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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

TALLEST REBEL

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The first time the Yankees soldiers saw Henry Clay Thruston charging toward them through the clouds of black powder smoke they must have rubbed their eyes in disbelief. This gray-clad Johnny Reb towered over the other fighting men like a pine tree growing next to a bush.

Born May 4, 1830 in Greenville, S.C., Thruston grew to 7 feet, 7-and-a-half inches. Some folks quibbled that he only stood a mere 7 feet, 6 inches but no one wanted to get in an argument with him about it. Maybe the Abe Lincoln-style stovepipe hat he favored in his later years did make him look a little taller.

To put Thruston's height in perspective, in a piece called "The Men in the Union and Confederate Armies," the Web site www.civilwarhome.com says the average height of Union soldiers was 5 feet, 8-and-a-half inches. Even the tallest Yankee measured only 6 feet, 10-and-a-half inches.

Thruston and his family, which included four brothers who also wore extra, extra, extra longs, moved to Missouri, where he spent his early years. In 1850 he went to California for a while, coming home to Missouri via the Isthmus of Panama. At 23 he married Mary Thruston, a distant cousin. They would have four children.

When the Civil War broke out, Thruston joined the Confederate Army, serving as a private under Col. John Q. Burbridge in the 4th Missouri Cavalry. Given Thruston's size, that speaks well for the sturdiness of Missouri horseflesh.

Early in the war, when the Southern military still worried about discipline and the orderly forming of ranks, a colonel assembled Thruston's company. Noting that one of the soldiers in the rank rose way above the rest of the men, the officer figured Thruston had stood up on a stump and ordered him off. When Thruston did not move, the officer drew his saber and roared, "I will make you obey orders! What are you standing on?" To which Thruston drawled, "I am standing on the ground."

Though federal marksmen could hardly hope for a more visible target, Thruston survived the hostilities with only a couple of relatively minor wounds, including a high shot that grazed the top of his head. His outfit fought with distinction in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The skyscraper soldier became a prisoner of war late in the conflict, but did not spend long in confinement, gaining parole at Shreveport, LA in June 1865.

After the war, Thruston reunited with his family in Missouri and migrated southwest to Texas, stopping when he got to Titus County. He bought 100 acres east of Mount Vernon and spent most of the rest of his life farming.

Except when he toured with a circus company that billed him as "The World's Tallest Man." While it's impossible to prove he actually stood taller than anyone on the planet, Thruston did go into the record books as the tallest Confederate soldier.

Despite his size, he seems to have been a gentle giant. But he had his limits. Once, when a much shorter man looked up at him and asked, "How's the weather up there?" Thruston let fly with a big gob of spit directed down on the man. "It's raining," the old Rebel answered.

"He was very proud of his great height and on every occasion of note would take the opportunity to exhibit himself, being called upon by all kinds of organizations in all parts of the country to mark in their ranks as a color bearer," a Mount Vernon newspaper wrote of Thruston. The Titus County farmer particularly liked to attend local and national reunions of Confederate veterans, serving as a human flag pole.

On Friday, July 2, 1909 Thruston sat down to supper with his son Ed, his daughter-in-law and their son. Mrs. Thruston told him that since he had not been feeling very well, he'd better pass on the cabbage. The big man began to butter a biscuit when he fell back in his chair in heart failure.

Before Thruston could be laid to rest, the local undertaker had to await the arrival by train of a custom-made casket from Texarkana. Eight feet long, it couldn't fit into the hearse with the doors closed.

They buried him in a grave much longer than deep in Mt. Pleasant's Edwards Cemetery. His house, which had nine-foot ceilings, still stands in Mount Vernon.

The editor of the local weekly newspaper eulogized Thruston as "a kind and generous friend, a citizen of strong prejudices [the modern word would be beliefs], and intense patriotism."

On the other hand, the old Rebel hadn't been a church goer and "made no pretension to religion whatsoever."

Even so, the newspaperman surely spoke for the whole community when he concluded: "He was our friend and we shall miss his cheering words and hearty handshake."
Note from the author:
The Tallest Rebel's name is often misspelled at "Thurston," but local historians assure us that his surname actually was Thruston.

Mount Vernon psychologist R.L. Flournoy has done a lot of research on Thruston. The delightful anecdotes about Thruston and the Confederate officer and Thruston's "it's raining" remark are from Dr. Flournoy's work.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 8, 2007 column


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