"All the rising generation is ruined by the heresy of secession" ~ Worthington G. Snethen
Recently, I have been spending time transcribing a handful of soldiers’ letters from the Maryland Campaign. While each one is truly fascinating, and offers a distinct view of the events and actions of that September, one in particular jumped out to me, as it makes mention of a truly tragic episode, among the many, at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
On September 9, 1861, Charles E. “Charley” King, of West Chester, PA, enlisted as a musician with Company F of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Even though the Muster Roll [see image below] of Charley’s company lists him as being 18 years of age, Charley was in fact only 12 years old. On the Roll, he was noted as having brown hair, hazel eyes, light complexion, and an occupation of “school boy”. Undoubtedly, this “school boy” was swept up with patriotic duty, and a sense of adventure, not to mention the $12 a month he would receive, before drumming his company off to war.
|Pennsylvania State Archives|
A little over a year later, at the Battle of Antietam, the 49th Pennsylvania was attached to General Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade, of the Union Army’s 6th Corps. Arriving in the vicinity of the East Woods, in the northern end of the battlefield, Hancock was tasked with securing the Union position after a 2nd Corps division, under Gen. John Sedgwick, had been flanked in the West Woods by a surprise rebel counterattack, several hundred yards to Hancock’s front. With Sedgwick’s force shattered and swept from the field, the Confederates continued their push forward. Hancock ordered his regiments to dash forward in order to break the oncoming enemy force, in order to stop them from over running a lone Union artillery battery, and completely devaste the Union right flank.
|National Park Service - Antietam National Battlefield|
Corporal John Woods, a 21 year old in Company G, writing home to Spring Mills on September 22nd, remembered of the moment:
“We saw the two long lines of battle [on the left] in an open field about 200 or 300 yds apart fighting as hard as a battle can be fought and at the same time the artillery on both sides playing on each other just as fast as the artillerymen could handle themselves. It would have been a beautiful sight if there had been no one killed or wounded. We got to our position just in time – it was on a little hill and the rebels and us were doing their utmost to get the position first but we beet[sic] them by a few hundred yards. Our Batteries were scarcely on the hill till they opened on the rebs and kept them back and such a shelling for a few hours I never heard.”
49th Pennsylvania historian, Sgt. Robert Westbrook, of Company B, noted the desperate pace of the events:
“We were double-quicked in, and in line of battle Colonel Irwin’s orders were, ‘Steady, right dress;’ our lines are good; battery in our rear on a full gallop; we are afraid the rebels will get the position; we move a little to right oblique to make an opening for our battery; up [they] come to the crest and go into position; we support them; the position is ours; now the fighting is very sever on our immediate left; Company C is deployed as skirmishers; General Hancock is ordered to take command of General Richardson’s division, Richardson having been badly wounded today, and he leaves us at once; we kissed the ground to escape the flying missiles; now Colonel Irwin is taken away from us to take command of a brigade, and this leaves Major Tom Huling in command of our regiment; these changes were made in about five minutes, as there was no time to be lost...”
Of the ferocious artillery fire, Cpl. Woods stated that the men, “…had to lay flat on the ground and the rebel shell burst all around us. Two pieces dropped within two feet of my head and one ball struck the ground a few feet in front and bounded over us and struck a tree back of us. I felt the wind of it on my foot that had no shoe on." [suffering from a swollen foot, and unable to wear his boot, Woods had made the march from Washington shoeless]
It was at this point that Woods makes the simple, but tragic observation that, “…four of our Regt. Wounded and two I think have died since. One little drummer boy of Co. F[Charley King] was shot through the lungs”. Sgt. Westbrook added that King, “…fell into the arms of H. H. Bowles, of the Sixth Maine regiment;” a neighboring unit in Hancock’s brigade.
The 49th Pennsylvania would remain in this location for the rest of the day, and all of the next. When they finally moved forward in order to probe the Confederate lines, and determine their whereabouts, both Woods and Westbrook were startled by the carnage of what was the single bloodiest day in American History. “We passed over the battlefield the next day and oh! such a sight. I never saw anything like it before or never want to again. The fields were just covered with the dead and all the way to the river bodies were strewn along the road,” wrote Woods. “It was a horrible sight in the road – the dead rebels piled on top of one another, and there was no room to walk. We took the field to the right, and came on the pike above Sharpsburg,” remembered Westbrook.
After his terrible wounding, Charley King was immediately taken to a hospital in the rear of the lines, where he lingered for three more days before dying on September 20, at the age of 13. It is not fully clear whether his body was buried on the battlefield, where it still might remain, or whether his father was able to return his son to his native Chester County. King is widely believed to be the youngest soldier killed during the entire American Civil War.
|History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers|
Civil War Muster Roll, 49th Regiment, Records Group (RG) 19, Series# 19.11, Carton 24 & 25, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA.
John Woods, to Mother, 22 September 1862, Woods Family Collection, Manuscript Group (MG) 188, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA.
Marion V. Armstrong Jr., Unfurl Those Colors!: McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2008), 260-261.
Robert Westbrook, History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Altoona, PA: Altoona
Times Print, 1898), 125.
“Worthington G. Snethen to Winfield Scott, June 29, 1861[transcription],” accessed 29
June 2011; available from http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/37295; Internet.