William L. Saylor was born to John B. and Sara Saylor on April 30, 1849, in Swatara Township, Pennsylvania. Saylor’s father died when he was only four months old, leaving his mother to raise a young family with very limited financial resources.

When Saylor was 9, his mother hired him out as an errand boy and laborer to the Levi Kurtz farm near Jonestown. At age 11, Saylor went to work for his uncle Samuel Peters. Two years later, he moved to Annville to labor on the farm of John Mase.

After only a few months in Annville, the Civil War erupted on April 12, 1861, and Saylor was driven by feelings of patriotism to join the Union forces and fight against the Confederates.

Before he reached the age of 17, he was a seasoned Civil War combat veteran who fought in some of the bloodiest and most storied battles in American history — and he wore some physical scars to prove it.

Portrait of William L. Saylor wearing a Union Army Calvary Civil War uniform. (Lebanon Daily News, June 12, 1928)

An incredible Civil War service history

On Sept. 2, 1862, at the very young age of 13 years and 4 months, Saylor answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers and traveled to Reading, without his mother’s knowledge, and cleverly misrepresented his age to enlist in Company I, Third Pennsylvania Cavalry (also known as the 60th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers or Young’s Kentucky Light Cavalry) in the Union Army.

Saylor was initially sent to Camp Cadwalader near Baltimore, the first Union encampment in the nation under the command of Major General George Cadwalader. He received outfitting and regimental drill instruction and assisted in the protection of telegraph-rail lines between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He was then sent to Camp Curtain in Harrisburg for additional military training.

Camp Curtin was a major Union Army training camp located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. (Harper’s Weekly, September 1862)

During his Civil War service, Saylor fought in some of the conflict’s most important battles, including Chancellorsville (Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle” where he brilliantly divided his outnumbered forces, resulting in a significant Confederate victory), Fredericksburg (the one-sided battle described as “butchery,” where Union casualties were twice those of the Confederates), Gettysburg (the Union victory that was the turning point of the Civil War and its bloodiest battle, resulting in more than 50,000 casualties), and Appomattox Court House (the Union’s defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia, the primary Confederate military force, which led to Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the United States, and led to the end of the Civil War).

Other important battles he fought in included Brandy Station (the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America), Hatcher’s Run (one in a series of Union offensives during the siege of Petersburg), Kelly’s Ford (set the stage for cavalry actions during the Gettysburg Campaign), and Welden Railroad (the Union’s permanent capture of one of the most important Confederate supply lines).

Depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg by distinguished American illustrator Thure de Thulstrup. (public domain)

During a portion of his Civil War service he served under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, who was nicknamed “Kilcavalry” because of his aggressive, and sometimes reckless, issuance of orders where some of his mounted cavalry charges resulted in the needless injury and death of significant numbers of horses and troops.

While delivering a message from General Gordon Meade’s headquarters to troops on the front line, Saylor narrowly escaped death when Confederate soldiers shot his horse out from under him while passing Hancock Station near Petersburg, Virginia. Saylor was also injured in battle several times, including a bullet wound and a saber cut on his shoulder.

Saylor witnessed the Grand Review of the Armies (military procession and celebration following the Union’s victory in the Civil War) in Washington, D.C., on May 23-24, 1865. Government authorities organized this formal review to honor the victorious Union troops, and 150,000 soldiers — including 90,000 from the Army of the Potomac and 60,000 from General William T. Sherman’s Army of the West — marched through the city.

General Sherman’s Army of the West marching on Pennsylvania Avenue in the Civil War Grand Review, Washington, D.C., May 1865. (Library of Congress)

An estimated 250,000 people lined the streets and applauded the merits of all Union Civil War veterans. The crowds included prominent citizens, politicians and President Andrew Johnson.

Life after the Civil War

On May 6, 1865, when he was still only 16 years old, Saylor was discharged from the U.S. Army after serving more than two years and eight months. He settled back in Annville and worked as an apprentice at the coach, carriage and wagon manufacturer of Allwein & Saylor. In 1867, he moved away from Annville and for the following five years he worked out of state as a coach body maker.

He returned to Lebanon County and married Annie E. Lehman on Oct. 3, 1872. They lived at 463 Maple St., Annville, and had four boys and two girls. Saylor continued in the coach-making business, and was the postmaster of Annville during the time when there were only two rural mail carriers and the townspeople picked up their own mail. After he retired he remained living in Annville and was active with the First Lutheran Church.

Saylor was a representative of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization for Civil War veterans who served in the Union Army). The organization met annually at the battlefields in Gettysburg. He was also appointed aide-de-camp (confidential secretary in routine matters) to John Reese, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic’s national headquarters.

Monument for the Third Pennsylvania Calvary Regiment, Gettysburg National Military Park. (public domain)

In 1890, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania dedicated a monument to the Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, located in the East Cavalry Battlefield in what is now Gettysburg National Military Park. The monument recognizes the Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment’s role in stopping Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces from attacking the rear of Union lines on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. It is not known if Saylor attended the dedication ceremonies.

A Departed Soldier

Saylor died on Jan. 5, 1933 in Annville.

“They paid a glowing tribute to the character and worth of the departed soldier” at his funeral, according to records of the occasion. A military procession consisting of color bearers escorted his casket to the cemetery, where a bugler played “Taps.”

His gravesite. (findagrave.com)

Saylor’s funeral was attended by many friends, family, members of the community, and two Civil War veterans, one of whom was Anthony Bleichert (195th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry) of Lebanon. He is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Annville.

The Legacy of William L. Saylor

Saylor was the last surviving Civil War veteran in Annville. It was reported that he was missed by the community following his death, and especially during the annual Memorial Day parade in Annville.

Although he was only one of the 2,128,948 Union veterans who served during the Civil War, he surely contributed to preserving the Union, ending the rebellion of the Confederate States of America and abolishing the institution of slavery throughout the United States.

Wilmer McLean House, Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. (Randy Jaye)
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Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...