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

In 1861, a boy really, really wanted to follow the troops

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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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