A Scientific Analysis of Civil War Beards

Major General John G. Parke of the Union Army
Major General John G. Parke of the Union Army / Major General John G. Parke of the Union Army

Say what you will about 19th century grooming habits: those gentlemen knew how to rock some facial hair. The Civil War era, in particular, popularized the stately style we refer to as "sideburns." But back then, the thick side whiskers were called burnsides, after Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who sported an incredible ‘do that wrapped around his face like a cat’s tail, leaving only his chin clean-shaven.

Indeed, facial hair in general was quite fashionable at the time. With that in mind, one intrepid data-cruncher recently decided to figure out who wore it best when it came to beards: the Union or the Confederacy?

An article in the journal Proceeding of the Natural Institute of Science (yes, that acronym is PNIS) by the journal’s editor-in-chief, Matt J. Michel, examines which side of the war sported the beardiest commanding officers. The article may not be the most serious of topics (and the journal is not peer-reviewed), but according to the creators, the data published in PNIS’s humorously-titled subjournal, PNIS-HARD, is no joke. 

Sideburn pioneer Ambrose Burnside. Image Credit: Matthew Brady via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Michel used a National Park Service list of important Civil War battles with data on the commanders for each side, the casualties, and other information. He used photos found online, on Wikipedia and Civil War sites to collect information about each general’s beard quantity. When commanding officers switched up their facial hairstyles in different photos, he went with the more bearded of the two. 

Then, he computed each officer’s beard-to-face ratio. Looking at the image above, beard-to-face ratio was calculated by adding B1 and B2, and dividing the sum by F1. A 0 means clean shaven, and anything greater than a 1 indicates a beard larger than the face. 

How Civil War commanders wore their facial hair, in one chart:

More than 90 percent of commanders studied had some kind of facial hair, most sporting either the long beard or the short beard. Very few went with muttonchops or a goatee. However, there were some significant differences between North and South here. More Confederate commanders were clean shaven (14 compared to five Union soldiers) and more Union soldiers sported a short little beard (29 soldiers compared to 12 Confederate commanders). Only two battles in the dataset were led by two clean-shaven commanders: the Battle of Wauhatchie and the Battle of Mobile Bay, both won by the Union. 

Overall, the Union was beardier. While PNIS has yet to back up our suspicion with data, we suspect this probably had something to do with how things eventually shook out. 

All images via Matt J. Michel, PNIS-HARD (2015)