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Civil War Facial Hair: Ambrose Burnside’s Sideburns

History Gets Hairy

Discussions of historical facial hair present an unusual method of stimulating interest in the past. In 2011, the Smithsonian presented a list (with pictures!) of the 24 best examples of Civil War facial hair and asked readers to vote on which they thought was the best. (Polls are still open; check it out and vote!) In 2013, Business Insider decided to highlight Movember and No Shave November by selecting 15 particularly excellent examples of Civil War hirsuteness (hairiness). This past August, Prologue: Pieces of History, the National Archives’ blog, featured an article about Civil War facial hair. One Hoosier is featured in all three articles and the facial hair he sported soon took on his name. However, there is more to Ambrose Burnside than his sideburns.

Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, officer of the Federal Army; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.;

As an intern at IHB this year, I had the opportunity to review the Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside state historical marker, in Union county, and write a more in-depth review report. Please take a look for more biographical information. During the process of researching and writing this review, the other aspects of his life that I uncovered fascinated me.

Burnside Carbine

During his post-Mexican War army service in the late 1840s, Burnside’s company was based in Las Vegas, New Mexico. There, his responsibility was guarding U.S. Mail from Apache Indians. As this duty involved acting as cavalry, Burnside had an opportunity to contemplate the incompatibility of current weaponry for fighting on horseback. Revolvers had not yet been issued en masse and reloading a muzzle-loading rifle was both too time-consuming and ponderous while mounted. On several occasions, he and his men could only fight off attackers with sabers.

By 1853, Burnside had resigned from the army and begun developing a breech-loading rifle for cavalry use. He patented the Burnside carbine in 1856, formed the Bristol Rifle Works in 1857 to begin manufacturing the weapon, and presented his design to John B. Floyd, the Secretary of War. Floyd assured Burnside that if the carbine passed a government test, he would be awarded an army contract worth $90,000. Burnside began manufacturing on a large scale after the carbine exceeded expectations in the test, but Floyd demurred; a second test was required. When the carbine passed the second test and still the contract was not forthcoming, it became apparent that Floyd planned to award it to someone else. This news came as the Panic of 1857 broke; with his finances in straits, Burnside was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the rifle works and patents to his investors to repay his debts.

Ironically, those who took over management of the factory and patents soon profited. By 1858, they earned a War Department contract for $21,000, and the carbine’s reputation kept orders coming until the start of the Civil War. During the war, orders in the thousands became routine. Burnside only just missed out.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside of 1st Rhode Island Infantry Regiment and General Staff U.S. Volunteers Infantry Regiment with gauntlets and sword; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.;

Wartime Suspension of Free Speech

After his command failure at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln sent Burnside to command the Department of the Ohio (which actually comprised of the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of Kentucky). Burnside firmly believed that those who spoke out against the war effort or the President demoralized the troops and encouraged desertions. Upon his arrival in the Department, Burnside realized that a number of newspapers and orators were doing just that. President Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, in mid-1861. Following in his footsteps and setting aside the first amendment, Burnside immediately issued General Order No. 38, which made speaking out or publishing anything against the war or the President illegal. Newspapers that did so would be promptly closed and orators using such provocative language would be arrested and tried by military tribunal. As a result, a number of newspapers were closed.

Burnside then learned that former Ohio Representative Clement Vallandigham, a known Copperhead, was scheduled to speak against the war in Mount Vernon, OH on May 1, 1863. (It has been posited that Vallandigham wanted to run for governor of Ohio and felt that the best way to drum up support was to make such inflammatory remarks that he would have to be arrested.) Two army captains in plainclothes attended the speech and made note of Vallandigham’s oration, which denounced the war, General Order No. 38, and the President. When they reported these assertions to Burnside, he authorized Vallandigham’s arrest. A company of men arrived at Vallandigham’s Dayton, OH home on May 4, 1863 and broke in when Vallandigham refused to open the door. They escorted him back to Cincinnati and put him before a seven member military tribunal on May 6. Vallandigham declared the trial invalid, stating that the military tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter. The tribunal ignored his comments, found him guilty, and sentenced him to confinement in a military prison until the end of the war. Lincoln, not wanting to make Vallandigham a martyr but also wanting to uphold Burnside’s authority, ordered that Vallandigham be released over Confederate lines. Burnside obeyed the order; he turned Vallandigham over to General William Rosecrans, who released the prisoner near Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Vallandigham led a fascinating life after his release. He traveled from Tennessee to Canada, where he made use of the notoriety he gained after his trial to win the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Ohio. He lost the election in a landslide. When the war ended, he moved back to Ohio and failed to win reelection to the House of Representatives. Vallandigham returned to the practice of law. In 1871, he was defending a client accused of committing murder in a bar fight. While reenacting the movements of his client in an attempt to prove that the shooting had been accidental, Vallandigham accidentally shot himself in the abdomen with a gun he had believed was unloaded. His actions convinced the jury that his client was not guilty, but Vallandigham died of his wound.

Warrenton, Virginia. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and staff officers; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.;


Now, to return to the first point of this post: Civil War facial hair. A story from his West Point years combines Burnside’s love of practical jokes with this topic. When he was in his second year at the academy, a new student from out west arrived on campus with shoulder-length blonde hair and a short red beard. Burnside’s roommate Henry Heth confronted the young man on his first day and informed him that, per the regulations, all new cadets needed to visit the cadet barber within their first 24 hours to have their hair cut and beards trimmed. Failure to do so would result in 20 days of imprisonment on a diet of bread and water. The new cadet, alarmed at hearing this news, asked to be taken to the cadet barber immediately. Heth showed him the way to his and Burnside’s room, which the latter had transformed into the ‘cadet barber shop.’ The new cadet asked Burnside if he could cut his hair and shave his beard in time for the evening parade and Burnside replied in the affirmative. Timing the joke perfectly, Burnside managed to cut half of the cadet’s hair and half of his beard by the time the signal was given for evening parade. Burnside assured the young man that they would complete the ritual after the exercises. The academy superintendent spied the new cadet in his half-trimmed state and demanded an explanation. When informed of the existence of a cadet barber, he insisted on being shown his shop. The innocent new cadet took the superintendent to Burnside’s room, where he and cadet Heth were found laughing uproariously.

Burnside was very fond of his facial hair. He shaved his beard but allowed all else to grow, which resulted in fantastic whiskers connecting his hair to his mustache. The style, which he made famous, was originally named ‘burnsides;’ at some point the word was reversed to become the ‘sideburns’ we know today.

Hon. Ambrose E. Burnside, Senator R.I.; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.;