While perusing my copy of William F. Fox’s 1889 classic Regimental Losses in the Civil War last night for nuggets to use in upcoming writing projects, I came across the section in chapter 7 in which Fox delineates some data from the muster rolls (p. 62). Fox gives averages for enlistees, such as height and weight, and percentages of other data such as hair color, occupation, nationality, etc.
I’ve often heard, as I suspect many others have, that the Civil War soldier (and any person of the era) was a great deal shorter than the average American today. Hey, just look at the myriad of original uniforms in any museum – they look as if they’d barely fit our 12 year-olds today. I know that their smallness has always surprised me. But in looking at the data in Fox, I was reminded of how surprised I was by the true data.
According to Fox, the average height of the Civil War soldier was slightly over 5’8″. I’m not sure of the average height of the American male today (probably a simple Internet search would find that) but I suspect that’s not a whole lot shorter than today’s average. All those small uniforms in the museums sure seem to paint a different picture, but an averaging of the muster rolls is what it is.
The average enlistee was, not surprisingly, a good deal lighter than today’s average – he averaged about 143 pounds. So, tall and lean he was. I’m sure today’s average weight is quite higher – many news programs tell us all the time how fat America is. The difference, I’m sure, was due to the physical labor and activity done by males of the era, as well as the obviously different diet. You didn’t stop at the local McDonald’s for a meal in 1861. And there were no all-you-can-stuff-in buffets either.
As to be expected, there were definitely extremes and peculiarities in the numbers. Here’s some from Fox:
The men from Maine, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Kentucky were slightly taller than the average. West Virginians averaged 5’9″ in height. Out of about 1,000,000 recorded heights of soldiers there were 3,613 who were over 6’3″, and among them were some who were over 7′ tall. Must have been something in that water!
However, Fox makes an interesting comment about height and performance. Keep in mind that in marching formation, soldiers were arranged tallest to shortest from front to back (something you rarely see done at reenactments today): “But tall men proved to be poor material for a long, toilsome campaign. When, after a hard, forced march, the captain looked over his company at nightfall to see how many men he had with him, the ‘ponies’ who trudged along at the tail of the company were generally all there; it was the head of the company that was thinned out.”
The descriptive lists show that 13% had black hair, 25% had dark hair, 30% brown hair, 24% light, 4% sandy, 3% red, and 1% gray hair. So, not a dearth of gray-haired, 300-pound soldiers like you see at so many reenactments?
Eye color – 45% had blue eyes, 24% gray, 13% hazel, 10% dark, and 8% black.
So, based on the averages, if you pulled a Civil War soldier out of the line, what would you likely get?
A 5’8″, 143-pound, brown-haired and blue-eyed fella who’d probably make most of the long marches. And he’d have no idea what a Happy Meal is.
Is that what you expected?