Friday, July 15, 2011

Burnside's Brigade

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was already a week late in launching his attack on Confederate forces at Manassas Junction on July 15. His assistant adjutant general and chief of staff, Colonel James B. Fry, summed the delay up after the war with unusually concise and opaque words for him: "But the government machinery worked slowly and there was jealousy in the way, so that the troops to bring his army up to the strength agreed upon [to launch the attack] did not reach him until the 16th."

Ambrose Burnside, in 1863.
Yes, he gave us the word "sideburns"
But by the 15th, the advance of the Army of Northeastern Virginia was finally beginning to take shape. Typical of the army was the Second Brigade of the Second Division. The brigade was commanded by Colonel Ambrose Burnside of the 1st Rhode Island Militia and had been assembled for the first time on July 15, according to Burnside's official report after Manassas, or July 16, according to the recollections of a historian of one of his regiments. While the dates conflict, the order of events is consistent. The regiments met for the first time as they crossed the Long Bridge into Alexandria and the first night they got part way between Ball's Crossroads (Ballston) and Annandale before camping for the night.

The brigade itself had been slated for command of Colonel David Hunter until the final days of June. When Lincoln had ordered McDowell to launch an attack on Manassas, he had scrambled to find commanders fit to make up his chain of command. Few, if any, of the officers in the army had commanded anything larger than a company of men in battle (indeed, even the whole army marched by general-in-chief Winfield Scott into Mexico City had been only around 10,000 men, less than a third of the size of the army McDowell was now responsible for).

In order to compensate, McDowell became concerned with making the units of command as small as possible, and had split his 52 regiments (not counting artillery batteries and cavalry units) into 13 brigades. But 13 subordinates was far too many for McDowell to manage himself, especially since his plan called for advancing along two paths, so he split the brigades into five divisions. Three of the divisions would have regular army colonels on leave from their usual regiments at their head: Hunter of the 3rd Cavalry for the Second; Sam Heintzelman, colonel of the new 17th Infantry, who had supervised the capture of Alexandria, took the Third; and the Fifth was under Colonel Dixon Miles of the 2nd Infantry. All were Mexican War veterans and McDowell planned to use them for the most difficult tasks ahead. The other two divisions were the First (which included Cump Sherman's brigade), under Daniel Tyler, a 62-year old Connecticut Militia brigadier general who had left the army before the Mexican War, and the Fourth, under the New Jersey Militia's brigadier general, Theodore Runyon (the namesake of Fort Runyon).

Without enough professional officers to head the divisions, the the brigades were further short-changed. Only four of the thirteen brigades were headed by U.S. Army officers, the rest were headed by men who held commissions from their states. For the most part, McDowell ensured that these men at least had served in the regular army in the past.

Burnside was typical. He had his commission as colonel from Governor William Sprague IV of Rhode Island, not from the President and the U.S. Senate. But Burnside had been a First Lieutenant in the U.S. 3rd Artillery. Graduating from West Point in 1847 too late to participate in the Mexican War, he served temporarily as commander of his company's fort in New Mexico Territory. It was while stationed there that he joined his unit in an attack of an Apache raiding party and was shot in the neck with an arrow giving him his big idea (under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the United States was responsible for controlling Apaches on the border).

Burnside resigned from the Army (in the midst of a scandal about the company's finances that he caused) and with the start-up funds provided by his new wife, moved to Bristol in her native state of Rhode Island and began producing his idea. During the raid with Apaches, his unit had been on horseback and could only fight with sabres since it's impossible to load a musket from the muzzle on a galloping horse. Burnside had spent the intervening years tinkering with a breech-loading carbine (a shorter, lighter rifle, that would load from the "back" rather than at the muzzle) that improved on the deficiencies of other models, while making them substantially cheaper. The ingenuous Burnside carbine quickly became a popular weapon among sportsmen (and caught the attention of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis).

A retired officer with a successful business, Burnside became popular among politicians in Rhode Island and ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Democrat. President Franklin Pierce even placed him on West Point's Board of Visitors. Then in 1857, the new Secretary of War John B. Floyd promised to buy $90,000 worth of the Burnside carbine if it won a competition among several similar weapons -- and it did. Ecstatic, Burnside began cranking carbines out in the hundreds, but Floyd asked for a second test (which he again won) and then decided not to rearm the cavalry after all.

Burnside was deep in debt from having jumped the gun (so to speak) and sold his patent (the purchasers would end up making a fortune off what became one of the most popular carbines in history). He bounced around a few years in Minnesota coming up with more inventions until his former classmate, George McClellan, found a place for him at his railroad and let him live cheaply at his house.

He was in a new office in New York City commiserate with a promotion to Treasurer when a telegram arrived from Governor Sprague asking him to return to Rhode Island and lead its first regiment of militia. Sprague, the "boy governor", was only 29 years old, the youngest governor in Rhode Island's history at that point. He was the scion of an important political family (his uncle had been governor and U.S. Senator) and business family (A&W Sprague was the largest calico manufacturer in the world). Now he intended to exercise his power as commander-in-chief of the militia and personally lead his state into battle, even creating a special uniform for himself.

By July 14, Sprague had abandoned thoughts of commanding personally, but still hung around as an aide-de-camp to Burnside (not the least reason for which was the opportunity to romance Kate Chase, Lincoln's Treasury Secretary's daughter). The unglamorous experience of the 1st Rhode Island since May 2 had helped him re-adjust his expectations. In mid June they had been dispatched to join Robert Patterson for his (never materializing) attack on Harper's Ferry. Almost as soon as they had arrived, Winfield Scott had changed his mind and ordered them back to bolster McDowell's defenses. The First Rhode Island must have made an impression on Washington, because for the period of about a week Patterson and Scott fought over who should get them (and at one point, Charles P. Stone even asked for them to help the Rockville Expedition).

By the third week in June, the 1st Rhode Island was back in Washington and joined by its sister regiment, the 2nd Rhode Island. Like the 1st, they had been outfitted by Sprague personally and wore broad-brimmed black hats over blue blouses and gray trousers. Rather than outfit them with heavy coats, Sprague had purchased ponchos for the men. They looked so sharp that Washingtonians had called the 1st "the Millionaire Regiment".

But there were some differences. For one, the 2nd was a three-year regiment, while the 1st only had enlisted for ninety-days. The steady marching and additional time for the men in the 1st had made them much more of a unit than the 2nd, however, as would become obvious in a week's time. The first also carried brand new Springfield Model 1855 rifled muskets, which fired the new deadly .58 caliber Minie ball, but the 2nd carried the smooth-bore .62 caliber Springfield Model 1842, like Scott's army had carried in Mexico - less accurate, shorter range, and requiring a whole different supply wagon.

Burnside's other two regiments were similarly a patchwork of capabilities and backgrounds. The 71st New York Militia wore a simplified version of the U.S. Army uniform and were in a similar position to the 1st Rhode Island. As ninety-day men they had been in Washington for over two months, learning to be soldiers and counting the time until their term of service ended, either because they wanted to go home or they were hoping to fight before they did. Their armament is not recorded, but it was more likely the Model 1842 smoothbore than the rifled muskets of the 1st. (The 71st had also spent about a month camped at the Navy Yard and played an amateur club called the Washington Nationals in a primitive version of baseball, trouncing them 41-13).

The fourth regiment in Burnside's Second Brigade was the 2nd New Hampshire, another three-years unit just arrived to the battlefield. In the tradition of New Hampshire militia, the 2nd wore gray uniforms that looked remarkably like the modern (mis)conception of a Confederate uniform (in reality the Confederates had little to no uniformity throughout the army in their clothing for anymore than a few months out of the war). They carried the same Model 1842 smoothbore musket as the 2nd Rhode Island, with the exception of Company B, raised in Concord. The citizens of that city had taken up a collection to equip their boys with the Sharp's breech-loading rifle, a gun that would become famous as the weapon of choice for sharpshooters.

The diversity of Burnside's brigade was replicated in every brigade in the army. And whether they were ready or not, McDowell was about to put them on the road to meet the Confederates on the banks of Bull Run.

Print Sources:
  • Burnside by William Marvel
Those stellar models of uniforms are from the Manassas National Battlefield Park Visitor's Center displays

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