Galusha Pennypacker: The Civil War's Youngest General
Though Pennypacker was a fierce soldier, the atrocities of war never escaped the young leader's mind.
Modest combat heroes are cliché for a reason. Many don’t enjoy thinking of the events others want to praise. Galusha Pennypacker was one of these.
Wounded seven times during the Civil War, the Chester County boy rose to brigadier general at the age of 21 and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. But what he couldn’t escape was the moment when—after being wounded at Fort Fisher in 1865—his men murdered the Confederate who’d shot him. “The horror of it has never gone out of my mind to this day,” Pennypacker said in 1911.
Born in Valley Forge, Pennypacker was an only child raised by his grandmother. The grandson of a Mennonite bishop, he was described at the end of his life as a Quaker, and his funeral at the Philadelphia National Cemetery was performed “with the simple services of the Society of Friends.” Pennypacker’s mother died when he was 3. His father, Joseph, served in the Mexican War, then went to California in the Gold Rush and never came back.
In early 1861, the boy was working as a printer’s assistant for the Chester County Times newspaper in West Chester and considering his options. Apparently, Pennypacker had some writing talent, because his editor put him in charge of a column for young people. Meanwhile, he’d been offered an appointment to West Point and was considering an opportunity to study law. But events intervened.
On April 13, Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate forces. On April 15, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Pennypacker had previously joined the Chester County militia, which then answered Lincoln’s call in a body. By April 20, the Chester County men were in an army camp at Harrisburg, where they were designated Company A of the 9th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers.
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By most accounts, Pennypacker was 16 at the time. If so, he would’ve been only 19 when he was made a general—the youngest of the war. Civil War historian William Marvel thinks he was older—probably 19. “An 1893 register of volunteer officers hails Gen. Pennypacker as one of the youngest generals of the war, ‘if not the youngest,’” Marvel wrote. “By giving progressively later dates of birth, he may have been trying to secure that distinction for himself.”
Or he may have simply made an error. In an era when people didn’t carry government ID, it was possible to forget such things. In any case, Pennypacker was quite young.
At Harrisburg, Pennypacker turned down the post of first lieutenant, which would’ve made him one of the company’s senior officers. He believed he was too young for the responsibility. Instead, he agreed to be the regimental quartermaster, responsible for keeping the unit supplied with all its material needs. It was a major task, and Pennypacker excelled at it. According to a 1909 article in the Delaware County Republican, he “brought to the discharge of the duties such admirable administrative ability and attention as elicited approbation from the entire command.”
The 9th was a three-month regiment that served in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, primarily to suppress secessionist activities. The regiment was disbanded in July 1861. Pennypacker then came home to help recruit a new regiment—the 97th, which served for the duration.
Appointed captain (top officer) of Company A in August, Pennypacker was promoted to major (third in command of the regiment) that fall. In April 1864—at age 19 or 21, take your pick—Pennypacker was bumped up to lieutenant colonel, replacing
an officer felled by disease. Two months later, he would be promoted again, to full colonel, in charge of the entire regiment.
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The 97th Pennsylvania served on the Southeast coast. It participated in the assault on Fort Wagner, the battle known best for the leading role of the all-black 54th Massachusetts. It helped capture Fort Clinch in Florida and besieged Charleston, S.C.
In May 1864, at Bermuda Hundred near Richmond, the 97th somehow held its position when attacked out of a fog by 10,000 Confederates. Other regiments broke and ran. Later that day, higher-ups who before the attack had ignored reports that enemy troops were gathering, ordered the 97th to retake the lost ground. Pennypacker led from the front.
“The charge of the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers was the admiration of all who witnessed it, being in full view of both lines on an open plain, and made with a steadiness and daring seldom, if ever, equaled,” wrote regimental historian Isaiah Price, who compared it to the suicidal 1854 “Charge of the Light Brigade.” “[It was] a brilliant movement, led bravely and gallantly by Lt. Col. Pennypacker.”
The counterattack failed, and Penny-packer—whose horse was killed beneath him—suffered severe wounds in the right arm, left leg and right side. He was hospitalized for three months. Total casualties were 188, including 50 killed.
According to Price, senior officers tried to blame Pennypacker for the disaster to conceal their own dereliction. A report based on anonymous sources and published in the New York Tribune claimed that he hadn’t obeyed orders properly. Outraged, the 97th rallied around Pennypacker with a rebuttal mailed to the paper stating that he’d followed orders precisely.
Pennypacker’s most serious wound came in January 1865, when he led the assault on Fort Fisher, which—stuffed with cannons and 2,400 rebels—guarded the harbor at Wilmington, N.C. A fleet of 56 Union ships pounded the structure for two and a half days. Built of sand, it soaked up the artillery with little damage.
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On Jan. 15 at 3 p.m., the Union forces landed four brigades totalling 8,000 troops. The Second Brigade—which included the 97th, plus two other Pennsylvania regiments and two from New York—was commanded by Pennypacker.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, watching from a ship, described the battle in a letter to Lincoln: “The conflict lasted for seven hours. The works were so constructed that every traverse afforded the enemy a new defensive position from which they had to be driven.”
Pennypacker’s brigade was in the second wave, but caught up and merged with the first. When the 97th’s color bearer went down, Pennypacker personally picked up the banner and carried it onto the rebel parapet, where he planted it in the sand. Years later, New York World reporter Philip R. Dillon challenged him. “You carried the standard?” he asked. “You? The commander of the brigade?”
The then-elderly Pennypacker was impatient with the question: “I was a boy,” he told Dillon. “Boys do those things.”
According to Price, the flag was pierced by 107 bullets and a canister shot, its staff shot in half. Pennypacker went down immediately after planting the colors, felled by a minié ball that passed through his right hip, close to the spinal cord. The wound took him out of action for the rest of the war. For this service, he was made brigadier general. The Congressional Medal of Honor came later.
During Reconstruction, Pennypacker commanded the 16th U.S. Infantry at Nashville. But he didn’t seem to have relished the task. The regiment was called out only three times—once to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and twice to prevent violence in political disputes at Little Rock and New Orleans. Historian Michael Newton notes that the KKK was mostly unrestrained during this time. Worse, he wrote, “Pennypacker warned indicted Klansmen in time for them to ﬂee the state.”
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Perhaps he was tired of fighting. The wound received at Ft. Fisher never fully healed. After the Nashville assignment, he saw duty in Indian country, then retired on disability. He traveled in Europe with his physician as a companion.
Urged in 1872 to run for governor, Pennypacker said he had no taste for politics. Instead, he settled down in a house on South 10th Street in Philadelphia. His retirement became increasingly obscure as the years passed.
Then, on the 50th anniversary of the war, Dillon asked if he had seen the man who shot him at Fort Fisher. “He seemed electrified for a moment,” he wrote.
“I did see him—a big North Carolinian,” Pennypacker recalled. “I saw the man taking aim at me. He was about 20 feet away. I fell forward at the feet of the men who had fired. I kept my mind clear. I could see and hear, but could not move. I still could see the man who had shot me.”
The Confederates surrendered after the volley that felled Pennypacker. As they stood with their hands up, a Union soldier demanded the North Carolinian’s blanket so they could carry Pennypacker away in it.
“The Confederate, a savage fellow, growled fiercely, ‘I won’t give up my blanket. I’m a prisoner and entitled to my blanket.’ The next instant, my men, with clubbed muskets, dashed out his brains. He died instantly,” remembered Pennypacker. “For the blood of my men was up, and they were as savage as the North Carolinian. I closed my eyes, and they carried me away in that blanket. But the horror of it has never gone out of my mind to this day.”
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