Ambrose E. Burnside and His Sideburns

Ambrose E. Burnside (1824-1881) is remembered in American history as a noteworthy Northern general during the American Civil War. In the annals of American popular culture, he is known as the originator of sideburns, a distinctive form of facial hair whiskers running down each side of a man’s face. The Barnes Publishing Company Photographic Archives, a collection in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections, contains two photographs of Ambrose E. Burnside late in life depicting his muttonchop hair style.

Burnside graduated from West Point in 1847. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Union forces. At one point during the war, he commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac. He produced mixed results as a military leader. 

After the Civil War, Burnside entered politics. He served three terms as governor of Rhode Island from 1866 to 1869, and went on to represent Rhode Island as a Republican in the United States Senate from 1875 until his death in 1881.

Ambrose Burnside Photo by W. Kurtz, Madison SquareThe Barnes Publishing Company was based in the nation’s capital. It specialized in providing photographs and biographical sketches of members of Congress in the late 1800s. The Barnes Collection at Georgetown consists of 501 photographs dating approximately to the 1870s. Two of those photos depict Ambrose E. Burnside. W. Kurtz of Madison Square took a photograph of Burnside and his famous sideburns. That particular photograph is designated as photograph number 1 in the Barnes Collection. Someone wrote “Ambrose E. Burnside, R.I.” on the bottom of the photo. The signature does not match Burnside’s signature, however. Burnside’s true signature is reproduced below.[1]

Sample of Burnside Signature

Burnside Photo by W. Kurtz, Madison SquareC.M. Bell of Washington, D.C. took the second photograph of Burnside preserved in the Barnes collection, photo number 187. Both photos date from Burnside’s tenure as a U.S. Senator. Burnside’s characteristic sideburns are readily apparent in both photographs.

William Marvel, Burnside’s biographer, described Burnside’s appearance in the last year of his life in 1881 by writing that Burnside’s “wraparound whiskers and the thick fringe of hair over his ears gleamed so white he looked older than his fifty-seven years.”[2]

--Scott S. Taylor, Manuscripts Archivist

October 27, 2017

[1] George Sanders et al., The Sanders Price Guide to Autographs (Alexander, NC: Alexander Books, 1994), 444.

[2] William Marvel, Burnside (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991), 419.