The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 23, 2012

The sideburns of history

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— This past week, the Oxford English Dictionary chose “omnishambles” as its word of the year, after it was coined on a BBC-TV satirical political series to describe a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.

Wow, what a great word, since it invites all kinds of historical comparisons to events and leaders who have been the subjects of omnishambles.

I bring this up because 150 years ago this month, a Union general was thrust into what many have characterized as the worst defeat of an American Army on the field of battle.

Of course, in this instance, the drubbing took place against another American army, albeit one that was on the eventual losing end of the slavery and secession question.

When Abraham Lincoln named Gen. Ambrose Burnside to command the largest Union Army in the field during the Civil War, it was the latest in a string of less-than-sterling selections on the part of the president.

It eventually led to the massive Union defeat on the fields at Fredericksburg, Va. But I get ahead of myself.

Generals Irvin McDowell, George McClellan and John Pope all had been tepid to downright sub-par at trying to defeat Confederate armies in the east — the main battleground between North and South during the four-year conflict.

While a subordinate at McClellan’s military draw at the Battle of Antietam just two months earlier, Burnside might have tipped off his hand at future failure had Lincoln the ability for hindsight as we have today.

Burnside, the man of the massive mutton-chop sideburns for whom the facial growth generally is attributed, was at the center of controversy following McClellan’s failure to win at Antietam, despite possessing an overwhelmingly superior force to Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

History shows Lincoln used what the North termed a victory at Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

But tactically, Lee had outfought a numerically far superior foe on the battlefield.

Historians for years have been battling back and forth over who really was to blame for the Union Army’s lack of success, with McClellan and Burnside at the center of the argument.

Burnside, given command of the Union left wing, which in those days of military warfare was considered the most important wing of any army, had been given the task of capturing a massive, yet narrow stone bridge traversing Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Md. Christened Burnside’s Bridge in history, the crossing forded a creek that was both wide and free-flowing.

Since all we have to go on are first-hand accounts by those who were present, witnesses often are at odds over these fateful few hours in American history.

Antietam Creek was characterized as both swift, wide and uncrossable, and shallow and fordable.

What isn’t at odds is the terrible fight that transpired that day, as Burnside’s men tried time and again to storm the bridge, which was overlooked by a steep bank and defended by the murderous rifle fire of veteran Confederate infantrymen.

A complete failure of Union intelligence to ascertain only 500 Confederates were opposing the crossing of up to 13,000 Union soldiers, the smoke and chaos of battle and Robert E. Lee’s brilliance for constantly moving troops back and forth on the battlefield, only increased the confusion for McClellan and Burnside.

While communications and orders from McClellan to his subordinate generals many times lacked speed and clarity, my take on the whole affair is more of a grander view of reality.

The Civil War was marked by the strategy and tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte, generally considered one of the greatest generals the world has produced.

Great lines of infantry with fixed bayonets charging across open ground was the order of the day for nearly three years of fighting in the Civil War.

But Napoleon’s tactics were predicated on short-range smoothbore muskets and artillery with limited range.

The innovations of rifled muskets and rifled cannon made close fighting exponentially more deadly and the bayonet charge more show than substance.

There was no firing until you saw the whites of their eyes, or the command to give “them the bayonet.” It simply didn’t work.

Look no further than 618,000 dead Americans in four years of the Civil War.

It took more than three hours and 500 casualties to take Burnside’s Bridge.

Those few hours were all it took for Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill’s division, during a grueling and famous forced march from Harper’s Ferry, Va., to arrive in the nick of time to smash into Burnside’s flank and effectively end the battle in stalemate.

Two months later, as head of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside went down in history for the 16 failed, bloody, courageous and futile bayonet assaults against Lee’s fortified Confederates on the fields at Fredericksburg.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid