The Union Army’s NBA Regiment

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ astonishing and (dare it be said) historic championship that they won in June 2016, the last Cleveland team to win a championship in one of the major sports was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. Unfortunately for Cleveland sports fans, the Indians did not add a second championship to Cleveland in 2016, but at least the Cavaliers ended the 52-year drought that existed since the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship. As that Browns team was preparing to defend its championship in the 1965 season, the team’s head coach, Blanton Collier, reportedly told the players a sports aphorism which perhaps not everyone agrees with, and which, for that matter, may not be true. Collier said this to the team in an attempt to motivate the players so that they would not become complacent during the season that followed their championship. Collier told the team that defending a championship is more difficult than winning a championship. On October 25, 2016 the Cavaliers raised their championship banner and began defense of their championship. If Collier is correct about defending a championship, then the Cavaliers will need as much if not more effort and focus as they gave in the previous season, and some additional personnel might also be beneficial.

27th Indiana Regimental Flag

In order to bolster the Cavaliers’ fortunes in defending their championship, one place for them to look is a particular Civil War regiment: the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment reputedly had the greatest average height of any regiment in the Civil War. In particular, Company F contained 80 men who were over 6 feet in height, while the average height for Civil War soldiers was only 5 feet, 8 inches, which gives this company the appropriate physical stature for the National Basketball Association. One member of Company F, David Van Buskirk, who was the grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, was 6 feet, 10½ inches tall, and he reputedly weighed 380 pounds. Van Buskirk was the tallest man in the Union army, and despite his large size he was never wounded even though his regiment participated in some very intense fighting.

David Van Buskirk

The 27th Indiana consisted of men from south-central counties of the state, and it was organized in September 1861. While the regiment was being organized, Peter Kop, a Bloomington resident who himself was over 6 feet, 4 inches, saw David Van Buskirk and his unusually tall brothers and decided to organize a company of very tall men. This became Company F. After the 27th Indiana was mustered into the Union army, it had the misfortune of being assigned to the Shenandoah army that was under the command of Nathaniel Banks, and it had the additional misfortune of facing the army that was commanded by Stonewall Jackson. The first major action that the 27th Indiana experienced was at the First Battle of Winchester, which was one of Stonewall’s victories during his Valley Campaign. The 27th Indiana suffered five deaths and 62 prisoners, including David Van Buskirk, who was imprisoned in Libby Prison. Van Buskirk’s exceptionally large size drew so much attention to him that he was visited by none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During an exchange between Davis and Van Buskirk, Davis reputedly asked the large Union prisoner about his home and family. Among other personal vignettes, the 6-foot, 10½-inch Van Buskirk told the Confederate president that when he left with his unit, his sisters “all walked up, leaned down, and kissed me on the top of the head.” (If Van Buskirk has the necessary physical stature for the NBA, then his sisters seem like good candidates for the WNBA.) While Van Buskirk was a prisoner of war, his captors used him to raise funds by putting him on display. For a fee people could look at the large Yankee prisoner. Although this was no doubt embarrassing for Van Buskirk, it allowed him to survive as a prisoner of war.

During the time that Van Buskirk was being gazed at by many Confederate gawkers, some of his regimental comrades did what the 27th Indiana is most known for. In late summer of 1862, the 27th Indiana was assigned to the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On September 13, 1862, while the 27th Indiana was on picket duty near Frederick, Maryland, some members of Company F were resting in a field and noticed three cigars wrapped in papers. While the cigars were initially the main focus of the men, their immediate superior, First Sergeant John Bloss, examined the papers and saw that they contained writing of a military nature. In fact, the papers were orders from Robert E. Lee that directed the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia during the beginning of Lee’s first invasion of the North. Bloss ordered that the packet, including the cigars, be reassembled as it had been found and then had the packet sent up the chain of command. The orders that were in the packet, Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, eventually made their way to George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and their fortuitous finding by men of the 27th Indiana played a prominent role in the outcome of the Battle of Antietam. It is not known what happened to the cigars.

Lee’s Special Orders No. 191
27th Indiana monument at Gettysburg

At the Battle of Antietam the 27th Indiana fought in Miller’s cornfield, where it contributed to stopping an advance by the Confederates. In this battle the 27th Indiana lost 41 killed and 168 wounded, which gives evidence of the intensity of the fighting in which the regiment was engaged. The 27th Indiana did not see action at Fredericksburg due to the late arrival of the XII Corps, but at Chancellorsville the XII Corps, including the 27th Indiana, was heavily engaged. At Chancellorsville the XII Corps was positioned near the XI Corps, which took the full brunt of Stonewall’s flank attack. The brigade that included the 27th Indiana played an important role in halting that Confederate flank attack, and during the Battle of Chancellorsville the 27th Indiana suffered 36 killed and 114 wounded. The 27th Indiana also fought at Gettysburg, by which time David Van Buskirk had rejoined his regiment after being exchanged. The 27th Indiana took part in intense fighting on Culp’s Hill, in particular on the third day when it was part of an attack that disrupted the coordination between Pickett’s Charge and a planned attack by Richard Ewell’s II Corps. A few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg the 27th Indiana was sent on detached duty to New York City to assist in maintaining order after the New York City draft riots. In late September 1863 the regiment was among the troops that were sent to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. From that point until the end of its service, the 27th Indiana participated in the Atlanta Campaign and the siege and occupation of Atlanta. On November 4, 1864, four days before the presidential election, the 27th Indiana mustered out.

The 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment is most widely known in association with Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, and it is also famous for the large number of unusually tall men in its ranks. But the focus on a fortuitous occurrence and a physical oddity does an injustice to the gallant and resolute service that the regiment gave toward the preservation of the Union. Of the original members of the 27th Indiana, 169 lost their lives in combat, 133 died of disease, and 706 were casualties at some time in the war. The regiment never lost a flag, nor did it ever lose a cannon that was under its protection. One author wrote of the 27th Indiana, “Without fancy names or fancy hats, the 27th contributed blood and immeasurable service,” while another author called the 27th Indiana “arguably one of the most successful and storied regiments to participate in the Civil War.” Many of the regiment’s members have the height needed for the NBA, especially David Van Buskirk and his comrades in Company F. Because of this, and because the men of the 27th Indiana had it in them to display such exceptional valor and determination in defending the Union, these men can certainly help the Cleveland Cavaliers defend their championship.