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WC History: The youngest soldier to die in battle

Charley King at 12 years oldMay 20, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone

West Chester PA - Charles Edwin King, known as Charley or Charlie, was barely 12-and-a-half years old when he joined the Union Army on September 12, 1861, as a drummer boy. He was born April 4, 1849 and was the oldest son of Pennell and Adaline King who had a home in the 100 block of West Barnard Street. 

His father had severe reservations about his son joining, but commanding officer Capt. Benjamin Sweeney of Company F, 49th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, promised that he'd do everything possible to keep the boy out of harms way. This usually meant staying far away from the battle lines. But a battleground is a dangerous place, and there can be no promises.

Charley first saw action at the Battle of Williamsburg, where a short-lived Union victory turned into a Union initiative called the Peninsula Campaign that was thwarted by Robert E. Lee's forces pushing the Union armies off the Virginia Peninsula. As the Union Armies retreated under fire, Charley would have gotten his first full taste of the carnage of war.

The Union regiment then prepared for the next battle, and Charley King was promoted to Drum Major and made a full Union soldier; he was, at age 13, a veteran of war.

In September, 1862, Charley's regiment marched with the rest of the Union forces toward Western Maryland where the Battle of Antietam took place on September 17. It would be known as the bloodiest day of the Civil War. The 49th Regiment, however, took relatively few casualties. But in the afternoon, a confederate shell exploded at the rear line. Several men were wounded, including Charley, who was shot "through the body" by shrapnel.

His father, Pennell, serving elsewhere with Union forces, was called to the field hospital where Charley lay dying. But he could not make it before Charley, after three days of agony, died on September 20, 1862. He was the youngest soldier to die on either side during the Civil War at just 13 years of age.

What happened to Charley's body remains unknown. West Chester lore has it that Pennell brought Charley's body back to the family home on Barnard Street for a quiet burial there, hidden because such action is not allowed in the Borough. Some think that he's buried at Antietum, but no record exists of that. Still others think that he's resting at the Old Cheyney Cemetery, but that cannot be confirmed.

Charley King memorialCharley's parents, Pennell and Adeline King, are buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Westtown. And while Charley appears not to be there in body, his spirit is certainly present. A monument has been placed not far from his parents gravesite in recognition of his service to the Union.

Other articles about Charley King:

  • See WC History, an index of local historical articles



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