With the American Civil War being just the second large-scale war to occur during the age of photography (the Crimean War being the first), people of the day saw the indelible images of battle for the first time – casualties, carnage, privation, hardship, heroics, and, yes, absolutely stunning facial hair.
In this essay, we prune away the overgrown whiskers of history to reveal the little-known story of Civil War manscaping, through the tales of the men who fought, bled, and shaved across the American continent for four long years. Among the mustachioed ranks of heroes that time has forgotten, one man stands above the rest like an unruly cowlick: Schnurrbart Kitzler, Civil War Hair Stylist.
A Close Shave in Germany
Schnurrbart Kitzler’s illustrious history is best understood in the context of his time. Born in Saxony in 1833, he was, like many German Americans, a recent immigrant to the United States with a wild hair for reform and revolution. Following an uncomfortable brush with the authorities during the failed German Revolution of 1848, he escaped to England on a Royal Navy cutter before setting sail for America with thousands of other “Dutchmen” in search of freedom and opportunity.
Settling in Indiana, he hung out his shingle as a “barber extraordinaire,” shaving, trimming, waxing, bleeding, oiling, grooming, and plucking the beards, moustaches, and scalps of the upright men of Indianapolis. His revolutionary spirit unabated, Kitzler developed an avant-garde approach, particularly to beards and moustaches, that became the talk of gentlemen far beyond the cozy confines of his barbershop. His reputation was such that men of breeding would visit their local barber and ask for a “Kitzler Cut.”
Hair To Die For
When war broke out in 1861, German Americans were ready for the fight to preserve the land of freedom that had welcomed them. They volunteered for combat by the thousands, and Kitzler was no exception. Although he dreamt of fighting on the front lines, Kitzler’s unique talents caught the eye of Colonel Augustus Willich, who had organized the 32nd Indiana Regiment.
Col. Willich, a Communist firebrand prior to the Civil War, was closely attuned to the power of symbolism in conveying a message that people would fight and die to defend. In fact, he famously insulted Karl Marx’s revolutionary credentials as symbolized in his unkempt, product-less, hirsute style. “If a man is not fanatical about the care of his follicles, how can he ever be fanatical about the business of Revolution?” he once wrote to Marx.
When Marx’s hair reached unprecedented levels of unruly growth, Willich challenged him to a duel, believing he could no longer be the face of Revolution. While Marx refused, one of his young proteges, Konrad Schramm, dueled Willich in Belgium and lost.
In accepting his appointment to be the hair stylist of the 32nd Indiana, Kitzler knew Col. Willich was a man willing to die for great hair.
Willich also believed this was an opportunity to keep his men clean, healthy, high in morale, and suave. “A gentleman should be able to carry himself with panache while harrying the foe,” he wrote to a friend. Left unsaid, of course, was that Kitzler’s work would provide a nice bit of publicity for the politically minded colonel. Kitzler would also help keep the colonel’s coiffure, which extended in a particularly jarring bulb from the back of his head as an overcompensation for his balding pate, in shape.
In addition to his duties as Colonel Willich’s ‘mane man,’ Kitzler also attended upon the two junior officers of the 32nd Indiana, Lt. Col. Karl Friedrich Heinrich von Trebra and Lt. Col. Francis “Frank” Erdelmeyer, whose beards, though not quite as long as their names, were magnificently groomed and impressive in scope.
Kitzler was assigned as the hair stylist of the 32nd and went to war armed not with musket and bayonet, but with scissors, tweezers, razors, combs, brushes, and his trademark pomade, made of pureed apples and bear lard. At the sound of Reveille, he was ready each morning for inspection with the tools of his trade, as critical to the regiment’s success as any firearm.
Kitzler, The Best A Man Can Get
NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, no stranger to a flashy appearance, once famously said, “Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good.” While the men of the American Civil War likely would have used different words, the amazing muttonchops, French cuts, chin beards, goatees, long beards, and van dykes sported by the Union generals, officers, and soldiers had a profound impact on morale, esprit de corps, and even ferociousness in combat.
In fact, historical analysis has shown that muttonchops, a style sported primarily by Union generals (and pioneered by Kitzler, of course), had an overall battle record of 28 victories to 17 defeats during the war, meaning that Union forces were victorious 62% of the time that their generals went to battle with these cozy, cheek-warming, yet no-nonsense chops. Those ratios, over time, are enough to tip the balance of a conflict. History has shown us time and again that wars are indeed won and lost by a hair’s breadth.
Of course, we are left to wonder, how much of that impact came simply from the cuts themselves, and how much from the presence of the one doing the cutting? Kitzler himself proved to be something of a strategic savant, as attested by Colonel Willich.
During the Battle of Liberty Gap in 1863, Willich’s brigade, including the 32nd, was ordered to advance on the Confederate position. The order arrived as Willich was sitting down with Kitzler for his morning trim, and what happened next has been the source of debate ever since. According to Willich’s after-action report:
“When I received the order to advance, I was with our regimental hair stylist, Schnurrbart Kitzler. He was contemplating how to style my hair, when he said, in his words, ‘Hmm, let’s take a leetle off zee sides, zen reinforce zee left und zee right, and finally part it down zee meedle.’ I immediately visualized a double flanking maneuver, followed by a frontal assault, and it made much sense to me for our situation. I ordered the 32nd to proceed in this manner, and we sent the rebels scurrying like lice from a fine-toothed comb.”
Historians continue to argue: were Kitzler’s musings purely a coincidence? Or was it the product of his subconscious, as his brain simultaneously processed Willich’s hair and the lay of the battlefield? Or, more intriguingly, was Kitzler deliberately using his position as trusted hair stylist to subtly influence tactical plans while allowing his commander to win the glory of victory? Alas, we may never know.
Whatever the truth, Confederate soldiers were envious of the superior grooming and high style of their German American counterparts in the Union Army and resorted to slurs to suggest that Kitzler had ‘butchered’ these men when they ‘had their ears lowered,’ originating the pejorative ‘lop-eared Dutch.’
The Southern Army’s seething hatred was further exasperated by rumors of Kitzler’s alleged connection to President Abraham Lincoln that began to swirl throughout Confederate camps like a bad outbreak of dysentery. The rumors suggested that during the 1860 presidential campaign Kitzler had styled Lincoln’s hair while he campaigned in Indiana, a state Lincoln won by a hair, with 51.09% of the popular vote.
Southern generals, on the other hand, most of whom were gentlemen and certainly not immune to the fashions of the day, were intrigued by Kitzler’s styles and also began to sport some of the more adventurous looks. An arms race (or perhaps more appropriately, a beards race) developed in which styles became more full, more elaborate – and more desperate – on both sides as the war dragged on. One need only look at Confederate general James Longstreet’s beard to see this trend in evidence. In fact, Longstreet fancied himself something of an icon, referring to himself in the third-person in letters home as “James Longbeard.”
Follicle Feats of Defeat
But the bald truth was that as with Confederate attempts to reverse engineer Union weaponry and munitions, Confederate barbers were rarely up to the task, often flummoxed by the sheer brilliance of Kitzler’s “do’s” that could stay fresh on the longest march and hold their shape under the hottest enemy fire. This imbalance also contributed to the widening beard power gap between North and South as the war raged.
The gap became an insurmountable chasm as the Union Navy captured more Confederate blockade runners. Southern officers and soldiers alike mourned when the CSS Robert E. Lee was captured in November 1863, heavily laden with the finest pomade and steel combs from friendly ports in Bermuda. Southern stylists would wait in vain to be resupplied.
As the war progressed, Northern style superiority drove inexorable victories on every front. But a failure to recognize Kitzler’s unique genius sometimes led to hubristic defeat. In one of the more ironic occurrences of the conflict, the finely goateed German-born Union general Franz Sigel was defeated in 1864 at New Market, Virginia, by the prepubescent cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.
It was one of the most shocking reversals of the war: the smooth-faced, or at best peach-fuzzed, Southern boys driving the bushy, goateed Sigel from the field in unshaven shame. Investigations into the general’s conduct later revealed that he had pridefully transferred his own stylist, a protégé of Kitzler himself, to another regiment and had been styling his own hair and goatee for weeks leading up to the battle.
Kitzler himself experienced a close shave a few months later at the Battle of Atlanta, as a cannonball buzzed by his tent in the middle of his morning appointments. There were no casualties, but one unfortunate private’s hair was over-dyed amid the chaotic shelling.
After the war, Kitzler returned to civilian life, where he continued to enjoy adoration as no longer just a barber extraordinaire, but also a war hero and something of a social maven. He added a fashionable “salon” (in the European style) to the rear of his retail barbershop, where he and his inner circle would socialize, gossip, and practice scandalous new hairstyling techniques including bangs, mohawks, the flock of seagulls, hockey hair, and more. Like the mullets Kitzler scissored into infamy, at his shop, all business was conducted in the front, but the party was in the back.
However, nothing is permanent, and as tastes changed, the popularity of Kitzler’s styles faded. In the greying, thinning years of his life, a bitter Kitzler turned to the bottle. He was found having drunk himself to death on J. Hambleton & Son hair dye, which like many tonics and medicines of the day was mainly composed of alcohol. Hambleton’s was advertised as the “best article in use for coloring the hair and whiskers a natural black or brown; does not fade or wash out.”
While Hambleton’s could not restore the sheen of Kitzler’s life, his legacy has been preserved and cleaned of this tragic final incident, like a comb in a jar of barbicide, by the indelible images of the Civil War’s most hairy, manly, and well-groomed generals and soldiers. It was Kitzler who created the long beards, short beards, moustaches, whiskers, muttonchops, goatees, lip ticklers, soup strainers, flavor savers, chinstraps, soul patches, lip wigs, French cuts, fu manchus, crumb catchers, van dykes, and sideburns that come down to us through the lens of history and remind us of the power of one man with a set of clippers to influence the course of a nation. And that is something that, like Hambleton’s hair dye, will never fade or wash out.