As the steamboat pulled away from Cincinnati, two young subalterns stood on the passenger deck in fresh blue single-breasted coats and visored army caps. In this early autumn of 1847 word had yet to reach the Ohio River country of Winfield Scott's victories around Mexico City, so the two eager officers had no idea that the battles in which they had dreamed of distinguishing themselves would never occur.
The larger of the two soldiers stood fully six feet tall, with a deep chest and broad shoulders decorated with the blank scarlet straps of a brevet second lieutenant of artillery. He cultivated a bushy new pair of muttonchop whiskers that met his moustache on either side, but despite his twenty-three years his bright brown hair was particularly thin on top. Though his size was intimidating, he greeted people with such habitual good humor that they were drawn to him in a crowd, almost magnetically. One man, so drawn, invited the brawny lieutenant to a game of euchre. The stranger also asked a third traveler, who agreed to join them in apparent indifference.
At first the officer won everything. After a time he began to lose a hand or two, then his luck turned inexorably bad. Perhaps everyone but the young soldier realized that the two sharps had conspired to clean him out, and by the time the boat docked at Louisville, they had done so. 1
This was not the first time Ambrose Burnside's optimistic view of human nature had brought him trouble. He found it nearly impossible to believe another person could wish him harm until the evidence fairly knocked him on the head, and sometimes not then. It was equally characteristic of him, though, to lay the blame on himself rather than on the card cheats. As at every occasion in his life when adversity assailed