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The Regular Soldiers


Originally aired on November 11, 1994 - In part 11 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson provides proof that Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks came in every size and shape and every background.

#11 – Common Soldiers: Ages and Sizes

Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks who fought in the great Civil War came in every shape and size, and from every background.

While some regiments were composed predominantly of farmers, or clerks, or students, other units gained attention because of the different occupations of their members. For example, the 19th Virginia came from the central part of Virginia. Of its 749 original members, 302 were farmers, 80 were laborers, and 56 were machinists. Among the remainder were ten lawyers, fourteen teachers, twenty-four students, three blacksmiths, two artists, a well-digger, a dentist, a bootlegger, and four men who classified themselves as “Gentlemen”.

The typical Civil War soldier was five feet, seven inches tall. He was a white, native-born farmer, Protestant, single, and in the 18 to 29 age bracket. Yet the ages of the men of blue and gray covered a broad spectrum. Boys often marched alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Much has been written of youngsters serving as drummer boys, but older soldiers performed the same duty. David Scanlon of Pulaski County, Virginia, was a drummer boy at the age of fifty-two.

Because eighteen was the minimum age for enlistment, many underage boys were known to write the figure “18” on a slip of paper and insert it into a shoe. When asked by a recruiting officer how old they were, the lads would respond truthfully: “I’m over eighteen.”

Charles C. Hay was probably the youngest Confederate. He joined an Alabama regiment at the age of eleven. The champion “blue baby” (as such Northern youngsters were called) was Edward Black of Indianapolis. He joined an Indiana unit with his father. Edward Black was nine years old. These youngsters held their own in combat. At the battle of Shiloh, fifteen year old John Roberts of Tennessee went down twice after being hit by spent balls; he had his musket blown to pieces in his hands, but Roberts continued throughout the fighting to display what his commander called “the coolness and courage of a veteran”.

It was somewhat crowded at the other end of the age chart. Many men served in the armies while in their sixties. The oldest Confederate soldier was E. Pollard. He listed his age as sixty-two when he joined a North Carolina regiment, yet indications are strong that Pollard was over seventy. The oldest Federal – the oldest Civil War soldier – was Curtis King, a transplanted Virginian who enlisted in an Iowa home guard unity at the age of eighty. King served a few months before being discharged for general disability.

Statistics on height are so fragmentary that only skeletal conclusions can be reached. Commanders varied in stature from Confederate General James Longstreet, who was six feet, two inches tall, to Union General Philip Sheridan, little more than five feet in height. The shortest Federal soldier on record was an Ohioan who stood three feet, four inches in his stocking feet.

Two such men standing atop one another still would not have matched the tallest known Union soldier. Captain David Van Buskirk was captured in 1862 and taken to a Richmond compound. There he agreed to be displayed publicly as “the biggest Yankee in the world”. He also had a good sense of humor. To the curious who came to gawk, Van Buskirk would say that when he left home for war, each of his six sisters “leaned down and kissed me on top of my head”.

Balanced diets, enriched foods, and other basics of good nutrition were unknown at that time. As a result, the soldiers of the 1860s tended to be slight of build. This was of no concern to Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks. In the autumn of 1861 a Virginia cavalryman informed his family: “I weigh the same as I did when I left home – 125 pounds – but all there is of me is bone and muscle, very tough and very active.”

Of all the many problems that Civil War soldiers faced, being overweight was not one of them.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.