That Corny Country TV variety show “Hee-Haw” had a gag called “Gloom, Despair and Agonyon Me.” Hillbilly’s sad bag was placed around the cabin pouch, and he was in a dire situation. “If you were unlucky, you wouldn’t have any luck.”
It was a comedy sketch. But the person we are trying to meet may have sung those words and meant them. If anyone was born under an unlucky star, it was Ambrose Everett Burnside.
Burnside wasn’t the bad guy. It’s far from that. But if he paid for it, he wouldn’t have been able to take a lucky break.
Born in Indiana in 1824 and raised on Rhode Island. He later graduated from West Point. So far, so good. After that, things went downhill rapidly.
Burnside joined the army in time for the Mexican-American War. He was wiped out by a riverboat gambler towards action south of the border. Arriving after the battle was over, he was stuck in Mexico City, dragging a security mission.
Switching to the cavalry, he spent the next few years chasing the natives around the southwest and was rewarded for shooting an arrow around his neck for his efforts.
In 1853, he went home and met and suggested a lovely woman. At her wedding, when the minister asked a traditional question, she answered “no” and left him standing on the altar.
Burnside then attempted his hand in inventing and designing modern repeating rifles. He founded the Burnside Arms Company to manufacture and sell guns … and his usual pattern of failure returned. Good, carbines were too expensive for the underfunded US government in the late 1850s. Burnside ran for Congress and, of course, lost. Then his gun factory burned down, so all his money went. To repay his creditors, he sold a patent to his firearm just as the Civil War was about to break out. Washington bought thousands of guns, the man who bought the patent made millions of guns, and Burnside was left with a bag.
The Civil War was the next stop on Burnside’s Road of Failure, where he actually made it bigger. He joined the Union Army and was soon promoted to major general.
This is about Ambrose Burnside: he presented the aura of a man who had it all together, naturally and without effort. When people met him, they thought, “Wow!” He didn’t try to deceive anyone. Despite being quiet, neat and calm, he confidently aweed the people. But an officer who served under him said, “He had to be around him for a while to realize he wasn’t that smart.”
He shed soldiers’ blood at Antitam in September 1862, proving that he had repeatedly ordered attacks over a stone structure now known as the Burnside Bridge. Approximately 450 Georgians at the top of the opposite hill stopped 14,000 Union troops for hours during the post-charge assault and killed many of them. Scouts later discovered that the Yankees could easily roam the creek downstream, avoiding rebel bases.
Only a few weeks after the disaster, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Commander Burnside of the Army of the Potomac. Historian Bruce Catton wrote, “It was Burnside’s eternal achievement to say he did not work for Lincoln, and he did not hear Lincoln’s eternal credit.”
Burnside threw the entire Union Army uphill with a well-established South Army waiting for it in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Result: 12,653 men were killed.
He was then bounced off by one second-tier commander to another during the rest of the war. The general was in Washington when Lee surrendered and decided to watch the play and celebrate the end of the war. You guessed it: when John Wilkes Booth sneaked into it, he was sitting right under the Lincoln box at the Ford’s Theater. In fact, the president was looking down at the time, and Burnside was one of the last faces Lincoln had ever seen.
Surprisingly, after his uninterrupted series of failures, Burnside returned to Rhode Island without compromising his popularity. He was elected governor, helped establish the National Rifle Association, and ended it by winning the US Senate elections. He died of a heart attack in 1881 at the age of 57.
Burnside was unlucky at the end. People famous for the unique beard on his cheeks called this style “burnside.” However, he was refused to claim his fame. For some reason, his name was reversed. You and I know them as “sideburns”.
“If I was unlucky, I wouldn’t have any luck.” In the case of Ambrose Burnside, the real words were never sung.
Sacred cow! History is written by novelist, former television journalist, and avid history enthusiast J. Mark Powell. Is there a historical mystery that needs to be solved? Forgotten moments worth remembering? Please send to HolyCow@insidesources.com.
Sacred cow!History: Meet the most unlucky man in American history
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