It’s easy to make fun of Ambrose Burnside. Aside from his amazing mutton chops that remain his sole contribution to history outside of his military endeavors, which received the moniker sideburns, he was not a particularly successful general. For Civil War buffs, he is most famous for his incredibly unimaginative backup plan of attacking Confederate lines just outside of the Virginia town of Fredericksburg, which predictably led to massive slaughter. Previously he had successfully recovered the coast of North Carolina for the Union in a successful amphibious assault. And after Fredericksburg his efforts at maneuver warfare in the winter of 1863 were foiled by rains that turned the effort into a mud march, lamentably, while his successful defense of Knoxville against Longstreet was not too dissimilar from Fredericksburg in reverse where he held the high ground and was impossible to flank and Longstreet was unable to successfully attack the city, leading predictably to the rescue of East Tennessee by the Unionists. Perhaps the kindest and most accurate thing said about him as a general was the statement made by Bruce Catton in Mr. Lincoln’s army: “Burnside had repeatedly demonstrated that it had been a military tragedy to give him a rank higher than colonel. One reason might have been that, with all his deficiencies, Burnside never had any angles of his own to play; he was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best even if that best was not very good, never scheming or conniving or backbiting. Also, he was modest; in an army many of whose generals were insufferable prima donnas, Burnside never mistook himself for Napoleon (256-257).”
The tragedy of Burnside’s military career, at least most of it, was the fact that his accurate self-knowledge about his military abilities was confused for diffidence. Still, it is not as if he was a complete disaster as a general. Even his worst defeat in Fredericksburg had been the result of a good initial idea not working because of logistical failures with the inability to think of an adequate backup plan, and even then with the disastrous attack straight into a well-defended line he managed to inflict roughly equal casualties on the Confederates on a percentage basis as he suffered in an ill-advised assault. One can do far worse than this. And Burnside continued to get active assignments even afterwards largely because his bosses recognized that if he was not a particularly imaginative general or a particularly brilliant one he was a decent person and in the world of the 1860’s and today decent people are hard enough to find that they will be rewarded by those who appreciate it, hopefully without causing too much trouble for others.
Burnside’s career is evidence of the fact that in many aspects of life, even those where failure is punished as harshly as the military in warfare, there remains a great deal of appreciation that is shown for people who can work nicely and effectively with others. As much as talents and abilities are needed, one is simply not going to do a lot with what one has unless one is able to work well with others. This is true whether one is involved in a business or other organization or one is in athletics or the military. It is not individual talent alone that is so successful, but rather the individual talent honed and coordinated with others in pursuit of good ends by sound means. As a teenager I played on sports teams with a couple of prima donnas from my congregation and I would have greatly preferred to play with those who were less talented but far easier to work with who I knew would be decent people. I get the feeling that the people around Burnside knew (or figured out) that he clearly had limitations in terms of creativity and brilliance, but that he could at least be trusted to do what he set out to do the best, and you can often work around that sort of limitation by having more creative people in charge while utilizing the reliability that Burnside had in a subordinate position.
And that is the sort of praise that one can give even a modestly talented military leader like Burnside. He was able to succeed against poor opposition (in North Carolina) or when he held the high ground and could unimaginatively defend against someone else (Knoxville) but he struggled when having to make backup plans (Fredericksburg and The Crater) against top-flight opposition. If he was not a particularly brilliant commander, he was someone who was respected and did not have to fight any duels because he had offended others, and he was someone who could be relied upon as a competent if hardly spectacular subordinate. There is always room for that in any institution, people who can be trusted to be decent and conscientious people even if they lack creativity or a high degree of talents. They are the sort of people who know they are modestly talented but make the most of what they have, even if they do not have very much. Sometimes people who are far more gifted do far less with far more.