The Man Behind the Sideburns; BILLY KENNEDY Traces the Mercurial Career of American Civil War General AMBROSE EVERETT BURNSIDE, Whose Family Roots Were in North Antrim and Who Gave His Name to Sideburns

By Kennedy, Billy | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), October 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Man Behind the Sideburns; BILLY KENNEDY Traces the Mercurial Career of American Civil War General AMBROSE EVERETT BURNSIDE, Whose Family Roots Were in North Antrim and Who Gave His Name to Sideburns


Kennedy, Billy, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


The dogged Ulster-Scots characteristics were a marked feature of Ambrose Everett Burnside, highly colourful Union general in the American Civil War and United States senator.

Side-whiskered Burnside, whose portrait hangs today in the officers' mess at US army headquarters West Point, was a reluctant but heroic soldier, who fought in some of the major encounters with the Confederate Army battles, at the latter end of the Civil War, and was the subject of controversy over his leadership in the heat of battle.

Ambrose Everett, an imposing six-footer, was of Co Antrim Presbyterian stock, who had moved from Argyllshire in Scotland to Ulster, during the 17th century Plantation years.

The Burnsides lived at Macfin-Seacon, near Ballymoney, in the Route area, with tenant farmer James Burnside being the earliest traceable member of the clan in the region. James had four sons, Samuel, Thomas, David and James and also a daughter, Elizabeth, with Thomas emigrating to America in 1718, with a group of Presbyterians form the Bann Valley, a 25-square mile area that covered Ballymoney, Coleraine, Macosquin, Aghadowey and Ballyrashane.

The Bann Valley Presbyterians settled in the Londonderry township of New Hampshire and Thomas Burnside Jun (1735-1798) married Susan MacGregor, the grand-daughter of the Rev John MacGregor, the Presbyterian minister who had led the group from Ulster. David, a brother of Thomas, was drowned in the Delaware River in 1761.

The Burnsides, described as honest, independent folk, were eventually located in the Laurens area of South Carolina, with other Scots-Irish families and, at the start of the Revolutionary War, a Robert Burnside, believed to be Ambrose Everett's grandfather, publicly declared for the Crown.

When Robert died, just after the War, his son James and his wife and children moved to Jamaica, to avoid the persecution which was then rampant for supporters of the loyalist cause. A few years later, when political animosities subsided, they returned, to continue a pioneering life in the Carolina Piedmont.

James Burnside died in 1798, leaving seven sons and two daughters and his widow, daughter of a Tory colonel, sought to improve the family's situation, by moving to the new Indiana territory. Other members of the family moved to Illinois and Wisconsin, but Edghill, Ambrose Everett's father, made his stake in the Indiana town of Liberty, with wife Pamelia Brown, daughter of another Scots-Irish settler.

There, the family (the couple had nine children!) lived in modest circumstances and Ambrose Everett, the fourth child born in 1824, was, because of lack of money, unable to go to college after graduation from the local seminary, in Laurens.

Ambrose Everett Burnside worked as a tailor's apprentice and, largely through his father's political influence as an Indiana senator, he obtained an appointment to West Point military academy. He graduated in 1847, 18th in a class of 38 cadets, most of whom were to become leading players on the Civil War stage within a decade and a half, including a close friend, George Brinton McClellan, who was also from a Scots-Irish family.

Burnside saw action on the frontier against Indian aggression, serving in the garrison of Fort Adams, in Rhode Island, but in 1853 he resigned his commission, to open a factory for the production of a breechloading carbine rifle he had invented. This venture only lasted a few years and he took up a post as treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad.

When the Civil War commenced, Burnside organised the first Rhode Island regiment and he commanded a brigade at the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Burnside, whose flamboyant whiskers added the word ''sideburns'' to the language, was an amiable man, with a wide circle of friends, including President Abraham Lincoln and his high-level connections brought him rapid advance in the Union Army.

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