The (in)complete guide to beards in the American military

grant The (in)complete guide to beards in the American military

General Ulysses Simpson Grant, later the 18th President of the United States. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Matt Saintsing

Historically, there has been no shortage of American badass military might displayed in beard form.

Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and of course, who could forget, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who became the namesake of sideburns.

And while Alexander Shaler might be best known for his valorous actions during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, his handlebar mustache put others to shame.

Today, however, growing facial hair in the military is a pretty much a no-go. But, the question remains: What happened to our mighty, bearded military?

The bristled journey of American beards in uniform predates the country itself, when the Continental Army was ordered to be clean-shaven. At Valley Force, General George Weedon ordered that soldiers have no beard, a washed face, and combed hair.

This order was issued during the harsh winter of 1777-1778, when the Continental Army was facing sickness, along with food and clothing shortages. However, no matter how ill or hungry they were, the men were expected to be clean-shaven.

And thus, the clean shaven Army soldier was unfortunately borne.

The Navy is a bit different. Sailors in the early years of the US Navy were clean-shaven, not because of official regulation, but because that’s what was fashionable at the time.

And while we’re discussing Naval hair styles, many American seafarers adopted the British practice of dipping hair tails in tar to keep them out of a ship’s rigging. It is thought that this custom led sailors to wear a long collar to protect their uniforms from the improvised hair care product.

burnside The (in)complete guide to beards in the American military

General Ambrose Everett Burnside (1824 – 1881), who fought in the American Civil War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By the mid-19th century, beards were in. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, rocked incredible facial follicles that wrapped around his face, forming a tail of sorts, leaving only his chin shaved. Today, we know this style as side burns.

The dawn of chemical warfare during World War I brought with it an end to beards among American service members. And, anyone who’s ever donned a military-grade chemical mask knows that to get a good seal, you need to curb your five-o’clock-shadow.

When the U.S. military began issuing gas masks, they required the beards to go.

For most of the 20th century, bare faces were (sadly) preferred. But, when facial hair made a comeback in the 70s, then-Chief of Naval Operations Amd. Elmo Zumwalt changed regulations to fit the times. The other services, however, held fast in with their beard ban.

By 1984, the Navy had re-banned beards.

beardd The (in)complete guide to beards in the American military

U.S. Army Special Forces soldier nicknamed “Cowboy” (L) keeps a watchful eye over a group of Afghan soldier suspects during a search operation August 24, 2002 in Daste Arche, Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

Today, beards among the ranks are limited to some special ops and intelligence personnel, but that is usually limited while deployed to areas where facial hair speaks to a larger cultural norm.

Those with medical conditions that prevents them from shaving can get out of the daily ritual for a bit, but when the ailment is resolved, the shaving continues.

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