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Main Line History: Charley King's Civil War Drum Career

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Music has its charms, but also its dangers. In the case of a Civil War drummer boy from West Chester, music got him killed.

Charley King was 12 years old when the war broke out in 1861. Naturally, he wanted to go. He could beat a drum and, in the early days after Fort Sumter, the war was all about flags, parades and bands.

Naturally, Charley’s parents said no. But the captain of a Chester County company—a man raised with a love of music—promised the Kings he would keep their son safe.

Less than a year later, after surviving eight battles on the Virginia Peninsula with the 49th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, Charley King was killed at Antietam. He was shot as his unit sat waiting for orders.

“We should be glad, if we were able, to write his epitaph,” reported the Jeffersonian newspaper. “He was a remarkable boy, and truly may it be said of him that he was not as other boys. Very young, quite small, yet manly. Kind, affectionate, quiet, trusting, yet proud and ambitious—and a superior musician.”

Born in 1849, Charley was the eldest of eight children born to Pennell King, a tailor, and his wife, Adeline Bennett. His life was brief and, for public purposes, began April 14, 1861, when news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter reached West Chester. “[It] aroused the people of the county to a most remarkable degree,” wrote historian W.W. Thomson. “Before night of the next day, measures were taken to raise troops.”

On Tuesday, in a meeting at West Chester’s Horticultural Hall, members of what became the 9th Regiment enlisted for three months. James Givin was elected captain; Benjamin H. Sweney, first lieutenant. The unit left for Harrisburg on April 23, with Charley in tow.

It was an exciting time. In May, the Camp Wayne training center would be established at Church Street and Rosedale Avenue. Just blocks from the King home at Barnard and High streets, it was a scene of near-constant drilling. Posters and newspaper ads proclaimed, “Recruits Wanted,” “Rally to the Flag” and “Riflemen, Rally! Defend Your Country & Flag.”

During that spring and summer, the county contributed companies to five different regiments. Troops arrived and departed with great fanfare. “The Sumner Rifles,” reported the Village Record newspaper, “paraded through our streets, keeping time to the music of a violin. They were much admired, and crowds followed them, cheering lustily. They are great favorites with the ladies.”

It was an excellent show that undoubtedly thrilled many 12-year-old boys. But Charley didn’t wait around. According to the Village Record, he marched off with Givin, Sweney and the 90-day men in April. But only as far as Harrisburg. “Being so young,” reported the newspaper, “his parents would not permit him to accompany them further.”

Apparently, this did not please Charley who, according to the Record, “was so taken with going that his father would very frequently at nights find him setting up in bed ‘marking time’ on the headboard.”

The 9th spent its time mostly waiting for orders. Its men were discharged in July, by which time Washington figured out that an army would be needed for several years. Sweney reenlisted on July 27 and immediately began the work of organizing what became Company F of the 49th Regiment in September.

Again, Charley followed. And, again, he was supposed to come home after the soldiers reached Harrisburg. Following the regiment to the front, said his parents, was too far and too dangerous for a boy of just 12. But this time, Sweney intervened because, according to the Record, Charley “insisted so strongly on following the men to the battlefield.”
 

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Benjamin Sweney came from a family known for its love of music. A brother, John, taught music in the public schools, led Sunday school performances and, during the Civil War, headed up the band of the 3rd Delaware. Later, he was a professor of music at the Pennsylvania Military Academy in West Chester and composed more than 1,000 gospel hymns. Among his works were Goodly Pearls and Songs of Love and Praise.

Sweney was known for his voice and his ability to play a variety of instruments. In the 1850s, he lived in Illinois where, according to his obituary, “he was brought into prominence through his musical abilities, playing the fife on various occasions and also singing.”

One of those occasions was the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates for the U.S. Senate. His obituary notes that “the music before and between the speeches was supplied largely by Mr. Sweney, who occupied a chair on the platform and did his full share in the way of entertaining the crowd, afterwards dining with the speakers.”

Having seen how music can move a crowd, and having undoubtedly witnessed the usefulness of a military band, Sweney opted to keep Charley King around. And while a 12-year-old in the army was not the norm, neither was it terribly unusual. Some historians believe that as many as 420,000 Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18. Because they didn’t carry weapons, the youngest were often found carrying drums.

Drumming was a consequential job. A drummer established communications and kept order among the units in the field. He used one of many drum calls to assemble troops, gather officers for strategy meetings and sound retreat while under fire. He was required to remain near a high-ranking officer to relay orders. Drummers were often awakened at night. They were also expected to act as runners between outposts, carry stretchers and do whatever was necessary to help the unit.

Permitting young boys to go to war—and giving them such responsibilities—may seem bizarre. But the mid-19th century was an era in which children routinely worked from dawn to dusk on family farms and in factories. The conditions under which many worked eventually led, not only to the banning of child labor, but to the invention of “childhood” as a time for innocence and play.

In any case, Charley apparently did his job well. In December, when the 49th was camped about 10 miles from Washington, the Record reported that he had been promoted from drummer to drum major. That put him in charge of the band and its discipline. “Another good trait of his, which might be an example for older ones, is that whenever he draws his pay, the money is sent home, where it is deposited for him,” remarked the Record.

The 49th remained near Washington until March 1862, when it was ordered to Newport News, Va., to take part in what came to be called the Peninsula Campaign. Richmond was about 70 miles up the Virginia Peninsula, and the Union high command’s plan was to push north until it got there. Union troops outnumbered Confederate almost two to one (120,000 to roughly 70,000), but the campaign was still a failure.

Even so, there was a lot of fighting before Union Gen. McClellan gave up. At Williamsburg, the 49th charged a Confederate brigade and took almost 300 prisoners. McClellan told the regiment’s commander, William Irwin, “Colonel, I thank you for the magnificent conduct of your regiment; no men could have done better.”

Having beaten McClellan on the Peninsula, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee opted next for an invasion of Maryland. McClellan’s army—including the 49th—gave chase and eventually found itself facing Lee’s troops across Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md. The Sept. 17 Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, with 22,717 dead, wounded and missing.

The 49th was assigned as a support unit, and was stationed only a few hundred yards from the Cornfield, scene of some of the heaviest and deadliest fighting of the war. “Early in the afternoon, (Brigade commander) Gen. Hancock came back to see just how he had left us in regard to our position,” wrote Sgt. Robert S. Westbrook. “He ordered us to fall back 20 paces out of range, which was done just in the nick of time, for the rebels ran some batteries out and opened fire on us.”

It was a minor skirmish that nevertheless claimed lives.

“Gus Heller of Co. C lost a foot on the skirmish line, and Charley King of Co. F was shot through the body and fell in the arms of H.H. Bowles of the 6th Maine Regiment,” Westbrook wrote.

Charley died Sept. 20. Two weeks later, in West Chester, the Jeffersonian reported his death: “The ball, we understand, passed through his lungs, and he survived but a day or two. When his father, Pennell King, went on to take care of him, as he supposed, he found the grave only, in which his sons remains were deposited.”

No record of Charley’s grave exists at the Antietam National Cemetery. Sweney was buried at West Chester’s Greenmount Cemetery near Charley’s parents, after a music-filled funeral that included hymns written by his brother.

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