Burroughs was a native of Mathews County, Virginia, and spent most of his career at the Gosport Yard (known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard after 1862). His skills required him to play an important role in ironclad warship construction at the yard in 1861 and 1862. Yet, as a staunch and open Union sympathizer, he was said to have spent the early part of the American Civil War under constant guard by Confederate authorities.
Burroughs is suspected of being responsible for secret leaks of information regarding the technical details and progress of the rebuilding of the United States Ship Merrimack and its transformation into the Confederate ironclad warship Computer Software Systems Virginia.
At least some of this secret information may have been smuggled via a female slave who travelled from Norfolk to the White House in Washington District of Columbia while obstensively visiting relatives in Northern Virginia. Burroughs is also suspected of being behind other leaks when he secretly travelled to Fort Monroe to meet with Union forces there.
Once Union forces overran the Yard in 1862, Burroughs was named Superintendent there. Burroughs was the nephew of lighthouse builder Elzy Burroughs.