Historians generally agree that Union Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside’s performance as a Civil War military leader had its ups and downs.
He won some early on, chiefly in North Carolina – marching from Roanoke Island to occupy Elizabeth City, South Mills, New Bern, Newport, Morehead City, Beaufort and Fort Macon. But later in his career, Burnside lost some crucial battles in Virginia.
Gen. Burnside’s unusual display of facial hair, however, was quite trendy and a bit of a fashion statement in its day. So much so that the “Burnside look” is described in today’s world as “iconic.”
Gen. Burnside’s whiskery growth was originally dubbed “burnsides,” which evolved into “sideburns.” Thick strips of facial hair grew down his cheeks and connected to a full mustache. This contrasted with a clean-shaven chin and neck.
His head was balding, which added to the Burnside persona.
Charles Bruce Catton, a Pulitzer Prize winning U.S. author, once remarked that Burnside “had probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers of all...in a bewhiskered army.”
Seconding Catton’s motion is journalist Shaunacy Ferro, who said Gen. Burnside’s “do wrapped around his face like a cat’s tail.”
Writing for The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham commented: “There are only two types of men who actually look good in beards” – Union and Confederate Civil War generals.
The journal of the National Institute of Science once playfully determined that more than 90% of all Civil War commanding officers had some kind of facial hair, but “the beardiest” wore the Yankee-blue.
Ambrose Burnside, who lived from 1824-81, has become a folk hero. He won the popular vote of the American public in a 2019 just-for-fun “playoff” organized by the staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., which is now a popular tourist site.
They dubbed it as “Cottage Madness.” Online voters filled out their “Civil War facial hair brackets.” There were 16 contenders, and Gen. Burnside was seeded Number One.
Burnside coasted through the first three rounds, and faced off with underdog Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (the Number 11 seed) in the championship match.
“Beard bracketologist” Johnny Di Lascio said: “Grant was the Cinderella of the tournament. He was once clean-shaven, but his wife had a dream in which her Ulysses appeared with a beautiful beard. Five months later, Grant wrote to a friend, ‘you would never recognize me...I have a beard more than four inches long and it is red.’”
Burnside smoked Grant in the championship round. It was a landslide, as Burnside garnered 72.5% of the vote.
Among the Confederate generals, Di Lascio preferred the facial hair of Jubal Early whose scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard was a remarkable specimen.
“It seems those long nights raiding Maryland towns didn’t leave a lot of time for shaving,” Di Lascio said. “In the summer of 1864, Early launched an assault on Fort Stevens in Washington that brought him within a mile of Lincoln’s cottage.”
“When Lincoln came to visit the fort the next day, Early’s forces were still attacking, exposing Lincoln to enemy fire. Early’s army never made it to Lincoln’s Cottage,” Di Lascio said, “which is happy news for those of us who work here today!”
Early lamented in 1864: “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared hell out of Abe Lincoln.”
Just for the record: Confederate Gen. Albert Jenkins grew the longest beard among all Civil War commanding officers. Before engaging in battle, he would tuck his beard into his belt.