Book Review: Charley: The True Story of the Youngest Soldier to Die in the American Civil War

Charley: The True Story of the Youngest Soldier to Die in the American Civil War. By Brendan J. Lyons. Havertown, PA: Brookline Books, 2023. Softcover, 160 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by Kevin Pawlak

Of the more than 23,000 casualties suffered during the Battle of Antietam, none were younger than 13-year-old Charley King. This boy’s death epitomizes the greater tragedy of the American Civil War. He was the youngest person killed in combat during the four years of the conflict.

Beyond contemporary newspaper articles and postwar regimental histories, King’s story first came to the masses in a brief vignette of William Frassanito’s 1978 book, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day.

Since then, first-time author Brendan J. Lyons has worked tirelessly to ensure King’s story is not forgotten. As an Eagle Scout, Lyons raised funds and a monument to King in a local cemetery in King’s hometown. More recently, Lyons has written the first book dedicated to Charley’s military life.

Lyons begins King’s story in the earliest days of the Civil War in April 1861. He traces King’s martial spirit early in the war and the debate with his parents about joining the Union army, something his parents refused to allow but ultimately relented when Capt. Benjamin Sweeney vowed to protect their son.

Charley: The True Story of the Youngest Soldier to Die in the American Civil War traces the boy’s role and that of the 49th Pennsylvania throughout the early part of the war, from its camps outside of Washington, DC, to its service on the Virginia Peninsula and outside of Richmond in the summer of 1862. The book ends with King’s untimely death on September 20, 1862, from wounds suffered at Antietam.

Throughout the book, Lyons uses the historical record to plug as many gaps in King’s biography as possible, though the author admits that the parts of the story that are “not known, is from my heart and my desire to honor the life of Charley King, as well as the lives of the other valiant dead” (vi). The book is well written and does justice to King’s life, but the lack of any notes makes it difficult–sometimes impossible–to discern what is fact and what is a figment of the author’s creation.

Nonetheless, Lyons’ book will bring to light one of the Civil War’s most tragic stories to young readers–its intended audience–and seasoned Civil War readers. Through his work, Lyons has done more than anyone else today to keep Charley’s memory alive.

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