That Their Beards Be Close-Shaved..."

By Mark Tully

One of the great taboo topics among 18th-century military re-enactors is that of facial hair. Did they wear beards and mustaches or didn't they? With all of the rigors and hardships of campaign life, did the soldiers really take the time to shave on a regular basis? Do we as re-enactors have to shave to be completely authentic? Let's explore the possibilities.

A Clean-Shaven Century?

The 1700s was an almost totally facial hair-less century. During this period the clean-shaven look was preferred and practiced everywhere in the world--one of the few times in our history where such a fashion saw such universal practice.(1) There are a few 18th-century paintings and engravings that show civilians wearing facial hair, but these are mostly of dirt-poor English peasants or people living around the Mediterranean. Some common laborers and eccentrics wore beards or mustaches, as did at least one religious sect in the colonies as Thomas Anburey mentions: "The men [of the Dumplers] wear their beards to a great length, some I saw were down to the waist...." (2) Anburey apparently found full, thick beards to be quite an oddity, or he would not have bothered to mention the Dumplers in his journal.

Oddly enough, the military was one of the few professions where facial hair remained in style throughout the 1700s. In the Royal collection is a series of paintings done by David Morier in the 1740s. In this series, Morier shows a grenadier of almost every regiment of the British, German and French armies of that period. Though all of the British soldiers are whiskerless, most of the German and French grenadiers wear mustaches. Mustaches on grenadiers was still the fashion during the American Rebellion, as evidenced by this quote from, Captain Johann Ewald: "He ["Ravening Wolf"--a Creek Indian chief] observed with astonishment the long beards of the grenadiers and was allowed to touch them, for he believed that these beards were put on merely for ornament."(3) This quote is interesting as it suggests that the Indian chief had never seen a beard before--even though he had had previous contact with white men.

David and Will Hamilton also point to the ca. 1746 David Morier painting of the battle of Culloden as evidence that soldiers wore beards. Sure enough, one prominent British grenadier to the right of the painting (and most of the Jacobites) have beards! Actually, all of the "beards" shown in this painting look more like five o' clock shadows, but many of the subjects in the painting have them none-the-less. It is said that the British regiment depicted (Barrell's Regiment--the 4th Foot) was reviewed the day before they posed for Morier, so they had apparently stood review without being shaved! Of course, the soldiers could have actually been clean-shaven and Morier may have painted them with scruffy faces to emphasize the hardships and long, forced march the men of both armies had endured before coming to the final confrontation at Culloden.

There is also at least one German engraving showing American Riflemen wearing beards (Fig. A). Remember that the Germans were at war with the colonies at this time, and this print may have been intended to make the Americans look dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. Even if the "Congressional" soldiers shown are accurately depicted, it was much more common for the soldiers of both armies to be clean-shaven.

In his treatise, Captain Bennett Cuthbertson states: "...every morning at Troop-beating, the Companies should be drawn up in Squads, and when the rolls are called, that the Serjeants and Corporals strictly examine the Men of their Squads, one by one, observing in a particular manner, that ... their Beards [are] close shaved; their Hands and Faces well washed, their side Arms properly put on; and that every particular about them, be in the most exact order."(4)

Of course, Cuthbertson was merely suggesting that the men be "close shaved," this quote was not a direct order, but rather advice to the officer commanding a body of men. There were, however, several direct orders issued regarding shaving. The general orders for all British troops dictated that the men were to shave twice per week. This would mean that even at their worst the typical private soldier would only show a few day's worth of stubble.

The Continentals were ordered to be clean-shaven as well. During the harsh winter of 1777-78, while the Continental Army was at Valley Forge, General George Weedon issued orders that: "The Adjutants and Brigade Majors will be respectably answerable that hence-forward they bring no Man to the Parade whose Appearance is not as decent as his Circumstances will permit having his beard shaved, Hair comb'd face washed, and Cloathes put on in the best Manner in his Power".(5)

Note that this order was given at Valley Forge when the Continental Army was facing a great deal of hardship--like sickness and shortages of food, fuel and clothing. Yet the order was given that, ill-clad and hungry as they were, the men were to be clean-shaven. Of course, this order was directed to the men who were to be formed on parade, when they are naturally trying to look their best. It's interesting that troops with a lot of other things on their minds (like basic survival) were required to keep a clean face.

There are other accounts of soldiers suffering great hardships, yet still taking the trouble to shave. Roger Lamb was a British serjeant who was captured and later managed to escape from the Congressional forces assembled before Yorktown. Lamb and a fellow soldier worked their way north towards the safety of British-occupied New York, and in his memoir, Lamb comments that: "We had had no opportunity of shaving ourselves for three weeks." (6)

At first glance, this passage seems to support the idea that at least some soldiers had beards. But consider the circumstances: Lamb and his fellow escapee are behind enemy lines, they have no food, little clothing, and must travel through many miles of hostile country to reach the safety of New York. To help his readers to understand their desperate situation, Lamb mentions that they were unable to shave during this time, and more than likely included this passage in his journal to illustrate the hardships that he and his companion underwent.(7)

Soldiers in even more desperate circumstances shaved as well. Everyone has heard the horrific stories of the infamous prison ship Jersey--American prisoners were packed below decks like sardines and suffered horribly. Many of the prisoners had no clothing. The food they did receive was unfit for human consumption and as a result the prisoners often wallowed in their own filth below decks: "The inhabitants of this lower region [of the prison ship Jersey] were the most miserable and disgusting-looking objects that can be conceived. Daily washing with salt water, together with their extreme emaciation, caused their skin to appear like dried parchment. Many of them remained unwashed for weeks; their hair long and matted, and filled with vermin; their beard never cut, excepting occasionally with a pair of shears." (8) Here again, the prisoners, who are in want of just about all of life's necessities, are still shaving with whatever they had available--in this case a pair of shears. So, even though some soldiers may have had facial hair (mostly German and French grenadiers and possibly a few backwoods riflemen) the vast majority of soldiers shaved on a regular basis during our period--even when it was less than convenient to do so. In addition, there are a very great number of contemporary sketches, engravings and paintings that depict clean-shaven soldiers, yet only a handful showing soldiers in beards or mustaches. Therefore we can only conclude that--long or short, thick or thin, neatly trimmed or wild and bushy--beards, mustaches and sideburns are not appropriate for military impressions of the American Revolution.

It's Just a HOBBY!

I am sure that this conclusion is not going to go over too well among the NWTA's whisker-faced faction, and the most common argument you will hear from re-enactors who are reluctant to change their appearance is the all-too familiar phrase: "it's just a hobby." Yes, it is just a hobby, and like any hobby, the more effort you put into re-enacting, the more reward you get out of it. It's not much fun displaying a poorly constructed and painted model airplane or consistently hitting double-bogeys on the golf course and the same goes for re-enacting. After all, what's the point in doing a hobby unless you strive to learn, grow and (hopefully) get better at it?

It can also be argued that historical re-enacting is more than "just a hobby." By suiting up on weekends and putting ourselves out on public display, we are also setting ourselves up as educators. In fact, the motto of the NWTA is "That others may learn." Not only is it more appropriate that we have clean-shaven faces, it simply makes us LOOK more "real," which in turn adds a higher degree of credibility to our presentations and scenarios.

As we learn more about the people we portray, we continue to evolve--making constant improvements to our clothing and kit. Some even take it a step further and wear the proper 18th-century hairstyle. Why not take the impression all the way and shave off that beard? Let's face it, you can be 100% authentic down to your skivvies with each item in your kit completely documented, every piece of clothing meticulously hand-stitched from authentic patterns and in period-correct fabrics, but the whole impact is lost if your outfit is topped off with a thick, bushy beard! One argument I have heard several times from folks not wanting to take that extra step is that "if I shave my wife will divorce me." Admittedly, shaving can be a bit traumatic for loved ones who are unaccustomed to seeing what lies under all those whiskers. Every time I shave for an event Karen goes through a short adjustment period, but she soon gets used to it. Remember that facial hair grows back in a just few short weeks (or months in my case), and I have even known a few folks who liked their new look and decided to stay clean-shaven on a permanent basis. Those of us who have had beards for as long as we can remember just might be pleasantly surprised at what lies underneath all of those whiskers! Besides, if your whole relationship with your spouse hangs on nothing but whether or not you have facial hair, perhaps you should skip the next event and seek out the advice of a marriage counselor instead.

Do you HAVE to shave?

We've addressed several facets of this controversial topic, but two burning questions still remain; do we have to be clean-shaven in order to be considered good re-enactors? Are only smooth-faced impressions to be taken seriously?

Of course not.

But let's not kid ourselves that our beards, sideburns and mustaches are in the least bit authentic (except for some German and French grenadiers--of which there currently are none in the NWTA). Besides, I know quite a few people who readily shaved for a "special event" or for the chance to be an extra in a major motion picture. So how about showing the same level of commitment to your regular hobby? If you really take your impression seriously, if you want to take one more step towards complete authenticity and be just a little farther ahead of the "average" re-enactor (if your marriage is sound), if you want to do your part to ensure that the NWTA becomes regarded as the one of the best re-enacting organizations in the nation, then going clean-shaven for the re-enacting season really is the only way to go!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article is by no means intended as an exhaustive study on the subject of facial hair among the 18th-century military. If you have additional information or documentation, either pro or con, I would be more than happy to accept your follow-up article.

1) Corson, Richard, Fashions in Hair (Hastings House), 1965.

2) Anburey, Thomas, Travels Through the Interior Parts of America in a Series of Letters by an Officer, (New York: New York Times and Arno Press) 1969, (Vol. II p 287-8, 16 Dec, 1778, Lancaster, PA).

3) Ewald, Johann, Diary of the the American War, Joseph Tustin, editor, Yale University Press, 1979, p 232. This quote comes from the published version of Ewalds diary, and some people question the exact translation of this passage. According to my old high school German instructor, the German word for moustache is "schnurbart," which literally translates as "string-beard." So, it could be that the grenadiers had only mustaches and not full beards.

4) Cuthbertson, p 107-108.

5) Weedon, George, Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon, (New York:New York Times and Arno Press), 1971 ISBN 0-405-01229-2 (p 122-123)

6) Lamb, Roger, An Original and authentic Journal of Occurances during the late American War from its commencement to the year 1783, Dublin, 1809 (Arno Press Reprint, 1968) p 413 (23 March, 1782).

7) ibid, p 108.

8) Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox n the Revolutionary War, (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books) 1995 ISBN 0-7884-0214-5, p 161