In addition to being the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War (and of American history), the Battle of Antietam is known for having produced probably the youngest and oldest casualties of that war.
The horrors of that day began early in the morning, at five thirty o'clock when Confederate artillery opened up on Union infantry formations dimly seen in the vicinity of the D. R. Miller farmstead on the Hagerstown Turnpike. When that day ended with the setting of the sun, the peaceful farm fields around the tiny Washington County, Maryland, village of Sharpsburg were transformed from being ready for a harvest of agricultural crops to fields ready for a harvest of the dead, the dying and the wounded.
The honor of being the youngest casualty on the Union side of the horrific battle (and indeed of the entire war) falls to Charles E. King, a drummer boy with Company F, Forty-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's brigade, Sixth US Army Corps. Charley King was only twelve years, five months and nine days of age when he enlisted. A picture of him taken at the time of his enlistment can be found in Wm. Frassanito's book "Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day". The captain of Company F, Benjamin H. Sweeney had persuaded the boy's father drummer boys were generally safer behind the lines than on the battle line and helped with the wounded. Capt. Sweeney convinced the boy's father that he, Sweeney, would keep Charley out of danger and look after him. Charley did very well as a drummer boy with the company, impressing the men of the company so much so with his drumming he was promoted drum major of the Forty-ninth. It was quite an honor for such a young lad. After participating with the regiment in the Peninsula Campaign, Charley could rightly consider himself a veteran. Hardly anyone his age could claim that distinction; surely, it must have given him great pride.
With the movement of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, Charley and his pards---along with so many others in the Federal Army, both recently-raised units and tried veterans moved out from Washington City under the command of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to find the enemy and bring him to battle. The Forty-ninth Pennsylvania, as part of the VI Army Corps commanded by Maj. General Fitz-John Porter, would have its part to perform in the bloody and savage Battle of Antietam.
As one of the component regiments in the Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, "the Superb", the regiment moved into position near the East Woods between the hours of noon and one o'clock p.m. Charley and his pards found themselves supporting the First Battery, New York Light Artillery, under the command of Capt. Andrew Cowan. Even though the fighting in the northern sector of the field had largely died out, Confederate artillery still made their presence known. Scattered artillery salvos from Confederate positions pounded not only the artillery battery but also the Forty-ninth Pennsylvania.
One of those artillery salvos exploded either over or in the midst of the Forty-ninth Pennsylvania, wounding several. Among those wounded was poor Charley King, shot "through the body" by a piece of shrapnel. His pards tenderly, gently (and, I am sure, weepingly) carried him back to a field hospital. Three agonizing days later, on September 20, 1862, Charley King died. He became an obscure statistic among all the other deaths of that day, but his passing also carried with it an important distinction: that of the youngest soldier of either side to fall during the four long years of our national nightmare.
Following the death of Charley King, it is sure Capt. Sweeney had the tremendously difficult task of writing to the boy's parents to break to them the incredibly sad news—in spite of his promise and all his efforts, their beloved boy lay down his life on the sacrificial altar.
Rest in peace, Charley; the re-united United States of America salutes you and remembers you proudly for your devotion to duty and your service. You did not die in vain.