 1864, when he received orders to take his old spot as commander of the Army of the Potomac's Ninth Corps. In May he took part in the Wilderness Campaign of Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885; see entry). This bloody campaign against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia eventually drove the Confederate Army back to Petersburg, Virginia. Once Lee reached Petersburg, however, he established defenses that repulsed Grant's aggressive assaults. Grant responded by initiating a siege (a blockade intended to prevent the city's inhabitants from receiving food and other supplies) of Petersburg in June 1864.

Shortly after the siege began, Colonel Henry Pleasants (who had been a mining engineer before the war) approached Burnside with an idea to tunnel under a key section of the rebel defenses and blow it up. Waiting Union forces could then rush through the gap and destroy Lee's army once and for all. Pleasants's scheme intrigued Burnside, who received reluctant approval from Grant to undertake the plan.

Burnside's regiment began work on the tunnel on June 25. By the end of July, the Union troops had tunneled to a point directly under the Confederate line and placed four tons of gunpowder at the end of the tunnel. Early in the morning of July 30, Burnside's troops lit the fuse. A few moments later, the Confederate fortifications erupted in a terrific explosion of fire, dirt, and timber. The blast buried an entire Confederate regiment and opened a huge hole in Lee's defenses. But Burnside proved unable to take advantage of the situation. Rather than appoint a competent commander to lead the assault, he had arranged to have his division commanders draw straws. Division commander James H. Ledlie received the assignment, but he turned out to be unreliable: he drank too much and did not adequately prepare his men for the offensive. In fact, Ledlie did not even join in the attack. Instead, he hid in the Union trenches drinking rum.

Ledlie's men, meanwhile, charged down into the crater that had been created by the explosion rather than around it. This move gave the rebel soldiers time to recover from the explosion and close the hole. Leaderless and disorganized, the Union troops became trapped inside the thirty-foot-deep pit as Confederate troops rushed to the edge and opened fire. James M. McPherson noted in Battle Cry of Freedom that more than four thousand Northern soldiers were killed or wounded in the subsequent slaughter, as "rebel artillery and mortars found the range and began shooting at the packed bluecoats [Union soldiers] in the crater as at fish in a barrel."

Calling the so-called Battle of the Crater "the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war," Grant placed the blame for the disaster squarely on Burnside's shoulders (though he also stripped Ledlie of his command). Grant relieved Burnside of his command and sent him on military leave. Burnside resigned from the army a few months later.

Burnside's Beard

For much of his career, General Ambrose Burnside maintained a very unusual-looking beard. Unlike other soldiers who kept mustaches or full beards, Burn-side shaved his chin area but let his mustache and cheek whiskers grow out until they joined together across his face. People originally called this peculiar style "burnsides," but over time the two syllables became reversed, and the name came to be associated primarily with the part of a man's face directly in front of his ears. Today, people refer to the area of beard down the side of a man's face as "sideburns."

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