Wednesday, August 1, 2007


I was asked the trivia question--Who was the youngest general in U.S. military history? Most people I've talked to thought it was Gen. George A. Custer, who was appointed a Civil War general at age 23, under General Phil Sheridan. (Actually Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman, served as a major general on George Washington's staff in 1777, when he was 20, but he wasn't an American.)

General Custer's claim to fame, or was it notoriety, at least during his lifetime, was that he was the "goat" of his class at West Point, in which the bottom man in each year's class is singled out for acclaim or notoriety. Another well known "goat" at West Point was George Pickett, who led the Confederate Army in the ill-conceived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, which proved to be the turning point in the Civil War. Perhaps Generals Custer and Pickett should have devoted more time to their studies and less to carousing. But I digress.

The youngest general in U.S. military history was the Civil War hero with the improbable name, Galusha Pennypacker. I'm not making that up. But there's a story behind him.

Pennypacker was born at Valley Forge, PA, the son of a Mexican War veteran and grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, at the age of 17, as a captain in the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was promoted two months later to major. He had helped recruit many of the men in the company. During 1862 and 1863, he and his regiment participated in many combat operations in the Southeast such as the siege of Charleston and the capture of Fort Pulaski, Georgia. Pennypacker's regiment was transferred to Virginia to become part of the Army of the James in 1864, and he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and shortly thereafter, to full Colonel.

In May, 1864, he led his regiment in an assault upon the enemy's lines at Green Plains, Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, and received 3 severe wounds, while losing 175 men out of the 295 men taken into the charge. He returned to duty in August and saw action on several occasions, and in September, led his brigade in the successful assault on Fort Harrison where he was wounded and had his horse shot under him.

He continued to lead his brigade which consisted on New York and Pennsylvania regiments, and under Major General Terry, captured Fort Fisher, North Carolina in January, 1865, in one of the most brilliant assaults of the war. In his greatest moment of the war, Pennypacker led the charge to take the enemy position and was once again severely wounded. He was not expected to survive, and while in a miliary hospital, he was promoted to Brigadier General, and shortly thereafter, to Major General, Volunteers, in March, 1865. At 20 years old, he was the youngest general in American history.

More importantly, General Pennypacker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, with a citation reading, "He gallantly led the charge over a traverse and planted the colors of one of his regiments thereon; and was severely wounded." His commanding general emphasized that Pennypacker, and not himself, was the real hero of Fort Fisher, and "without his bravery, the fort would not have been taken," and that his "great gallantry was only equaled by his modesty."

General Pennypacker remained in the Army, serving on the Western frontier and the southern states until the end of Reconstruction. He was retired in 1883 because of his wounds, and he lived out his life in Philadelphia, where he died peacefully in 1916. The citizens of Philadelphia erected a statue in his honor, but most people walk past it, unaward of the heroism of this great American.




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