The Confederate Giant
Captain Martin Van Buren Bates

Martin Van Buren Bates was born November 9, 1837, the 11th and youngest child of John Wallis Bates and Sarah "Sallie" Waltrip Bates (his parents are buried on the Old Bates Farm cemetery, the property later sold to Henry Potter). He was born in Letcher County on the mouth of the Boone Fork where it enters the Northfork of the Kentuky River (Kona is now located there). Beginning at age seven he began to grow very large, first obese, then tall. By age 13 he weighted 300 pounds. He grew to become the largest man in the world at 7'11". He was well educated by the regional standards. "Old papers, now in the possession of Letcher County clerk Charlie Wright, a great-nephew of Bates, indicate that by 8, Martin could quote most important dates and events and had developed what was called "almost a photographic memory."

At the beginning of the War between the States, Martin left teaching and enrolled on 1 November 1861 in Company F. of the 5th Kentucky Infantry, at Whitesburg, under the command of Captain Ben E. Caudill, for a 12 month term. Accounts say that he was given a battlefield commission. The 5th disbanded at Hazel Green. Martin joined Company A of French's Battalion of Virginia Infantry as a 1st Lt. He was captured in Pike County, Kentucky and imprissioned in Camp Chase, Ohio. Later he was transferred to Point Lookout, MD. On 17 May 1863 he was exchanged. Later, he joined his brother, Robert Bates, in Company A of the 7th Battalion Confederate Cavalry and served as a 1st Lt. He is said to have risen to the rank of Captain while in the CSA. He resigned his commission on 19 July 1864, and it was approved on 29 July 1864 by Colonel Clarence Prentice, and by General John Hunt Morgan on 28 August 1864. However, Martin is mentioned in official correspondence on 26 March 1865. He was in the following battles: Battle of Middle Creek, Second Battle of Cynthiana , and a Battle near Cumberland Gap

One account of the action of Martin and his compatriots, that has been passed down, is given by Burdine Webb (Enoch's neice) in 1941:

"Criticized by all were the guerrilla bands that pillaged, murdered, and robbed. There were those in this country. They were driven, however, into Virginia. The bands, of course, opposed both the "Blue and the Gray." Early in the conflict Bates was chosen to drive back these marauders, though some of them were his neighbors. Bates at length became a captain in his division as he was brave and relentless. He and Captain Webb succeeded in driving them even further back into Virginia. The Crane's Nest section of the band became so rampant that Bates, with Captain Webb and Colonel Ben Caudill of Letcher country, Kentucky, took an army over there to suppress them. Locating their enemy in the dead of night a first was hurriedly build. The flames spread upward, lighting a considerable distance and the soldiers put themselves in readiness. The guerillas swooped down to see about the conflagration, when hundreds of shots rang out. Twelve of the band fell, rolling down the mountainside. Twelve or 15 more were captured. The ruse worked well."
[June 2005 issue of The Kentucky Explorer, "Martin Van Buren Bates: The "Giant of Letcher County" by Burdine Webb in 1941. page 23 & 24.]

Another source from the FNB Chroicals in Scott County, Tennesee shares this account with us drawn from Martin's great great nephew, Bruce Bates:

Martin made quite a name for himself during the war. He used two colossal 71 caliber horse pistols that had been made especially for him at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. He wore them strapped across his chest in black leather holsters. He had a saber that was 18 inches longer than the standard weapon. He rode a huge Percheron horse that he took from a German farmer in Pennsylvania. He was severely wounded in a battle around the Cumberland Gap area and was also captured, although he later escaped.

Now, for the "rest of the story". According to information BRUCE BATES uncovered as told years ago by JOHN LUCAS, who was a distant relative of the giant and had seen him on many occasions, MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES returned to his Kentucky home after the war and found that local Unionists had captured one of his brothers and had tormented him with bayonets to a slow and painful death. This enraged the giant and he gathered his men and searched out the murderers. One by one they were captured. Some were roused out of their beds at night. Others were found hiding in hilltop caverns. Some were ambushed on Rock House Creek and locked in it under close guard. Then their wives, parents, grandparents and children were rounded up and driven to the mouth of Big Hollow and kept there around campfires all night. The children ranged from about 12 years old down to babes in their mothers' arms. Some of the wives were pregnant.

Two slender black oaks grew a dozen feet apart. A pole was lashed to the trees about 10 feet up. A round beech log was cut, stripped of its branches and placed on the ground beneath. Eight nooses hung down from the pole.

At dawn, the Rebels roused the sleepers, who threw fresh wood on the fires. At the sight of the dangling ropes the women began to wail. The giant appeared on his giant horse, his giant sword and pistols gleaming, his black eyes shining with contempt and hatred. His men appeared out of the gloomy mists herding the prisoners before them, each man's hands bound behind his back.

The prisoners were placed on the log, and a noose was dropped around each shrinking neck, the men pleading for their lives. Their relatives begged the giant to be merciful. The giant sat on his great horse for several minutes while dawn slowly brightened the sky. The fire crackled, adding its gleams to the soft light of the new day. The killers began to hope a little; then the giant raised his hand in a signal. Two men gave the log a shove and it rolled down the hill. The eight bound figures dropped a few inches and choked slowly to death. With swords and cocked pistols the women and children were kept at bay. None could render aid.

The "Yankees" were a quarter of an hour dying. The giant told the people not to touch the dead or take them down from the gallows. They were to hang there and rot by the road, their corruption warning all passersby of the consequences of killing a BATES. If anyone violated his order, he would die in the same way. Absolutely no mercy would be shown. In addition, his family would be destroyed, his house burned, his stock killed. "Take warning," the giant said. "because no other warning will be given!" Then he and his men rode away, leaving the dead to swing in the wind and their kin to mourn them through a monstrous nightmare.

The bodies turned to skeletons before the giant came back, only rattling bones were left for burial.

JOHN LUCAS said the giant could not stay in Letcher County after that. "When those children got old enough they would have killed him without a doubt. He moved away when the war was over and didn't tell people where he went, either. You know what his vengeance was like. We can't even guess what those children would have done to even the score when they got to be grown men.
[FNB Chronicle, vol 9 no 3, 1998]

Martin left Letcher County with his nephew "Bad John" Wright and worked in a circus. "Bad John" was billed as a trick rider and sharpshooter, and Martin as the tallest man. He married Anna Hannon Swan (8') in Nova Scotia and she joined the circus. They married in London. Later Martin retired in Seville, Ohio where he died at age 80 in 1919 and lies with his first wife and their infant children at Mound Cemetery. He wrote an autobiography, The Kentucky River Giant that is available in reprint here:

Information gathered by Mark S. Carroll, 2005
Notes: Enoch A. Webb 1811-1882 is Mark's 1st Cousin 5x removed etc.
Benjamin Everage Caudill was Enoch Webb's 2nd cousin once removed, and Mark's double 1st Cousin 4x removed, etc.