William S. Burns papers  1860-1864;1886
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Biography

Burns, William S., b. 1833

Rank : Lieut., Capt.

Regiment : 4th Missouri Cavalry Regiment (Frémont Hussars) (1861-1865)

Service : 1861 August-1864 September 20

At the outbreak of the Civil War, William S. Burns was working with the Kansas Relief Committee in Atchison, Kansas, helping distribute food supplies to famine victims. Born into a wealthy family from Bath, N.Y., and a graduate of Hobart College, Burns was sophisticated and well-traveled and had connections at the highest levels in Republican political circles. He could boast Thurlow Weed among his personal friends, and he was close enough to the seat of power to pay a call on Abraham Lincoln on the New Year's day following the election of 1860. Burns found Mrs. Lincoln feeling all the importance of being the president's wife, and Mr. Lincoln all the weight.

When the famine in Kansas began to abate and the war began to escalate, Burns decided to return home to New York to obtain a military appointment. Though calling on his old friend Weed for assistance, Burns was unwilling to wait for the gears of cronyism to creak forward. While awaiting word from Weed in Washington, he learned that an acquaintance, Alexander Sandor Asboth, had been appointed to Frémont's staff in Missouri and was forming a cavalry regiment. Against the wishes of his family, Burns accepted Asboth's offer of a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Frémont Hussars, later the 4th Missouri Cavalry, under the command of George E. Waring.

In August, the Hussars began drilling and several companies were sent into the field in September, though Burns remained in camp as adjutant, helping to drill the remaining companies. Joining his company at Rolla in December, he did not truly experience field service until New Years day, 1862, when his regiment left on an expedition to Lebanon, Mo. In the early days of the war, with Sterling Price's Confederates looming, the expeditions of the 4th Missouri Cavalry (as they were designated, beginning in February, 1862) were somewhat tentative, though more often than not they found no resistance and little luck in locating the enemy. Under Franz Sigel's command, they finally caught up with Price near the old Wilson's Creek battlefield, pressing him into an engagement at Sugar Creek and, a few days later, at Pea Ridge. While the battle was a clear victory for the Union, Burns reserved severe criticism for the cowardice of Major Emeric Meszaros, whom, he claimed, ordered a retreat unnecessarily and who disappeared from the scene at critical junctures. Burns and other officers of the regiment attempted to have the Major court-martialed, but while Meszaros was arrested and found guilty of disobedience, he was not found guilty of cowardice. The Major resigned from the 4th Missouri Cavalry in July, 1862, but returned to the service later in the war with the 1st Florida Cavalry. Burns was also very critical of the actions of one of his commanding generals, Samuel Curtis, whom he felt was overly timid in pressing the Union advantage.

In April, 1862, Burns was promoted to acting Captain of his company while they were stationed at Forsyth, Mo. He volunteered to act as a spy in June, gathering information alone in northern Arkansas, but otherwise participated in all of the exhausting campaigns of the 4th Missouri Cavalry in Missouri and northern Arkansas until his health began to give out in February, 1863, and he was sent to hospital at Ironton, Mo. Burns was discharged from the hospital one month later, but when he was not cleared for field service by his physician, he accepted an appointment under an old friend, James Dwight, Deputy Provost Marshall for the District of Missouri. Burns was only too happy to leave his regiment because he was one of the last American officers in an all-"German" regiment (actually comprised of Germans, Hungarians and other German-speaking central Europeans). For the same reason, in June, 1863, when Asboth offered Burns a position as Judge Advocate for the District of Columbus, Ky. - a position for which he was eminently unsuited - he was grateful to accept, and in July, he accepted the move to a more suitable position as Acting Assistant Inspector General for the 16th Corps.

Under Smith and Sherman, Burns participated in the Meridian Campaign, a limited success in his eyes, during which they drove the enemy before them and took away large numbers of contrabands, but with the failure of William Sooy Smith's forces to link up with Sherman, the ultimate objective of the campaign could not be attained. Embarking next on the Red River Expedition, Burns was present at the reduction of Fort DeRussy, was present but not engaged at Sabine Cross Roads, and was fully involved in the disastrous Battle of Pleasant Hill. Reduced nearly to tears by the defeat, Burns laid full blame on Gen. Banks, whom he remarked should be executed for his role in the matter. In the ensuing operations in northern Mississippi, guarding Sherman's rear during the drive to Atlanta, Smith's division repulsed Nathan Bedford Forrest at Tupelo in July. Burns wished for the opportunity to join in the Atlanta Campaign, but his new wife, Sophie, objected to his reenlistment. Though he indicated that he would continue in the service if the nation were in peril, he opted to muster out with his regiment on September 20th, 1864.