This most acceptable gift

Oliver Case and his fellow members of the Burnside Expedition were very accustomed to reviews on the parade field. These reviews were used by Burnside and his subordinate commanders to gauge the health, welfare and readiness of the soldiers and normally occurred on a monthly basis. But, on June 20th of 1862, the Union troops would experience a special gathering and review on the parade field like none before.

In the first year of the Civil War, a success story from the battlefield was in short supply for the Union leadership. Since the opening route of Union forces at Manassas in July of 1861, Lincoln had replaced the commander of the Army of the Potomac pinning his hopes on George McClellan. McClellan had taken months to get the army organized, trained and equipped before finally deploying them in the Peninsula Campaign in March of 1862. While McClellan was successfully in pushing the Confederate defenders back to the defenses of Richmond, he was slow to exploit success on the battlefield endangering the overall success of the campaign. In late May and early June, aggressive offensive operations against the 100,000 Union troops by the Confederate army under Joseph Johnston shook the confidence of McClellan in completing the siege of Richmond.

For almost the entire month of June 1862, McClellan held his army back from any major operations against the Confederates. This operational pause gave the new Army of Northern Virginia commanding general Robert E. Lee, the opportunity to plan, reorganize and begin to employ his troops for offensive operations against McClellan. By late June 1862, Abraham Lincoln was concerned about the probability for success in the operations against Richmond and he needed a good news story after a year at war.

One of the only bright spots in the Union operations in the eastern theater during that first year was the success of the Burnside Expedition in North Carolina. Ambrose Burnside had pulled together a force of about 15,000 troops at Annapolis and prepared them to conduct amphibious operations against the Confederates on the North Carolina coast. In January of 1862, Burnside departed Annapolis with his force and despite stormy seas; he successfully defeated the Confederate defenders at Roanoke Island, Newbern and finally captured the key strong point of Fort Macon on the Bogue Banks in April of 1862. As Lincoln and McClellan contemplated future employment of the Burnside Expeditionary force, the troops conducted occupation duty in and around Newbern.

The Governor of Rhode Island recognized the success of the expeditionary force and desired to honor the leadership of the state’s native son, Ambrose Burnside. The General Assembly voted overwhelming to support the governor’s recommendation by authorizing the procurement of “a suitable sword for presentation” to General Burnside. Rhode Island turned to Tiffany’s of New York to manufacture the sword and in June of 1862 a delegation of Rhode Island dignitaries headed by Adjutant General Edward Mauran made the journey to Newbern, North Carolina with the sword in tow. Interestingly, one of the observers on the day of the presentation remembered the Rhode Island delegation to be “some of the biggest fools I ever saw.”[1]

On Friday, June 20, 1862, Ambrose Burnside, just one week back in camp from a visit to Washington (to see President Lincoln) and a visit to the Peninsula (to see General McClellan), found himself in an uncomfortable position as he was scheduled to be honored with the presentation of the sword. Due to what was commonly referred to as his modest nature, Burnside did not see the necessity of conducting such a grand ceremony at the Union parade field on the banks of the Trent River near Newbern. However, the commanding general acquiesced to the desires of his native state and allowed the grand gathering for the presentation.

Several contemporary accounts provided a wonderful word picture of the scene that afternoon as witnessed by Oliver Case and his fellow soldiers of the expeditionary force:

The day was pleasant, and a large multitude assembled together with the troops on the banks of the glassy Trent…to witness the ceremonies. At nearly the time appointed, the clouds presented a very watery appearance, and smart showers were the result, in the distance.[2]

As almost by divine decree, the threatening rain would not stop the ceremony:

At 5 o’clock, Gen. Burnside rode into the field, accompanied by his staff and escort. As he rode into the area from an easterly direction, a beautiful rainbow spanned the heavens, forming a triumphal arch of gorgeous splendor over the head of the hero of Roanoke, Newbern, and Fort Macon, as he passed under it.[3]

As Burnside rode under the rainbow and onto the field, a Rhode Island battery fired a salute and the troops shouted their respect for their commanding general. About 8,000 troops were formed on the parade field with all who could be spared turning out to honor Burnside. There was a “grand review” which took place “amidst the waving of banners, the inspiriting notes of martial music” followed by “the ceremony of presentation.”[4]

Acting on behalf of the Rhode Island Governor, Adjutant General Mauran presented the sword to General Burnside which was described as “a very elaborately ornamented one, and expense was not taken into account in getting it up.”[5] While my research does not reveal the existence of this Burnside sword today, a similar sword from Tiffany’s presented to a much lower ranking Union officer is currently at an asking price of $60,000. Obviously, Rhode Island had invested a large amount of money to honor their hero.

 

presentation of sword to Burnside by RI

Ambrose Burnside receives the presentation sword from Adjutant General Edward Mauran of Rhode Island on June 20, 1862 at Newbern, North Carolina

At the very moment of the presentation, another rainbow appeared that was “more beautiful than the first…extended itself across the blue sky above, an emblem of hope, success and promise.”[6]

Representing Governor Sprague, Mauran offered a few appropriate remarks just prior to the presentation including a reading of the resolution passed by the General Assembly. He then shared a letter from the governor with Burnside and the assembled masses. Sprague wrote of how the beautiful Tiffany presentation sword “represent[ed] the feelings and sentiments of the people of the State toward you, and the important service which, by your gallant conduct, you have rendered our common country.”[7] Sprague made it clear that this sword represented not only the work of the leader, but the soldiers as well.

Say to the brave soldiers under your command, that Rhode Island honors their courage, their endurance, and their brilliant achievements, by honoring their chief.[8]

In accepting the sword from Adjutant General Mauran, Burnside was moved to make a few brief remarks of only four paragraphs which were, in part:

On behalf of this gallant little army which surrounds you, I beg through you to thank the State of Rhode Island for this gift…[the] Governor has most fittingly said, that the services of this army have been in this manner remembered through its Commander. Without the skill, courage, patience and fortitude of the general officers, field and staff officers, company officers, non-commissioned officers and privates of this corps d’armee…the State of Rhode Island would have been deprived the pleasure of giving, and I debarred the proud satisfaction of receiving this elegant sword…I now beg to thank the State of Rhode Island for the kind manner in which she has been pleased to remember me…in the presentation of this most acceptable gift.[9]

 

 

Burnside wearing a presentation sword

Burnside receives the presentation sword from Adjutant General Edward Mauran of Rhode Island on June 20, 1862 at Newbern, North Carolina

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Marvel, William, Burnside,  University of North Carolina Press, page 94, 1991.

[2] Newbern Progress, June 21, 1862 as reprinted in The Providence Evening Press, June 25, 1862.

[3] IBID.

[4] Woodbury, Augustus, Ambrose Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps, Sidney S. Rider and Brother, Provenience, Rhode Island, 1867.

[5] Newbern Progress, June 21, 1862.

[6] IBID.

[7] IBID.

[8] IBID.

[9] IBID.

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