Burnside’s whiskers

Ambrose Everett Burnside (23 May 1824–13 September 1881) was a Union Army general in the American Civil War. He gave his name to sideburns. His early campaigns were successful but his forces were heavily defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of the Crater, earning him the reputation as one of the most incompetent generals of the war. His military reputation was one of being obstinate, unimaginative, and unsuited for high command.

Despite these failings, Burnside was popular in the army and in the political career he pursued afterwards. He was personable, cheerful and remembered everyone’s name. He was modest (apparently unusual for the officers of the Union Army) and recognized his own shortcomings—only reluctantly taking the promotions thrust upon him.

He was known for “wearing what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army”. And despite his military failures and unexceptional political achievements he gave his name to the particular way he wore his facial hair. The strips of hair grown down the sides of his face in front of his ears became known as burnsides. This distinctive style is now known as sideburns with the compound switched around. If sideburns meet at the chin they then, by definition, become a beard.

Burnside was not the first man to wear sideburns. They are known throughout history. Alexander the Great had them. The Torah, the Jewish holy book, includes a law on how you should wear them it says, “You shall not round off the peyos of your head” (Leviticus 19:27). Peyos are defined as the hair in front of the ears that extends down to beneath the cheekbone, level with the nose. This unusual law was aimed at helping Jewish men avoid vanity and to focus on being of good character.

Sideburns replaced whiskers, the previous word for sideburns, in English. The Mexican form, as worn by revolutionaries, were known as balcarrotas.

Sideburns are not the only eponyms (objects given the names of people) that got their names from association with soldiers. There are wellingtons, rubber boots named after another military leader, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852); and the cardigan, a knitted sweater that buttons in front named after James Thomas Brudnell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), a British cavalry officer.