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The Boy Brigadier
Trivia buffs beware: Galusha Pennypacker’s claim to being the Civil War’s youngest general doesn’t hold up

The Civil War was the last American conflict in which very young soldiers regularly rose to high rank. Many a youth of 16 or younger managed to enlist, in the absence of public birth records, and political influence secured commissions for a few before they reached the legal military age of 18. Those who survived three or four years of battlefield attrition often rose to the command of companies, and occasionally regiments, before they were even old enough to vote.

Favored young officers, especially those serving on the staffs of division, corps or army commanders, sometimes enjoyed meteoric promotions to brigadier general from captain, or even from first lieutenant. Eight Union soldiers and seven Confederates wore generals’ stars before they reached the age of 25.

Gen. Galusha Pennypacker. Courtesy of USAMHI.Galusha Pennypacker achieved a measure of fame for claiming to be the youngest general of all. He was allegedly only 16 when he enlisted in the 9th Pennsylvania Infantry immediately after Fort Sumter fell, yet he became the quartermaster sergeant. His regiment spent a 90-day campaign with Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson’s army on the upper Potomac, and when he went home Pennypacker helped raise a company for the 97th Pennsylvania. He was commissioned captain of that company but quickly rose to major, and over the next three years frequently commanded the regiment. By the autumn of 1864, he had been promoted to full colonel, and with that rank he led a brigade in the last assault on Fort Fisher, N.C., on January 16, 1865, where he was severely wounded.

For his valor at Fort Fisher, Pennypacker was commissioned a brigadier general on April 28, 1865, to date from February 18, when he was still ostensibly 20 years old. That would have made him the youngest general of the entire war. But those calculations are based on a birth date of June 1, 1844, which Pennypacker only began citing in later life—a date that is almost certainly incorrect. Most of the other official documents that indicate his age suggest he was born between 1840 and 1843.

The boy originally known as Uriah Galusha Pennypacker was first listed on the U.S. Census in Schuylkill Township, Pa., on August 29, 1850, as a 9-year-old boy who had presumably been born in 1840 or 1841. He again appeared on the census—though without his Dickensian first name—on June 26, 1870, when he was serving with Federal occupation forces in Mississippi. In this case he was listed as being 27, which would mean that he had been born in 1842 or 1843.

On April 14, 1883, when Pennypacker disembarked from the steamer Indiana at Philadelphia on his return from Liverpool, England, he told authorities he was 39 years old, implying a birthday in 1843 or early in 1844. In 1900 the cen­sus marshal requested a month and year for each person’s birth, and Pennypacker finally settled on June 1844.

Pennypacker’s gravestone in the Philadelphia National Cemetery is engraved with the dates 1844-1916. His burial card in the cemetery register, however, instead puts his birth in 1841, which matches his reported age on the 1850 census.

It might seem as improbable that anyone would have mistaken a 6-year-old for a 9-year-old in 1850 as it does that a boy just turned 17 could have successfully commanded a regiment in 1861. But in an era before birth certificates—and before people routinely had to supply a full date of birth, as we do now—it wasn’t unusual to forget precisely how old one was. For years after the war ended, most Americans who could provide any documentation at all of their nativity had only a family Bible with a birth date penned inside it, which might be handed down to other relatives or lost altogether. It could be difficult to forget the month and day of one’s birth, but in late middle age it grew easier to add or subtract a year. Albert Woolson, currently considered to be the last Civil War veteran to die, inadvertently pad­ded his age by a year late in life, and serious doubts attend the purported birth dates of others, in­cluding Phil Sheridan.

An 1893 register of volunteer officers hails General Pennypacker as one of the youngest generals of the war, “if not the youngest.” By giving progressively later dates of birth, he may have been trying to secure that distinction for himself, but the conflicting information could also have arisen from uncertainty. If he was between one and three years older than he finally claimed, which seems to have been the case, that would more satisfactorily explain Pennypacker’s assignment to some very responsible positions early in the war. It would also mean that another man was actually the war’s youngest general.

Former Lincoln Prize finalist William Marvel’s latest book is Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln’s War, forthcoming this fall from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.