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Big Dave Van Buskirk Went to War

Blog post by Steve Rolfe

big daveOne of the “secrets” of Monroe County Civil War history is that the largest man to serve in the Union army during the entire war was Monroe County’s  own David Van Buskirk, or, as he is familiarly known, Big Dave. He was said to be 6’ 10 ½“ in his stocking feet and to weigh about 375 pounds. Van Buskirk was a captain in the 27th Indiana Infantry which was a unit that was formed in the early days of the war in an interesting way.  Every community was competing for young men to join their unit, so many recruiting “gimmicks” were used to try to get the upper hand on your neighboring regiment. In the case of the 27th, recruiting speeches were given off the backs of trains in the counties along the Monon Railroad line between Indianapolis and Louisville.  Recruiters of Co. F, nicknamed “The Monroe Grenadiers,” encouraged all “really tall” men to join up so that the soldiers’ size and height alone might intimidate the rebels to drop their guns and surrender.  It was said that over half the men were taller than six feet at a time when the average height of a man was probably five feet eight or nine inches.  This earned them the regimental nickname, “Giants in the Cornfield”.

The 27th fought in engagements in the Eastern Theater of the war including First Winchester, The Cornfield at Antietam, Spangler’s Spring at Gettysburg and at Resaca in the Atlanta Campaign.  Van Buskirk was captured at First Winchester and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. In the short time he was there, he actually gained weight by bartering for extra rations so people in Richmond could come and look at “The Giant.”  He returned to the Union army in a prisoner exchange and fought at both Antietam and Gettysburg.   At Gettysburg, the 27th had their recruiting gimmick come back to haunt them when they were ordered to charge across an open field.  The Confederate solders on the other side could not believe the huge targets they had while lying safe behind trees and boulders. The charge was quickly beaten back with over half the 390 or so men who began it becoming casualties. Four color bearers were killed and four wounded in the attack.  Van Buskirk was not wounded in the assault.

After his service was completed, Captain Van Buskirk returned to his home in northwest Monroe County. He spent the rest of his years in serving the local school board and the county.  He died at 61 and is buried alongside all three of his wives in a small private family cemetery just across the White River from Gosport.  The Monroe County History Center has his ceremonial Civil War officer’s sword and a few other of his belongings in their collection thanks to his great granddaughter and former MCHC board member Patsy Powell.   David Van Buskirk was a towering figure both in his stature and in his commitment to his community and his country.

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