Today is the birthday of the whimsically whiskered Ambrose Burnside.
—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition
Though they enjoy a popular counter-culture resurgence every few decades (and remain a fashion mainstay for particular niches of the entertainment industry), the golden age of sideburns was unquestionably the American Civil War—led by the hirsute charge of Ambrose Burnside, who will long be remembered not for his positions as a general, governor, senator, or even president of the National Rifle Association, but for his outrageous facial hair.
Burnside was born in Indiana in 1824 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843. He guarded garrisons in the Mexican-American war, protected Western mail routes in the U.S. cavalry, and received an Apache arrow in the neck before first leaving the Army in 1853. He remained in the Rhode Island militia, however, and manufactured his namesake Burnside carbine rifle until a string of bad luck forced him to sell his patent after his factory burned down and he lost an expensive Congressional race.
The outbreak of the Civil War seemed to give him a second chance and, rising up from his position as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia, he commanded an entire brigade at the Battle of Bull Run. Despite his acknowledged lack of military experience and his repeated insistence to Abraham Lincoln that he was not qualified for the job, Burnside was eventually appointed to succeed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, after disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and later the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Burnside finally decided to resign.
Widely regarded in retrospect as being unfit for high command, Burnside is nonetheless remembered as an extraordinarily nice guy. He shook enough hands and slapped enough backs to become a railroad mogul, a governor and senator of Rhode Island, and the very first president of the NRA. But it was his signature facial hair—flamboyant mutton chops conjoined by a hearty mustache with a clean-shaven chin—that gave him infamy. His “burnsides” eventually flipped syllables to give us our sideburns today.
Sideburns have varied in length, shape, and name in subsequent years. They are called side-whiskers or sideboards in the United Kingdom. They have spanned the social map from presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to actors (James Dean) to singers (Elvis Presley) to footballers (Joe Namath). There are mutton chops (flaring out across the jawline) and friendly mutton chops (connected with a mustache). There is even a special category for them in the bi-annual World Beard and Moustache Championships. A hairless chin remains sacrosanct, however, lest the jowls be joined to form a beard.
Among the most spectacular sideburns of history were the jaw-line drapes sported by Edward Sothern in his portrayal of the eccentric and dim-witted Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (later made extraordinarily famous for being the featured entertainment the night Abraham Lincoln was shot). Sothern’s sweeping facial locks eventually merited their own name (see dundrearies).
But the original hipster, Ambrose Burnside, died in 1881. He was quickly immortalized in stone, and his boundless whiskers, astride his noble steed, are now permanent residents in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park.