Not what you’d think

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?

Published in: on February 20, 2007 at 9:28 pm  Comments (6)  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. J.D.,
    Actually, that about fits Conger to a “T”, which is what made Harrison Ford’s casting in “Manhunt” just as specious. I don’t think Ford is 5-8 but I know definitely he’s not 140 pounds like EJC was.


  2. J.D.,

    When I read a post like that, my thoughts automatically go to the men of the 27th Indiana, aka “The Giants in The Cornfield”. IIRC, half of the regiment was over 6 foot tall, and am sure if Bob Knight was coaching Indiana back in them thar days, he would have recruited them to play for him. 🙂

    Hope all is well.


  3. Interestingly, even as late as WWII, the average height was 68.1 inches, and the weight was 150 pounds. Not much change there, though I have seen it stated that the Depression limited diets for many.

    I was unable to find H&W for current inductees, but I remember that it has crept up significantly.

    Dave Powell

  4. Rob,

    Nope – I suspect ol’ Harry is over 6 ft and probably 200 lbs or better. Maybe he’s from West Virginia 🙂


    When I saw Indiana in the list for taller men, I thought of the same “Giants” line. Apparently the statistics bear that out.


    Good point. I recall reading some time ago that our average height/weights went up significantly more in the past 40 years or so than previously. I’m sure that’s due to America’s diet changes in the period. After WWII saw the dawn of more processed, ready to eat foods (ala TV dinners and the like) and more easily available fattening foods – there wasn’t as much concern for fats and other nasties until 20 years ago. Plus fast food chains sprang up exponentially from the 50’s on.

    If modern enlistee averages are quite a bit higher today, it wouldn’t surprise me. Seems like the males of today’s military are big boys. It would be interesting to get exact numbers from the DOD if they exist. Wouldn’t surprise me if height is around 5’10” – 5’11” and weight more like 170-180 lbs. Just my guess.


  5. JD,
    I hadn’t even thought to look in Fox’s work until I saw your post. Which led to muster roll thoughts and a phone conversation with a nice lady at the National Archives this afternoon.
    Many of the extracts from muster rolls (pgs 59-62) make you wonder about the stories behind them, particularly the one from Compay D, 10th NY cavalry: “Lt. Wm. J. Rabb; killed at Brandy station, by a sabre-thrust through the body while lying under his horse; he would not surrender.” Wow, someone really wanted him dead!

  6. Don,

    Amazing – I just read that entry about Rabb last night again. I think an incredible book (and one hell of a resource) would be made out of listing the most interesting bits of data from the muster rolls. It would be an enormous project and one that would take years to put together, but it would be quite a work. It could be done by units (and branch of service) or even chronologically.

    Wonder if anyone has ever considered doing such a project?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: