By Patricia Raub. /// Historical Photos courtesy of Rhode Island Collection at Providence Public Library.
In 1887, Providence dedicated an equestrian bronze statue in the city’s center to Ambrose E. Burnside, who had died a few years earlier. The monument was the work of Launt Thompson, a well-known New York sculptor. It depicted Burnside with his signature side-whiskers, in military uniform and holding binoculars, presumably to monitor a battle unfolding below. The statue was mounted upon a twenty-eight-foot-high granite base.
The statue and base cost $40,000. About $16,000 of the cost was borne by the City and State. The rest was raised by private subscription, with donations ranging from twenty-five cents to $1,000. Rhode Island veterans of war— many of whom had served under Burnside— marched in the ceremonial procession to the dedication site where several dignitaries gave speeches. While we have only the words of the One-Percent from this event, one assumes
that the 99% were proud of their native son, too. They helped raise the funds to build the monument, and they “voted with their feet” by participating in the dedication ceremony.
The monument stood for nearly twenty years in Exchange Place, facing City Hall, with horses, wagons, and carriages moving in all directions around it.
When the new railroad station and federal building were built at the turn of the century and the open area was transformed into a park, the statue was moved further north and set upon a reconfigured base designed by local architect William R. Walker.
Over the years, not everyone treated the monument with the respect that some felt it deserved. During the annual Arts Festival in 1969, the statue was “dabbed and splashed and brushed with almost all the colors there are,” giving it a “psychedelic” look. Many complained that the painting spree was a “desecration and an insult to General Burnside’s memory.” While the horse and rider were embellished with water-based paint, the base was decorated with enamel paint that required sand-blasting to remove. The Superintendent of Parks, however, seemed unfazed, commenting that “much worse things have been cleaned up. I don’t think there will be any problem, and I’ll follow through on it.”
Over forty years later Occupy Providence has again focused attention on the Burnside Statue, holding its General Assemblies at its base, covering the monument with signs and banners, tying a mask over the statue’s face, and affixing a flag to the horse’s tail. Most of the signs and banners have since been removed so that masking tape will not damage the surface of the structure. Nevertheless, the statue has become the visual symbol of Occupy Providence, with tents clustered around it in all directions.
Whose statue is this? It is clearly our statue! When it comes to Burnside himself, however, most Occupiers know little about him besides the fact that he initiated sideburns and he was a Civil War general, apparently not a very good one. So. . .who was Burnside?
Burnside was, variously, the founder of a rifle works company, an officer for the Illinois Central Railroad, president of the Providence Locomotive Works, a three-term governor of Rhode Island, and, at the end of his life, a U.S. Senator. However, Burnside was primarily a career soldier who worked his way up to the rank of Major General during the Civil War.
It is for his actions during that war that Gen- eral Burnside is remembered. At the time of the monument’s dedication in 1887, Burnside was a hero to Rhode Islanders. Yet, few outside the state regarded him favorably. Lincoln’s lukewarm assess- ment of Burnside was that he was a “most meritorious and honorable officer”— whom the President had relieved of his command of the Army of the Potomac after his disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg.
More recently, Civil War historians have consistently ranked Burnside among the ten worst generals of the war, labeling him “a military dunderhead” with a “disturbing record of failure.” Burnside is scarcely a hero.
As a professional soldier before the war, he was responsible for the murder of Apache in New Mexico. During the war, he led his men unprepared into battle, and through his strategic incompetence contributed to the deaths of more than 900 soldiers at Fredericksburg. Later, he denied the right to free speech to anti-war advocate Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, by arresting him. Later, he tried to close down an anti-administration newspaper in Chicago.
In civilian life, Burnside was an industrialist and likely to have been no friend of labor. As a Governor and then U.S. Senator, Burnside was part of a select group of prominent native-born white men who looked out for their own interests rather than the interests of the average Rhode Islanders, a growing number of whom were working-class immigrants.
Whose hero is Burnside? Not our hero. For that matter, not anyone’s hero.