Recruiting Exams and Disqualifications for Military Service
Originally published in Fall 2002 in the Surgeon’s Call
Two 1863 manuals, A Manual of Instructions for Enlisting and Discharging Soldiers by Roberts Bartholow and Manual of Instructions for Military Surgeons on the Examination of Recruits and Discharge of Soldiers by John Ordronaux, were written to provide guidelines for Union surgeons in their examination of recruits. Both borrowed heavily from European army medical department guidelines, mainly from France and Prussia. The U.S. Army Medical Department understood the importance of keeping unfit and unhealthy men out of the army, but the ultimate decision belonged to the examining surgeons.
Bartholow stated: “The examining surgeon of a recruit for the regular army certifies on honor that he has carefully examined the recruit agreeably to the general regulations of the army, and that it is his opinion that the recruit is free from all bodily defects or mental infirmity which would in any way disqualify him for the performance of military duty. The principal object of the surgeon…is not to select what is in every way good, but to reject what is absolutely unfit.” The surgeons were instructed to first ascertain that the candidate is within the prescribed age range, then order him to strip naked for the examination. An observation of general anatomical features, conformation, and range of motion was followed by specific inspections of each part of the body. The head, ears, eyes, teeth, neck, chest, abdomen, arms, legs, hands and feet were checked in detail, and height and weight were noted.
General physical characteristics that disqualified men for military duty covered a broad range of attributes. Most important to the enlisting surgeon was a catchall category called feebleness of constitution. Men who were deemed too small, too sickly, or who had a sunken or narrow chest were automatically considered unfit. The Union Army’s minimum height requirement was 5 feet, 3 inches tall. There was no maximum height restriction, but Bartholow suggested that any potential recruit over 6 feet, 3 inches be examined carefully for soundness of constitution, since he believed “very tall men are more or less deficient in energy, and incapable of enduring fatigue.” He also added that since they needed more food they were more likely to suffer during periods of short supply.
Extreme youth or old age and insufficient or excessive weight were also used to turn away potential recruits. Army regulations set the minimum age at 18 and the maximum at 35, raised to 45 by the enrolment act of 1863. Two exceptions were that younger boys could sign up as musicians and men who were re-enlisting could be over the maximum age. Minimum weight restrictions were directly related to stature, with 115 to 120 pounds being the minimum for a man standing 5 feet, 3 inches, up to a minimum 195 pounds for a man standing 6 feet 7 inches. At the other extreme, obesity was considered grounds for rejection, but a predisposition to obesity was not, under the assumption that military life would “interfere with its further development.” Bartholow also noted that American men tended to be tall and lean, stating “the preponderance of height of American soldiers is counterbalanced by deficiencies of weight. It is said that our national habit of tobacco-chewing is a potent cause of the national leanness.”
Specific diseases and deformities were also used to reduce the pool of potential soldiers. The complete list cannot be included here, but some of the disqualifying conditions were: scrofula (tuberculosis of the cervical lymph nodes); secondary syphilis; advanced scurvy; tuberculosis; cancer; chronic and extensive skin diseases; moles or warts of large size which are in a region exposed to pressure while marching; chronic lead poisoning; extreme baldness; epilepsy; astigmatism; extreme myopia; night blindness; cleft palate; chronic bronchitis; chronic pneumonia; spina bifida; inequality of limbs; amputation or excision; gout; severe varicose veins; club foot; rickets, and extreme loss of teeth.
Numerous diseases and conditions were not considered absolute grounds for disqualification of a recruit. In many instances, the severity of the infirmity was of greatest significance in determining fitness for duty. Some of these conditions included: primary syphilis; acute abscesses; delirium tremens (unless there is no hope of reforming the individual); tape worm; arthritis (unless in the shoulder or hip); asthma; loss of fingers or toes except for either a thumb, great toe, index finger on the right hand, or any two fingers or toes; flat feet; varicocele (cystic enlargement of the veins of the spermatic cord); anal fistula; external hemorrhoids; and habitual drunkenness, unless it was accompanied by serious systemic complications.
Mental infirmities such as imbecility of mind, dementia, and various forms of mania were considered reasons for keeping men out of military service. Nostalgia, the often fatal disease characterized by the severe longing to return home or to another time in one’s life, was considered a reason for discharge but, oddly enough, not a reason to disqualify a recruit.
“Moral infirmities” were also grounds for disqualification. Men convicted of a felony, men branded as a deserter from any country’s army, and incurable malingerers were rejected as soldiers. However, none of these situations were considered an exemption from the draft.
As specific as the instructions for the recruiting examinations were, they were not always followed by all surgeons. Occasionally the exam was very superficial, allowing recruits to enter the army with chronic diseases and physical defects that would affect their performance as a soldier and affect other soldiers with whom they came in contact. Numerous women entered the army disguised as men, further emphasizing the point that not all examinations were very thorough. Lax practices in the examination of recruits contributed to the fact that two-thirds of the deaths during the Civil War were caused by disease rather than battle wounds.
A Manual of Instructions for Enlisting and Discharging Soldiers; Roberts Bartholow, 1863; reprinted 1991, Norman Publishing Co., San Francisco
Hints on the Preservation of Health in Armies and Manual of Instructions for Military Surgeons on the Examination of Recruits and Discharge of Soldiers; John Ordronaux, 1863; reprinted 1990, Norman Publishing Co., San Francisco
About the Author
Terry Reimer is presently the Director of Research the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. Previous work includes over twenty years of experience in historical archaeology and research, specializing in 17th, 18th and 19th century American sites. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Maryland and did graduate work in anthropology and folklore studies at George Washington University. She is the author of two books, One Vast Hospital: the Civil War Hospital Sites in Frederick, Maryland after Antietam and Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion: The National Museum of Civil War Medicine, and the co-author of two other books, Bad Doctors: Military Justice Proceedings Against 622 Civil War Surgeons and Caleb Dorsey Baer: Frederick, Maryland’s Confederate Surgeon.