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The 800 year old effigy and tomb of King Henry II

5 surprisingly young battle commanders from history

What were you doing in your teens? This lot were leading their peers on the battleground, some with more success than others.

Image Credit: | Above: The 800 year old effigy and tomb of King Henry II in Fontevraud Abbey, France

History is full of child prodigies, precocious kids who have shone in everything from music to science. Mozart composed his first published piece of music at the age of five, Pascal wrote his first proof at 11, and Picasso was just nine when he produced his first oil painting.

The sphere of military history is no different.

Of the countless military geniuses that have lived over the centuries, many of them have been very young adults, and some have even been children. These bellicose youngsters demonstrated military prowess from a young age, from a spotty teenage warrior king of the ancient world to a brave young general in the American Civil War. Here are five warring whippersnappers that are some of history’s youngest battle commanders.

1. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, one of the most famous military commanders of all time, was barely out of short trousers when he found battlefield success. Alexander was born in Pella, modern-day Greece, in 356 BC, and was tutored from the age of 13 by the famous philosopher Aristotle.

The young prince held his first military command at the age of 16 when he led a force of soldiers to put down a revolt of the Thracian Maedi. At the age of 17, the Macedon minor was made general of a small army, tasked with putting down further Thracian rebellions. At the age of 18, he was, along with his father the king, in command of the Macedon army and the pair were stunningly successful at bringing neighbouring Balkan states under Macedon rule.

Alexander was 20 when he became king after his father was assassinated in 336 BC, and he wasted no time in greatly expanding his dad’s dominion. He swept across the known world, conquering everything in his path. He named more than 70 cities after himself, and by the time he was 30, his empire stretched from northern Greece to the western fringes of India.

Alexander died at the age of 32, likely from typhoid fever, though historians can’t be certain.

2. Henry II

The English civil war known as the Anarchy, or the Nineteen-Year-Winter, raged from 1135 until the death of King Stephen in 1154. His successor was Henry of Anjou, who was crowned King Henry II of England in December 1154 at the age of 21 - after spending much of his teens engaged in fighting.

Henry had spent his childhood in noble households in England and Normandy, receiving expert tutoring in academia, statesmanship and war.

His first foray was at the age of 14 in 1147 when he led a band of mercenaries in England to fight on behalf of his mother, Matilda, who was the main rival of King Stephen. Eventually, Henry was forced to return to Normandy after running out of money, leaving him unable to pay his men. Bizarrely, Henry tapped up his enemy Stephen (his first cousin, once removed) for cash to remunerate his soldiers.

In 1149, Henry returned to England on the warpath once more, joining up with the forces of David I of Scotland, who also knighted the juvenile general in May of that year. This second military effort by Henry was ultimately met with failure after a planned attack on York was seen off by Stephen, whose forces had quickly marched north to meet them.

Henry regrouped, built up his power and status, and returned to England in 1153 with a renewed push for the crown. This paid off, and Henry, still barely out of his teens at this point, succeeded when, that year, King Stephen appointed Henry his heir. Stephen died in October 1154 and the fiery red-haired youth Henry became undisputed king.

3. Stephen of Cloyes

In the heart of rural France, about 80 miles southwest of Paris, lies the small town of Cloyes. Here, in the year 1212, a poor shepherd boy named Stephen threw down his crook and began to preach to local people that he had been visited by Jesus. The 12-year-old claimed that Jesus had told him to lead a crusade to the Holy Land.

The adventurous adolescent led a large mass of his followers, who were also children, to Paris to seek an audience with the French king. The king, rather than giving them support for their crusade, instead told them to clear off and go home. Undeterred, young Steve and his band of 30,000 children marched down to Marseille, where they persuaded some merchants named Hugh the Iron and William the Pig to take them in boats to the Holy Land.

The unlucky lads and lasses didn’t make it to Jerusalem, however. Two of the seven ships sank on the way, with no survivors, and the remaining five ships sneakily detoured to Algiers, as Hugh and William had made a secret deal to sell the children to slave traders there. Many were sent to Egypt, some even as far as Baghdad.

It is not known when or where Stephen died.

4. Joan of Arc

Saint Joan of Arc is a French national heroine and one of the most famous names in history. Born to a peasant family in 1412, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, Joan had the first of many holy visions at the age of 12. When she was 13, according to her later testimony, she was visited in her family garden by the archangel Michael, who told Joan that she had been chosen by God to help Charles, the son of the French king, defeat the English.

When Joan was 17, in early 1429, she travelled to Chinon to meet Charles. Convinced that Joan was the real deal, Charles allowed her to lead a force of men to relieve the Siege of Orleans, which Joan successfully did in May of that year.

Joan, inspired by her continuing visions and voices, aggressively waged war, leading more victorious French armies into battle over the coming months, including at Rheims, the traditional place where the kings of France were crowned. Joan personally led Charles up to the altar at Rheims Cathedral on 17th July 1429 and stood next to him as he was crowned.

Joan was executed in 1431 and made a saint in 1920.

5. Galusha Pennypacker

The record for the youngest ever general in US history is still held by Galusha Pennypacker, promoted to the rank of brigadier-general in 1865 at the age of 20.

Galusha was 16 when the American Civil War kicked off in April 1861 and he wasted no time in joining his local militia in Pennsylvania. The youngster was clearly cut out for soldiering, as just a few months later he was made a captain in a volunteer regiment.

Over the next few years, the precocious Pennypacker commanded his men in battles such as the Siege of Fort Wagner, the Battle of Swift Creek, and Green Plains. He was made a lieutenant colonel at the age of 19 and was commanding a whole regiment at the age of 20. He saw a great deal of action in the war, particularly in 1864 when he was wounded four times.

In January 1865, Pennypacker was shot and severely wounded leading the first wave of troops in the attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina. The young fellow spent nearly a year in hospital recovering and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the successful Union battle. It was after this battle that Pennypacker was promoted to his famously high rank.

Pennypacker retired from the army in 1883 and died in 1916.