During the latter half of the last century, Joel Headley supplemented his income by writing popular histories and biographies. He began composing an account of the Civil War while it was in progress. The conflict outgrew his expectations, however, and by November 1, 1862, he closed volume one and sent it to the publisher, concluding it with the events of June. In that first volume, written during the final days of George McClellan's military career, Headley spoke very highly of Ambrose Burnside, referring to his "accustomed energy," which secured the coast of North Carolina in a dazzling campaign. The frontispiece consisted of a collection of generals' portraits, arranged in an oval around McClellan's. Burnside's image occupied the second place of honor, at top center. By contrast, Henry Halleck's cameo was at bottom center, and U. S. Grant's at the upper left.
Volume two of Headley's Great Rebellion did not go to press until 1866. Early in that work the author roundly criticized Burnside's "lethargy" at Antietam, a battle fought six weeks before that same writer released the laudatory passages of volume one. Headley then lay all the blame for the repulse at Fredericksburg on Burnside, after which he hardly mentioned that general throughout the rest of the book. What could have wrought such a transformation in his treatment of the man? Was Headley temporarily blinded by Burnside's initial success, or did the soldier spiral into deserved obscurity through his own shortcomings?
The timing of the publication of Headley's first volume could not have been more telling, for it implies Burnside was not found wanting at Antietam: that indictment was manufactured in 1863, by the deposed George McClellan. Little Mac's accusations, now demonstrably false, seemed perfectly plausible by then, for the costly setback at Freder