The origin of hookers - and other Civil War tales

On face value the American Civil War wasn't very funny. It saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and pitted families against each other. It's about as funny as the Rape of Nanking.

However, humorous anecdotes can be found in the most inhospitable of places and at least a couple of the war's most hapless generals have enriched the English language.

General Ambose Burnside, who oversaw the Union’s debacle at Fredericksburg, is best remembered for his novel facial hair that consisted of a full moustache and big cheek whiskers over a cleanly shaven chin.

Apparently the look wasn’t even hot for the time when the in vogue look was to shave everything except the chin whiskers, resembling a goat ie. A goatee. Burnside’s look wouldn’t even be considered trendy in the seventies unless you'd been doing a lot of drugs. The cheek whiskers became known as "Burnside's" and enjoyed a certain vogue among men of the day. The expression was later mixed around to become known as “sideburns.”

The expression lived a lot longer than Burnside’s reputation. After the defeat at Fredericksburg, his standing was finally sunk in the Mud March of January 1863 that saw his troops bogged down in a quagmire when he had hoped to strike a decisive blow against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates.

Before the action Burnside had declared: "The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country."

After the action he was replaced by General Joseph Hooker. It seems Burnside had never wanted to command the Union army anyway, but the threat of Hooker being put in charge persuaded him to reluctantly take up the command.

In the event Burnside’s nemesis replaced him anyhow and was no more successful, leading the Union army to another disastrous defeat at Chancellorville in the spring of 1863.

Hooker wasn’t the most popular of generals. One biographer called him a “a conniver and carouser” — because he was quarrelsome, deeply disrespectful of his superiors, a womaniser, a drunkard, and (worst of all) an unsuccessful soldier.

His headquarters were described as a combination of a bar and a brothel into which no self respecting woman would go. His men were also said to frequent prostitutes. It’s said the general gave rise to the expression “hooker”, although there are some obscure references that suggest the word may have been used for prostitutes before the good general’s time.

I’m happy to run with it and give another spectacularly unsuccessful general a legacy of sorts.


  1. hmmm. Interesting.

  2. I wonder why Burnside didn't do up the three buttons on his uniform? Things like that just distract me, now where were we again?

  3. Cool trivia about the burnsides/sideburns. I'd never heard that before. As for the hooker "legacy," a dubious honor to be sure! What a thing to be remembered for!

  4. Now those were some sideburns! He marched to the beat of a different drummer...doing his own happy dance...yup.

  5. Thanx Yakoi, now don't get too excited about those buttons, Lidia. Too true Daisy, actually the hooker one is a bit ambigious, but seems like his only real distinction. Thax for the follo Marnie, those are certainly an impressive set of sideburns..


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