Martin Van Buren Bates
Standing at seven feet and nine inches, Martin Van Buren ‘Kentucky Giant’ Bates was an unforgettable figure to encounter on the Civil War battlefield.
On November 9, 1837, in Letcher County, Kentucky, Martin Van Buren Bates was born to parents of normal stature. Describing his growth as ‘gradual and probable,’ Bates’ body developed in both an equal and symmetrical manner. Bates endured his first growth spurt around the age of seven and measured in at six feet and 200 pounds by the age of twelve. More astonishingly, Bates continued to grow until the age of 28. Although Bates was rumored to be seven feet eleven inches, official documentation lists Bates as seven foot nine and approximately 500 pounds.
Nonetheless, Bates experienced a relatively normal childhood in Kentucky. When the opportunity arose, he enrolled in Emory & Henry College in Virginia. After college, Bates worked as a school teacher. In growing up and receiving an education in the south, Bates ideologically aligned with Confederate politics and prepared himself to defend these values as the Civil War commenced.
At the Civil War’s onset, Bates enlisted as a private in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry on September 15th, 1861. After receiving several promotions in this regiment in response to his bravery and leadership, Bates became First Lieutenant of the Virginia State Line Troops’ Company A in 1863 where he developed his skills under Colonel John B. Floyd’s guidance. Eventually, this command merged into the Seventh Confederate Cavalry operated by Colonel Clarene J. Prentis. During this time, Bates received a promotion to the rank of Captain and held this position until the war’s end. Bates used every muscle in his body to endure hardship and lead his cavalry through battle. Unfortunately, Bates suffered severe wounds in the Cumberland Gap area, effectively leading to his capture and imprisonment at Camp Chase in Ohio. Bates remained a captive until the war’s end.
After the war, Bates briefly returned to his Kentucky home. However, persisting violence between former Union and Confederate troops prompted Bates’ northern migration to Cincinnati, Ohio. Finding his immense proportions as an object of wonder, Bates enrolled himself as one of P.T. Barnum’s “curiosities” in July of 1865, and he traveled with the circus all over the United States and Canada for five years. While in Nova Scotia, Bates met Anna Swan— a woman who measured seven feet eleven inches tall. The two fell in love, and after accepting an offer from the Judge of Ingalls to make a tour throughout Europe, they planned to marry.
The wedding was held at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, England where thousands attended the spectacle to witnesses the marriage of two giants. Queen Victoria celebrated the marriage of Swan and Bates by gifting the couple a pair of diamond-studded gold watches as a wedding gift.
Eventually, Bates settled in Seville, Ohio with his wife after resigning from the circus. Over the intervening years, the couple endured hardships in childbearing, a son and a daughter dying shortly after birth. Bates spent his final days on a vast farm, and he passed away at the age of 82 on January 19, 1919. His wide array of involvements and accomplishments make Bates one of the most memorable veterans of the Civil War.