MIGHTY HISTORY

An actual giant served in the Civil War

Featured image courtesy of Lexington Herald Leader (kentucky.com)

The people of Letcher County, Kentucky are currently raising money to build a bronze statue of one of their most iconic civil war veterans, Martin Van Buren Bates. This statue is meant to celebrate more than just his military service, however. It is celebrating his international celebrity status as an actual giant.


Martin Van Buren Bates came from a well-known family in Letcher County. According to historical records, he was born in 1837, and by the age of 13, would weigh 300 pounds. Bates would continue to grow until he was 28 years old, measuring an astounding 7-foot-11 inches tall and weighing 500 pounds. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Bates at 7-foot-9 inches tall.

The point is he was a huge guy. Records of Bates, held at the Letcher County clerk's office, claim that one of his boots could hold a half bushel of shelled corn—28 pounds of corn.

Bates began his career as a school teacher, but upon the outbreak of the Civil War joined the Confederacy fighting with the 5th Kentucky Infantry. He ascended to the rank of Captain due to his bravery and leadership on the battlefield.

Eventually, he was severely wounded in combat in the Cumberland Gap area, where he was captured and imprisoned at Camp Chase in Ohio.

After the war he briefly returned to Kentucky, before leaving due to violence between former Union and Confederate soldiers. He headed to Cincinnati, where he would join the circus. While on tour with the circus in Nova Scotia, Bates met Anna Swan, who just so happened to be 7-foot-11 inches tall. The two fell in love and got married while on tour with the circus in Europe.

The wedding was a bit of a spectacle with thousands attending. England's Queen Victoria even gave the couple diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents. The couple moved to Seville, Ohio, where they purchased a farm and hoped to settle down after their lives in the circus. The couple had a son who only survived for 11 hours, but weighed 23 pounds 12 ounces, and a daughter who weighed 18 pounds, but also died at birth.

Advocates for the statue hope to place a bronze statue in a local park to commemorate Bates. The cost of the statue is an estimated $84,000, but advocates argue it is important to remember the county's history before it is forgotten.