I recently gathered height measurements for 783 of the 1,431 soldiers who served in the 51st Regiment North Carolina Troops. The sample size is large enough to apply to the entire regiment. And since the regiment was drawn from across the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, it is probably representative of that part of the state in 1862.
The average height of a soldier serving in the 51st North Carolina was 5 feet, 8-1/2 inches. I thought the men of the 1860’s would have been shorter than that. According to the Internet (always a suspect source of information), the average American male today is five-nine. We haven’t grown much in 160 years.
The shortest soldiers were Private Richard Mathis, at 4′ 3″ and Musician John McDonald, 4′ 0″. I’m somewhat skeptical about McDonald’s height. The “inches” field in his record is empty. Does that mean it’s zero, or was it unintentionally left blank? Don’t know. Furthermore, John McDonald’s brother, Archibald, stood at 5 feet, 10 inches. It seems highly unlikely that John McDonald was only four feet tall, but that’s the number that was written down.
The tallest soldiers were Council Brown and Zachariah Carter, both at 6′ 6″. Other than height, the two men had little in common. Private Council Brown of Company H was from Columbus County. He died of fever a few months after enlisting. Private Zachariah Carter, Company E, hailed from Robeson County and survived his service in the Confederate Army. He became a minister after the war. Reverend Carter must have been an imposing presence at the pulpit.
Height and Rank
As I gathered the height information, I wondered if physical stature had any bearing on rank. The average height of a private was 5 feet, 8-1/3 inches, just slightly below the regiment’s average. NCOs, except for First Sergeants, averaged 5′ 9″, with corporals being just a smidge taller than sergeants. But First Sergeants were a little more than an inch taller than the lesser NCOs.
Now for the officers. The lieutenants’ average height was almost the same as the corporals. Third lieutenants were the tallest of the group at 5′ 9-1/2″. But some of the third lieutenants had been First Sergeants that were promoted. That might explain why they were the tallest tier of lieutenants. The captains towered over everyone at 5 feet, 10-3/4 inches.
The shortest group in the regiment’s ranks were the musicians, who averaged four feet, eleven inches. This makes sense. They were well below the “official” minimum height for a soldier, and they were often in their mid-teens.
The average height of a soldier serving in the 51st North Carolina was probably the average height of any group of men who fought for the Confederacy, assuming that the measurements are accurate. They may not be. As for height influencing a soldier’s rank, the cause and effect is too muddy to say with any certainty. One might argue that officers, coming from the wealthier families, were better fed than the privates. My personal opinion is that the height differences between the various ranks is coincidental. Oh, yeah, except for the Musicians.
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