Traditional Stories

Julius W. Pell


Youngest Brothers to Enlist in Army

It was Christmas Eve, 1861. The commander of the Union forces on old Fort Hill in Burning Springs, Wirt County, called to his lieutenant, "Come see my two new soldiers." Seated side-by-side on the commander's knee were two gaunt little boys, twelve and thirteen years old, whose combined weight was sixty-seven pounds. The small brothers, John and Julius Pell, had just been duly registered and enlisted in Company B, Eleventh Regiment, West Virginia Infantry, as fifer and drummer. The half-starved little Pell boys thus became the youngest brothers ever enlisted in the United States Army. Many claim for West Virginia the distinction of giving to Uncle Sam his youngest soldiers of all times. However, this claim is disputed by Newark, Ohio, who claim their Johnnie Clem, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," was under ten at the time he enlisted.

John Ringold Pell was born at Independence, Virginia (now West Virginia), on June 12, 1848, and his brother, Julius Worth Pell, was born on November 30 of the next year. In 1852, their father, William Fairfax Pell, moved with his wife and several small children to Spencer where he prospered as a maker of fine saddles. Giving up his lucrative business, the elder Pell organized his own company, received a captain's commission and marched eastward at the outbreak of the war.

Early in December of 1861, Pell was back home on a short furlough. After he had left, a band of Rebel raiders, thinking he was still home, swooped down in the night to capture him. The terrified mother roused her small children from their warm beds and, snatching the baby from its cradle, bade them all lie on the floor while the bullets screamed through their house. So fierce was the fusillade that it set the house afire and they barely managed to escape in a nearby cave where they huddled and hungered for days.

When the slow traveling news of his family's plight reached Captain Pell at the front, he dispatched Lieutenant William Marlin with a Conestoga wagon to rescue them and take them to the home of relatives in Burning Springs.

As an old man, John Pell remembered the wagon, its supplies of food, warm clothes, and the feather bed. They had gone only a few miles out of Spencer when the wagon was set upon by another band of Rebels. The supplies were confiscated, the horses driven off and the precious feather tick slashed to ribbons while the soldiers howled with mirth as the icy winds mingled the feathers with the circling snow. Now on foot, the hungry and desperate family led by Lieutenant Marlin trudged the barren, rugged hills of West Virginia for three days. Dodging Confederate patrols and subsisting on roots clawed out of the frozen ground, they arrived on December 23 at the crowded and war-hungry home of their cousins in Burning Springs. Here they were taken in and welcomed.

Bitterness sat deep that night on young John and Jule. The terror they had been through and the pinched faces of their mother and younger brothers and sisters gave them a man's courage to do something about it. The next day, the half-starved little boys climbed old Fort Hill to the encampment and begged to enlist. Begged to be given guns and be allowed to fight. The kindly commander, reading near starvation as well as determination in their drawn faces, signed them on. He instructed one of his men who had some knowledge of music to teach the little boys how to play the fife and drum.

In later years, John Pell remembered the first piece he was taught was, "The Girl I Left Behind Me." He never forgot it. He had mastered just this one marching tune to a lively rhythm when he was called upon to play for the funeral of a soldier. As an old man, Pell laughed when he recalled the consternation which gripped him until his teacher quickly showed him how to mute the notes and slow the tune to a suitable funeral pace.

On December 26, 1861, these twelve- and thirteen-year-old lads, clad in cut-dowm uniforms, marched away to war proudly, playing their music at the head of their regiment. John and Jule served all through the war. They were at Gettysburg and most of the other famous battles.

Many are the stories they told and many the close call they had although the men in their regiment did all they possibly could to protect their small comrades-in-arms. At one time they were lost from their regiment and lived several winter days in a haystack while fighting raged all about them. Huddled in their haystack, their only food was a frozen pumpkin.

When at last peace came, the small drummer and fifer of Company B were mustered out at Camp Deep Water, Virginia, in 1865. While there they received a personal letter from President Abraham Lincoln. In this treasured letter President Lincoln recognized them as the two youngest men to enlist in the Union army and gave them a special invitation to visit him at the White House.

After the war, the boys returned to their home in Burning Springs where they continued their interrupted schooling. Later, Jule married and settled in Grantsville where he went into the mercantile business. (The Jule Pell home in Grantsville is now the Stump Funeral Home.)

John taught for several years and attended West Virginia University during the summer. In 1883 he married Harriet Roberts and for several years operated a successful general store at Creston. In 1901 he moved his family to Parkersburg where he was in the insurance business until his death.

Source: Helen M. White of The News staff, Parkersburg, West Virginia.


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