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"The Prestige of Success": The North Carolina Campaign of 1862 and the Ascension of Ambrose Burnside
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Historians have roundly criticized President Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Union General Ambrose Burnside to the command of the Army of the Potomac in the fall of 1862. Many have viewed Burnside, who subsequently suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as an incapable general who should never have been elevated to this position. By the fall of 1862, however, Burnside was in fact the logical choice for the command. He had achieved a great deal of success in an independent command in North Carolina, a campaign that has far too often been ignored, and he had become a hero in the eyes of the Northern public and the Northern press. Therefore, this thesis draws on a vast array of previously untapped Union and Confederate archival documents, pertaining both to the military and civilian spheres, to illustrate Burnside’s rise to prominence and high command, and demonstrate why Lincoln thought so highly of the general. Because no Union generals had pre-war experience handling large armies, Lincoln’s selection of commanders to lead the Army of the Potomac was not a simple process. He ultimately came to rely on two primary criteria: demonstrated success in the field and public opinion. Burnside’s victories at Roanoke Island, New Bern, and Fort Macon in the first half of 1862 not only displayed military ability, but made the public think very highly of him. Therefore, it is essential that his rise to command be linked with his earlier successes. This thesis does so by providing one of the first archival based accounts of Burnside’s 1862 campaign on the North Carolina coast (commonly referred to as Burnside’s expedition), and analyzing the Northern response to that campaign. It also examines Lincoln’s decision making process in selecting commanders and thus sheds light on the complex restraints that wartime presidents are forced to operate under.
Army of the Potomac
American Civil War
Makowicki, Shane D (2016). "The Prestige of Success": The North Carolina Campaign of 1862 and the Ascension of Ambrose Burnside. Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from