In late May, Union Gen. George B. McClellan had nearly completed his march up the Peninsula and was arriving with the Army of the Potomac on the outskirts of Richmond. The forces under Confederate Gen. Joseph E Johnston were the only thing standing between the massive Federal army and the capital city. The citizens of Richmond were anxious about the impending battle and the fate of their city.
Even with the enemy just a few miles away, the public managed to find diversions from their anxiety. One particular diversion that arrived in Richmond in late May was a prisoner-of-war by the name of David Van Buskirk. His unit, the 27th Indiana, was captured near Winchester, VA and he was sent to Libby Prison. Weighing 380 lbs. and standing 6’10” tall, Buskirk was HUGE. In our modern era, Buskirk would have been bigger than the average NFL linebacker, but it was even more remarkable in the mid-1800s when people on average stood a lot shorter than they do today. Abraham Lincoln, considered very tall at the time, was a full six inches shorter than Buskirk. So, as you can imagine, he was a mountain of a man.
Residents regularly tried to catch a glimpse of Buskirk, who quickly became known around Richmond as “the biggest Yankee in the world.” While it was mostly hyperbole in Richmond, the distinction definitely had merit: according to records, Buskirk was the tallest Union soldier to serve during the war. During his stay at Libby Prison, Buskirk was often let out at night to be featured in a circus-like freak show in downtown Richmond. He was the talk of the town. Taking full advantage of his celebrity status, Buskirk actually gained weight during his three-month stay in Libby Prison while many prisoners (and even citizens of Richmond) endured serious food shortages.
Even Confederate president Jefferson Davis went to Libby Prison to see Buskirk. When Davis asked him about his family back in Indiana, Buskirk reportedly joked:
Back in Bloomington, Indiana, I have six sisters. When they told me good-bye, as I was standing with my company, they all walked up, leaned down, and kissed me on top of the head. City Under Siege, Wright, pg. 207
After being released from prison during an exchange, the “biggest Yankee in the world” would rejoin the 27th Indiana for the Battle of Gettysburg. During a 25-hour forced march to reach the battle, it is said that he wore out five different horses before reaching their destination. He fought with the 27th Indiana until 1864, when he resigned his commission due to illness. He died from blood poisoning in 1886, laid to rest in a specially-built casket and buried near his home in Indiana.