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Beards: U.S. Grant, R.E. Lee And Me

I have something in common with Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

For that matter, I am facially aligned with the greatest Union generals during the Civil War (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, Chamberlain), and the five greatest Confederate generals (Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Forrest, Cleburne).

They all had beards.

I have a beard.

Face-whiskers greatness is our common thread. I don’t resemble those famous military people in any other way. But the beard-to-beards link is undeniable.

I sometimes do choose to make something out of nothing. I look for qualities in famous people that reflect qualities of my own.

I am loud. So is Daffy “You’re Despicable!” Duck.

I am short. So is Porky Pig.

I am slender. So is Bugs Bunny.

Hmm.

Perhaps I should stick with the beards comparisons.

Civil War generals are familiar through a lifelong interest in the Civil War

But all those beards in the 1850s-1860s were an abrupt departure from the clean-shaven looks before 1850 and after 1880.

Earlier, beards were mostly the province of frontier people or slum dwellers. Those folks lived in circumstances where the hot water that makes daily shaving tolerable — and the straight razors of the day that made frequent shaving possible — were in scarce supply and/or unaffordable.

By the 1860s, beards were commonplace, even de rigueur, among the aristocracy and the hoi polloi alike.

Yet by the 1890s, beards had become the province of graybeards; younger folks eschewed them.

What accounted for this mid-century mushrooming and fairly sudden fading of facial hair?

Wars.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 pitted the armies of Britain and France on the side of the Ottoman Turks against the armies of Russia. Russia lost.

The war was fought in and around the Crimea, infamous today as the locus of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But while the 19th Century war was being fought, the aristocrats of Britain and France found it inconvenient to shave every day. They sprouted beards.

Fast-forward to the American Civil War of 1861-65. When we think of the Civil War today, we think of massive battles: Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, Petersburg, and Chickamauga/Chattanooga.

But in 1861, when the war broke out, the entire Union army consisted of about 16,000 troops. At the time the South started hostilities by bombarding Fort Sumter, the South had about the same number of men under arms.

By 1863-64, when the major Civil War battles were decided, millions of men were under arms.

To get them there, the camps where raw recruits were assembled and trained lacked many facilities — including hot water, barbers and razors.

So, imitating the fashionistas of Western Europe, Beard-O-Mania struck the Union and the Confederacy. Everybody who was anybody, it seems, grew beards. Lincoln had one, as did the major figures in his Cabinet. For the Confederacy, President Jefferson Davis was conspicuously lonely for his clean-shaven face.

But there was more than warfare stimulating beard growth — and I love this next statement. Our society, says Wikipedia, sometimes views beards as “central to a man’s virility, exemplifying such virtues as wisdom, strength, sexual prowess and high social status.”

I am smiling, smugly.

My own beard first surfaced in the 1970s as a hunting season thing. I started to grow a beard each Labor Day, and shaved it off on Valentine’s Day.

But by the end of the 1980s, something unsettling happened to my lower face. As I entered my 50s, I developed … Jowls!

Egad! Yuck!

I stopped shaving every day, trimming my beard and shaving just the lower part of my neck on Sundays. I shaved that area, and still do today. I endured a few episodes of having a hairless face, as reflected in a couple of photographs.

Those hairless episodes arose because, from time to time, I would start to trim my beard before I became fully awake.

My moustache would seem to be crooked. One cheek’s beard spread would be broader than that on the other cheek.

Snip, snip. Trim, trim. Scrape, scrape.

Eventually, there would be nothing for it except to slap a quite warm washcloth on my face to soften what beard hair was left, replace the razor’s rusted blade with a new one, and shave.

Again: Egad! Yuck!

The jowls would be even more prominent.

For a while, I would wear large-brimmed hats and, in cool weather, high collars. Happily, my beard has always regrown quickly, getting past the stubble stage in a week or two.

For the past decade, my beard has been kept my face looking like a closer-cropped Robert E. Lee or U.S. Grant, but thicker than the three-days growth favored by Sherman and stylistically common among the younger set today.

That stubble might be fashionable, but for me, it is itchy.

I grow my beard out by one or two inches, even though most of the “pepper” has gone from what was a decade ago a “salt and pepper” mixture of black and gray.

I repeat the indisputable wisdom of Wikipedia: beards connote wisdom, strength, sexual prowess and high social status.

My wife sees my beard differently. It remains my job to take out the garbage each week.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor/publisher at newspapers in DuBois, Brookville, New Bethlehem and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: notniceman9@gmail.com.

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