Ambrose “Sideburns” Burnside

15 Apr

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I thought I would give a little shout out to one of my favorite fashions of the time.  It’s not the hoop skirt, or the strangely crunched military hats. It’s the sideburns.

Meet Ambrose Burnside, a Union Army general from Rhode Island.  He was a popular man, gregarious and quick with a smile.  He also happened to have very impressive and distinctive facial hair.  You can pick him out of this photo with no effort.

Burnside wasn’t a military mastermind, however.  He knew he shouldn’t have risen as high in the army as he did, and unfortunately he proved himself right.  His military career ended with losing multiple, high casualty battles.  After being placed on leave by General Grant, he resigned his commission in 1865.

.. Burnside had repeatedly demonstrated that it had been a military tragedy to give him a rank higher than colonel. One reason might have been that, with all his deficiencies, Burnside never had any angles of his own to play; he was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best even if that best was not very good, never scheming or conniving or backbiting. Also, he was modest; in an army many of whose generals were insufferable prima donnas, Burnside never mistook himself for Napoleon. Physically he was impressive: tall, just a little stout, wearing what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army. He customarily wore a high, bell-crowned felt hat with the brim turned down and a double-breasted, knee-length frock coat, belted at the waist—a costume which, unfortunately, is apt to strike the modern eye as being very much like that of a beefy city cop of the 1880s.

Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army

Fortunately for Ambrose, modern society (not including the history buff or the re-enactor) remembers him for his contribution to facial hair fashion.  He was not the first or last to wear sideburns, but his name has ensured he will always remain connected to these fine fellows:

Or this version of Elvis, if you prefer:


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