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Union army commander's most treasured sword goes on view in Fredericksburg for battle's 150th anniversary
A wartime photo of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside shows him with the presentation sword now on loan to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
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"The first Rhode Islanders were not only saying 'job well done' and 'We were the first ones engaged, you were the first to lead us in battle,'" the historian explained. "They meant, 'You're moving up and onward, but we were the beginning, and we appreciate you.' I don't think that was a hollow thought with him."
Burnside went on to have a long and fruitful life, serving as governor of Rhode Island, a U.S. senator and president of several railroads.
But O'Reilly, who wrote what's considered the top military history of the Battle of Fredericksburg, believes this talisman of his early military career held a special place in Burnside's heart.
"Given the way he clings to this sword for the rest of his life, unlike any other, I think it was the most sentimental sword he ever had," he said.
Generals would often have 15 or 20 swords in their collection, O'Reilly noted.
The weapon arrived at the visitor center 150 years to the day that Burnside's predecessor, George Britton McClellan, left Warrenton on a train upon being relieved of his command by President Lincoln. McClellan, infamous for being too timid when confronting Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was cashiered after failing to promptly pursue Lee's forces into Virginia after the Battle of Antietam.
Burnside didn't seek the command, but was pressed to accept it by Lincoln. Burnside, a genial man liked by his troops, had successfully led operations off the North Carolina coast and performed admirably in the Battle of South Mountain near Sharpsburg, Md.
Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, with its 15,000 Union casualties, he resigned his command after the disastrous "Mud March," a winter offensive launched from Stafford County in January 1863.
Later, serving under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside led troops in the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.Fred150 events: 1.usa.gov/STUrzK Burnside's sword: bit.ly/pip57
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029