The Father of Sideburns

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By David Michael Newstead.

The life of Ambrose Burnside reads like the caricature of a man in America in the 1800’s. He was a Civil War General, a railroad executive, and, of course, the wearer of very unusual facial hair.

Beyond that, details about this public figure have more or less fallen by the wayside of history. It’s an odd thing to realize, but the most enduring legacy of this former military leader and United States Senator might be his connection to the term “sideburns”. Still, that’s more notoriety than the average politician will ever be able to claim. (Will anyone remember Newt Gingrich in 100 years?) And while sideburns are hardly the worst facial hair to be associated with, by itself this doesn’t do justice to a man’s biography or cultural impact.

A native of Indiana, Ambrose was the fourth of nine children whose mother died when he was in his teens. He went on to graduate from West Point in 1847 as an artillery officer and served in the tail end of the Mexican-American War. Afterwards, he fought in the cavalry against Native Americans across the Southwest, even taking an arrow to the neck at one point. Promoted and relocated to Rhodes Island because of this injury, Burnside would soon thereafter marry, resign his Army commission, and start his own business as a firearms manufacturer around 1853. The most notable of his inventions was the Burnside Carbine and just like today, the arms industry is an extremely profitable endeavor. Not surprisingly then, Ambrose became active in state politics, the railroad business, and the equivalent of the state’s National Guard.

The convergence of all these facts quickly propelled him into a position of leadership in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The now General Burnside would command troops in various capacities in some of the most famous battles of that conflict, including Antietam and the Battle of Bull Run. However, controversies over high Union casualties and poor decision making eventually resulted in the resignation of his command in 1864 towards the end of the conflict after the disastrous Battle of the Crater. That said, his record as a leader during the Civil War pretty much mirrored the nature of the war itself: some victories, some defeats, poor communications, and heavy casualties all around.

Having survived the bloodiest conflict in American history, Burnside went on to serve as the president of several railroad companies and veterans organizations as well as the Governor of Rhodes Island. Most notably on this list of leadership roles for a former arms manufacturer, Ambrose Burnside was the first president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) at its founding in 1871. During that time, however, the organization was more focused on marksmanship in significant contrast to the NRA we know today. Then in 1874, this former Democrat was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Rhodes Island and chaired the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ambrose Burnside would later die of coronary artery disease in 1881 at age 57, outlasting the average male life expediency of that time period by a decade. While that would be the end of the story in most cases, Burnside’s influence lived on in other unexpected ways after his death. People began to refer to Men’s mutton chops as burnsides, then sideburns around 1887 in reference to the Senator and have continued to do so ever since. Like all facial hair, this style can be viewed differently depending on location and era of history from Victorian sideburns to rebellious biker sideburns. Whether this place in our vocabulary is the legacy that Ambrose Burnside would have wanted, no one knows. Regardless, it is most definitely the legacy that he has.

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