Burnside and the Army of the Potomac

During the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) twice offered Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had lost faith in the army's current commander, General George B. McClellan (1826-1885; see entry), and he wanted to make a change. Burnside, though, turned down the offers because of deep

Ambrose Burnside (reading a newspaper) sits with three others, including famed photographer Mathew Brady (in front of tree) at the Army of Potomac headquarters. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

self-doubts about his ability to direct such a large military force. Disappointed by Burnside's decision, Lincoln reluctantly kept McClellan in command.

In September 1862, Burnside fought by McClellan's side in Maryland in the Battle of Antietam, a vicious day-long battle against General Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. This clash between the war's two largest armies killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers, making it the single bloodiest day in Civil War history. The Union viewed Anti-etam as a victory for their side, since the battle put an end to a brief Confederate invasion of the North. But many historians believe that if McClellan and Burnside had acted more decisively, they might have been able to crush Lee's army altogether. Instead, Lee's army retreated into Virginia, where it operated for the next three years.

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