I must say that I was rather surprised to see not just a statue but an entire park honoring Ambrose Burnside in downtown Providence when I visited the Rhode Island capital this past fall. I always understood that he made less of a mark through his achievements in public life than his tonsorial style. In fact, he didn’t even really get proper credit for the latter, when you think of it. (“Sideburn,” of course, reverses the syllables of his surname.)
The Union commander at the Battle of Fredericksburg has become synonymous with all manner of misfortune from bad luck (he was left at the altar by his fiancée at his first wedding) to incompetence (during the Civil War, he pleaded with Abraham Lincoln not to appoint him commander of the Army of the Potomac because he was unfit for the job—a proposition he commenced to prove by ordering one useless attack after another at Fredericksburg, then leading his troops on a dismal, pointless midwinter “Mud March”).
Ever since taking this photo, I’ve wanted an excuse to write this patriotic but appropriately unheralded soldier—and now I have it. On this date in 1856, Burnside received a patent for a breech-loading carbine, the culmination of work on the project that began three years before, when he had still been a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
In a way, Burnside’s experience was of a piece of the rest of his career and life: initial success followed by deeply frustrating failure. Despite beating out 17 other carbines in an 1857 competition conducted at West Point, Burnside couldn’t make a go of his business and was forced to declare bankruptcy two years later. He had already assigned patent rights to others when the outbreak of the Civil War fanned interest in the weapon. By the end of the conflict, the gun was the third most used carbine utilized by the Union cavalry, exceeded only by the Sharps and Spencer brands.
Back to the general’s statue. Burnside might have failed as soldier and businessman, but he found rather more success in politics, as he was elected to three one-year terms as governor of Rhode Island and another term as U.S. Senator. The equestrian bronze statue in this photo was unveiled in 1887, a half-dozen years after his death. It stood for nearly 20 years in Exchange (renamed Kennedy) Place, facing City Hall, until the opening of a railroad station necessitated its move to its current location.
The elements have been about as kind to Burnside’s statue as posterity was to his memory. Acid rain and pollutants ate into the metal, leaving a blue-green coat of copper sulfate. Nor were human beings much better: they gave it a “psychedelic” look during the city’s arts festival in 1969, and during the Occupy Providence protests of a few years ago was festooned with signs, banners, and a mask over the statue’s face. At last, this past August, the city hired a company that halted and, one hopes, even helped return the statue to something like its original condition.