Meet the luckiest man in US history

This nerdy country variety show “Hee-Haw” had a gag called “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.” Sad bags lay around a cabin porch and wept in abject misery: “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

It was a comedy sketch. But the man we are about to meet could have sung those words and thought them. Because if anyone was born under an unlucky star, it’s Ambrose Everett Burnside.

It’s not that Burnside was a villain. Far from there. But he couldn’t have taken advantage of a stroke of luck if he had paid it.


Born in Indiana in 1824, he grew up in Rhode Island. He then graduated from West Point. So far, so good. Then things quickly deteriorated.

Burnside joined the army in time for the Mexican War. Heading into the action south of the border, it was cleared by riverboat players. Arriving after the fighting was over, he was stuck on guard duty in Mexico City.

Moving to cavalry, he spent the next few years hunting natives in the southwest and was rewarded with an arrow shot in the neck for his efforts.

In 1853 he returned home, met a nice woman and proposed. During the wedding ceremony, when the minister asked the traditional question, she answered “No”, leaving him standing at the altar.

Burnside then tried to invent, to design a modern repeating rifle. He founded the Burnside Arms Co. to produce and sell the weapon…after which his usual pattern of failure returned. As good as it was, the rifle was simply too expensive for the cash-strapped US government of the late 1850s. Burnside ran for Congress and, of course, lost. Then his gun factory burned down, and with it all his money went. To pay off his creditors, he sold his firearms patents – just as the Civil War was about to break out. Washington bought thousands of guns, the guy who bought the patents made millions, and Burnside ended up with the bag.

The War Between the States was the next step on Burnside’s path to failure, and where he really made it big. He joined the Union army and quickly became a major general

Here’s the thing about Ambrose Burnside: He naturally, and effortlessly, exhibited the aura of a guy who had it all. When people met him, they thought, “Wow! It’s not that he tried to deceive anyone; calm, decent and gentle, he nevertheless exuded a confident vibe that left people in awe. But an officer who served under him said, “You had to be around him for a while to realize he just wasn’t that smart.

He proved it with the blood of his soldiers in September 1862 at Antietam, when he ordered repeated attacks through a stone structure now called Burnside’s Bridge. Some 450 Georgians on the opposite hill held off 14,000 Union troops for hours in charge after charge, killing many of them. A scout later found that the Yankees could easily cross the stream downstream, avoiding the rebel stronghold.

Only weeks after this disaster, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac. Historian Bruce Catton wrote, “It was to Burnside’s eternal credit that he told Lincoln he was not up to the job, and to Lincoln’s eternal discredit that he did not listen.”

Burnside launched the entire Union army toward the entrenched Confederates waiting for him in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Result: 12,653 men are broke.

He was then moved from one second level command to another for the rest of the war. The general was in Washington when Lee visited and decided to celebrate the end of the war by seeing a play. You guessed it: he was sitting just below Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth slipped inside. In fact, the president was looking down at the time, and Burnside was among the last faces Lincoln had ever seen.

Surprisingly after his unbroken string of failures, Burnside returned to Rhode Island with his popularity intact. He was elected governor, helped found the National Rifle Association, and capped it by winning election to the United States Senate. He died of a heart attack in 1881 at the age of 57.

Burnside was unlucky one last time. Famous for the distinctive mustaches worn on his cheeks, people called the style “burnsides”. But he was denied his claim to fame. Somehow the name has been reversed: you and I know them as ‘favourites’.

“If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

In the case of Ambrose Burnside, truer words have never been sung.

Holy Cow! The story is written by novelist, former television journalist and die-hard history buff J. Mark Powell.

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