Monday, March 2, 2015

The Youngest Casualty: The Life of Charlie King

By Andy Lefko

Charles Edwin King, eldest son of Pennell and Adaline Bennett King was born in April of 1849. Charlie was the first of eight children born to the couple. Pennell and Adaline owned a tailoring shop and lived in the 100 block of Barnard St. Charlie grew up in a difficult period of our history. West Chester and its Quaker population was a hub on the underground railroad. Slave-catchers were looking for runaway slaves. William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas had made abolitionist speeches in the county. Charlie would have been about ten years old when the abolitionist John Brown made his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, VA in 1859. To an intelligent boy like Charlie, we can assume that he heard the conversations of his elders and probably realized how polarized the country was becoming.

After the fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861, men from West Chester went with their 3 month militia units to Harrisburg to train for the “short” war that would soon begin. Captain Sweney, a grocer from town, was the leader of Company G, of the 2nd PA Infantry Regiment and Charlie headed off with this group with as their Company drummer. However, when the regiment was ordered to the front, Pennell and Adaline ordered young Charlie home to the safety of West Chester. This did not sit well with Charlie and as the Village Record indicates, “He was so taken with going that his father would very frequently at nights, find him settin up in bed, Marking time on the head board of his bed.”

After the Union defeat at Bull Run, the 3 month enlistments were over and the 2nd Regiment came home and in September of 1861, Captain Sweney formed Company F of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. On September 12th, 1861, Charlie officially enlisted. The Kings, persuaded by Captain Sweney’s promise to protect Charlie and probably Charlie’s own persuasive powers, allowed him to join the regiment and go off to the front. Soon after becoming company drummer, Charlie was made Drum Major of the entire regiment.

After the winter of 1862, the Spring Campaign had begun and General McClellan’s army was on the outskirts of Richmond. The 49th PVI, was part of Hancock’s Brigade of the VI Army Corps. They had won praise at the Battle of Williamsburg, when they successfully defeated General Early’s brigade on a flanking maneuver around the confederate fortifications. However, those victories were short lived, and the confederate forces pushed Charlie King and the Army of the Potomac back to Harrison’s Landing and eventually off the peninsula. These were hard battles and hard marches. Charlie probably saw death and destruction that he could not have imagined.

In September of 1862, Charlie King was 13 years old and marching after the Confederate army which was attempting to invade Maryland. In Pennsylvania, Pennell had enlisted in the 2nd PA Emergency Militia of 1862 and was stationed on the Pennsylvania - Maryland border. Catching up with the confederates at Sharpsburg, MD the bloodiest day in American history began on September 17, 1862. By this time the glorious vision of a quick and easy war had been shattered, and the battle that would later be dubbed, “Artillery Hell” had begun early that morning in a farmer’s cornfield. However, Charlie King and the 49th PVI, were still miles away from the battlefield, but were on the march by 6 AM.

The following information was taken from Private B.F. Clarkson of Company C, who wrote the following account of the battle: Near the Pry House, they halted and could see and hear the battle on the far right of the Union Line. He noticed that playing cards were scattered along the roads, but there were never any bibles left there. General Hancock rode up to the 49th which was the lead regiment in the VI Corps and said, “Boys, do as you have done before, be brave and true, and this will be your last battle!” They then waded the Antietam Creek and double-quicked to the far right of the Union Line. As they ran they could see off to their left, the fighting happening around the Mumma Farm and wounded men limping. They heard the screams, the roar of cannons, the bursting of shells and the whizz of the minie balls. It was into this environment that fate had drawn young Charlie.

The brigade was formed around three batteries of cannon that were about to be taken by the enemy. The 49th were on the far right of the line protecting Cowan’s guns which lay just North of Miller’s Cornfield and the East Woods. The whole brigade was in an open field. So exposed was the brigade that Hancock was forced to pull the line back to a more protected area near the woods. As this was happening, the confederates were mounting an attack against the brigade, and confederate artillery was ranging in on the brigade from around the Dunker Church. At the appropriate moment the brigade opened a tremendous volley on the approaching enemy and stopped the advance. Simultaneously, the rebel artillery was picking up. Private Clarkson wrote, “I looked into the face of the comrade who stood at my right, and it looked pale as a ghost. Poor fellow I thought, you’re frightened. I wish you were away from here. A few moments later he was knocked to the earth with a grape-shot and taken to the hospital, just then Gus Heller had his feet shot off and a moment later, Charlie King was shot through the body and fell into a comrade’s arms.”

The 49th came onto the battle field around 11 AM, and held the same position the rest of the day. They sustained very few casualties, but Charlie was indeed one of them. Another account in Sgt. Westbrook’s History of the 49th PVI, recalls the events of Charlie's death: “Gus Heller lost a foot on the skirmish line and Charley King of Company F, was shot through the body and fell into the arms of H.H. Bowles of the 6th Maine Regiment.” He then states that Charlie died, September 20th at a temporary hospital nearby.

Eddie Bennett of the 51st PA, who had been wounded at the stone bridge wrote to his father, “I am sorry to hear of poor little Charley King, and will do all that lays in my power to find him, and if I do, I will send you word right away.”

From this point on, accounts vary. Some say, Pennell learned of the news of his son’s death and went right to the battlefield, claimed the body and brought it back to West Chester. And perhaps he is buried here in Greenmount or somewhere else nearby. Another account is that Pennell didn’t learn the news until he returned home after being discharged between September 23-25. Then he went to the battlefield but could not find where Charlie had been buried. The Jeffersonian, a local paper reported in October that when Pennell got to Sharpsburg, he found Charlie’s grave but didn’t bring him home. We know this much, he is not buried at Antietam National Cemetery, nor is he listed in any of the local cemeteries.

So today, we can say that wherever his earthly remains lie, he is home again in spirit, so that his heroic and patriotic service to his country can be remembered forever. His and his parent’s sacrifice was not in vain, people were freed from bondage and a country was preserved so that a democracy built on the will of the majority and the protection of the minority would be preserved. He is a hero in the truest sense of the word, as all of these men and women with flags beside their headstones are heroes, for eternity.

Photo: Monument dedicated to Charlie King, the youngest Union soldier killed in battle during the Civil War. The monument is located in Green Mount Cemetery in West Chester, PA. It was created as a result of an Eagle Scout project by Brendan Lyons and made possible through the generosity of the West Chester VFW and numerous other individuals and organizations.



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