Today In Western History: The End of the War Begins


Today in 1865, with the end in sight, the final campaign of the Civil War begins in Virginia when Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant begin to move against the Confederate trenches built around

Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, USA
Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, USA

Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Rebels were soon forced to evacuate the city and

Robert E. Lee, General CSA
Robert E. Lee, General CSA

begin a desperate race to escape to the west.

Eleven months earlier, Grant had moved his army across the Rapidan River in northern Virginia and began the bloodiest campaign of the war. For six weeks, Lee and Grant fought along an arc that swung east of the Confederate capital at Richmond. They engaged in some of the conflict’s bloodiest battles at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor before settling into trenches for a siege of Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond.  The fighting in the Wilderness and at Cold Harbor had earned Grant the uneviable nickname of “Butcher” as a result of the heavy casualties.  Years later, Grant said that fight was a mistake.  The trenches eventually stretched all the way to Richmond, and during the ensuing months the armies glowered at each other across a no man’s land. From time to time, Grant would launch attacks against sections of the Rebel defenses, but Lee’s men always managed to fend them off.

Time was running out for Lee, though, and he knew it. His army was dwindling in size to about 55,000,  due to illness, soldiers not coming back from leave, and even mass desertions as the men could see the handwriting on the wall.  On the other side of the trenches, Grant’s army continued to grow–the Army of the Potomac now had more than 125,000 men ready for service. On March 25, Lee attempted to split the Union lines when he attacked Fort Stedman, a stronghold along the Yankee trenches. His army was beaten back, and he lost nearly 5,000 men. On March 29, Grant seized the initiative, sending 12,000 men past the Confederates’ left flank and threatening to cut Lee’s escape route from Petersburg. Fight-ing broke out there, several miles southwest of the city. Lee’s men simply were not enought, in number or strength, to stop the Federal advance. On April 1, the Yankees struck at Five Forks, soundly defeat-ing the Rebels and leaving Lee no viable alternative. He pulled his forces from their trenches and raced west, followed by Grant. It was a race that even the great Lee could not win.  Upon learning there were boxcars on a railroad siding that held the rations his men so desperately needed to go on, he fled to Danville.  When he got there, the boxcars were there as well, but due to a mixup of  instructions in the war Department, all they held was ammunition.  Lee knew it was over, and there was no reason to sacrifice his men any further.  He surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.



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Today In Western History: A. E. Burnside Gets A Patent

On this date in 1856, Mr. A. E. Burnside obtains a patent for his new and improved military carbine

What makes this rifle revolutionary is that it is a breech-loading model.  The user opened the breech block for loading a cartridge simply by first pressing the weapon’s two trigger guards and then insert-ing a special brass cartridge, also invented by Burnside, to go into his new carbine.  Whenever the user squeezed the trigger, the hammer fell on a percussion cap (self contained metal cartridges would not be invented for several years) and caused a spark; a hole in the base of the cartridge exposed the  black powder to this spark.  The unique, cone-shaped cartridge sealed the joint between the barrel and the breech. Most other breech-loading weapons of the day tended to leak hot gas when fired, but Burnside’s design had effectively eliminated this problem.

In 1857, the Burnside carbine won a competition at West Point against 17 other carbine designs that were vying for a contract to supply arms for the military.  In spite of its proven superiority, few of the carbines were immediately ordered by the government.  But then something happened that changed the fortunes of the company, and of the rifle’s creator.  What happened?  The Civil War happened. When the war opened, there was a sudden need for a great increase in the standing army, as many of the men left the Union Army to join the rebel army.  But what were these new soldiers to shoot?  The War Department decided to order 55,000 rifles for use by Union cavalrymen. This made it the third most popular carbine of the Civil War; with only the Sharps carbine and the Spencer carbine being more widely used in all theaters of the war. There were so many in service that many were captured and used by Confederates. A common complaint made by most of the men who used the Burnside carbine was that the unusually shaped cartridge sometimes became stuck in the breech after firing.

A review of both the ordnance returns (arms returned to the Army after the war or at other times) and the schedule of ammunition requisitions indicates that approximately 43 Union cavalry – as well as at least seven Confederate cavalry — regiments were using the Burnside carbine during the 1863-1864 period.  The end of the war saw the end of production of the Burnside rifle, when the Burnside Rifle Company was given a contract to make Spencer carbines instead.

And what of the inventor?  What happened to his career?  Despite his being in the Army prior to the war, he had resigned to focus his energy on his new company, A. E. Burnside gained his promotions because of his carbine.  A. E. Burnside, Ambrose E. Burnside, to give his name in full, was actually a military failure due to his lack of confidence in his skills.   He had repeatedly turned down command of the Army of the Potomac when President Lincoln pushed the job on him, telling the President “I  was not competent to command such a large army as this.  Eventually, however, Burnside gave up refusing and accepted the command.  He immediately led the Army of the Potomac to defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  The battle and the subsequent abortive offensive left many of Burnside’s officers en-raged and they eloquently and loudly expressed their rage to both the White House and the War Department about Burnside’s incompetence.”  He also performed poorly at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and a subsequent court of inquiry also found him responsible for the Union failure at the Battle of the Crater.