William S. Burns papers  1860-1864;1886
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The collection includes a series of 57 letters and documents written by Burns to his brother, Charles, plus a scrapbook assembled for his son, Ned, in December, 1886. The scrapbook includes a mounted albumen photographic portrait of Burns, and consists of a series of articles written by Burns for a newspaper. These articles include excerpts of his war-time letters (some included in the collection), but are more fleshed out, including more anecdotes and information than the surviving correspondence. They appear to be very faithful accounts of his experiences, based on first-hand notes. Among the better accounts in the scrapbook are lengthy descriptions of the Battles of Pea Ridge and Pleasant Hill, a good narrative of the Meridian and Red River Campaigns. For Pleasant Hill and the Red River Campaign in general, Burns comments extensively on the course of the battle and where blame for the defeat should lie, suggesting that despite the best efforts of Smith, Banks lost the day.

Strongly committed to the Union cause, but not an abolitionist, Burns had the unusual benefit of high level connections that allowed him to negotiate fairly effectively for military appointments that suited his tastes and abilities. Burns appears to have been very highly regarded by his superior officers and his subordinates, and maintained very high standards that led him to be a harsh critic of the military inefficiency of several "political generals," particularly Samuel Curtis and Nathaniel Banks. His high standards did not preclude foraging (stealing) food from civilians, though he was repulsed - not to the point of taking disciplinary action - at the summary execution of guerrillas and at being ordered by A.J. Smith to burn the residence of Jacob Thompson, Secretary of the Interior during the Buchanan administration, in retaliation for offences committed by Lee's army in Virginia. Burns was not keen to set fire to Thompson's house, but after allowing the removal of personal and family items, he followed orders.

Burns seems either to have loved or hated his commanding officers, and was as fixated on them as he was critical. He comments extensively on the performance of Union generals under whom he served, reserving his highest praise for A.J. Smith and Sherman, a sort of bemused appreciation of Asboth, and scorn for any who crossed them.

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