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CIVIL WAR ANTHROPOMETRY: The Making of a Racial Ideology John S. Haller The Civil War in America stands as a watershed in nineteenth-century anthropometric developments. The body measurements collected during the war years marked the culmination of efforts to measure the various "races" or "species" of man and derive a semblance of understanding as to specific race-types. Both the office of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau and the United States Sanitary Commission, a semiofficial organization made up of "predominantly upper-class . . . patrician elements which had been vainly seeking a function in American society" during the Civil War, became the pioneer forces in the wide scale measurement of the soldier during the war years.1 The war marks a watershed , not so much because its conclusions were new, but because nearly all subsequent late-nineteenth-century institutionalized attitudes of racial inferiority focused upon the war anthropometry as the basis for their belief. Ironically, the war which freed the slave also helped to justify racial attitudes of nineteenth century society. The direction and conclusions of the Civil War anthropometric evidence buttressed the conservative ethos of American social order and stability while, at the same time, encouraged a new "scientific" attitude. The reason the Civil War became such an important catalyst in the development of anthropometry stemmed from two particularly troublesome wartime situations. First, as a result of the embarrassing Union defeat in the first battle of Bull Run, Lincoln authorized on June 13, 1861, the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission. Its function was to make a study of the physical and moral condition of Federal troops, carry out anthropometric examinations of soldiers, and offer suggestions and aid for improvements in army life. The life insurance companies of America underwrote a large portion of the Commission's expenses, since they were willing to subsidize almost any program that could work out statistical averages on the physical condition of the population.2 Members of the Commission included Henry W. Bellows, Unitarian minister of New York, Alexander Dallas Bache of the Coast Survey, Dr. Wolcott Gibbs of Massachusetts, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, 1 George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern InteUectuaL· and the Crisis of the Union (New York, 1965), p. 100. 2 Charles J. Stille, History of the United States Sanitary Commission (Philadelphia , 1866), p. 84. 309 310civil war history educator and philanthropist, Dr. William H. Van Buren of New York and Charles J. Stille, lawyer and historian of the Sanitary Commission. Frederick Law Olmsted became the general secretary of the Sanitary Commission, and while it operated independently of the Federal Army, it was subject to the prerogatives of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton . A second situation, and one which became extremely important to the anthropometric section of the Sanitary Commission, grew out of the July 17, 1862, Congressional authorization for Lincoln "to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of the Rebellion." The Act permitted Lincoln to use the Negroes in "any military or naval service that they may be found competent." Eventually over 180,000 Negroes were inducted into the Federal service.3 European anthropologists had made studies on groups of individuals before the American Civil War, but their findings were not very comprehensive . John Towne Danson (1817-1898) took measurements of some 733 Liverpool prisoners of all ages, James David Forbes (1809-1868) on Scottish students at Edinburgh, and Franz Liharzik (1813-1866) on 300 Viennese men.4 There were also extensive measurements made during the Crimean war. But both the European anthropological societies as well as the interested numbers of American scientists looked upon the creation of the Sanitary Commission, and the induction of Negroes into the Union Army, as an opportune means of investigating race differences on a scale never before achieved. Somatological differences, which previously had been ascertained from random measurements upon small numbers and with a variety of measuring devices, could now be taken on a wide scale, with planned experiments and uniform measuring instruments. The Sanitary Commission based its anthropometric investigations upon the statistical methodology of the Belgian philosopher, Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet (1796-1874). Quetelet had made several...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 309-324
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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