Gettysburg: The Strange Story of Private Wesley Culp

On July 1, 1863, the Federal Army of General George Meade and the Confederate Army of Robert E Lee met in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. One of the 165,000 troopers on the field that day was Private Wesley Culp of the Confederate Army’s 2nd Virginia Infantry. He had grown up in Gettysburg, and his family farm, on Culp’s Hill, would become a focal point in one of the bloodiest battles ever to be fought within the US.

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Private Wesley Culp

In June 1863, it seemed as if the Civil War would soon be over–and it was the Confederacy that was winning it. General Robert E Lee’s Army of Virginia had won major battles at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, and the Federal Army of the Potomac, under General Joseph Hooker, was in disarray. By invading Pennsylvania, Lee hoped to disrupt the Union lines of supply and communication, threaten Philadelphia and Washington DC, and force the Union Army into a last stand that would destroy it and force the North to make a peace deal that would grant independence to the South. The Confederates crossed into Pennsylvania on June 25, and made way for the town of Gettysburg, a transportation hub at the intersection of several roadways. Closely behind them, in pursuit, was the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of General George Meade, who replaced the fired General Hooker.

One of the families that lived in the town of Gettysburg was the Culps, who had been there for four generations. The Culp family owned several farms in the area, and a spot of land known locally as Culp’s Hill. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, William Culp, whose uncle owned Culp’s Hill, enlisted into the Union Army with the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. William’s brother Wesley had also lived in Gettysburg, but had moved to the town of Shepherdstown, Virginia (now in West Virginia) where he worked as a leather-harness maker. When the Civil War began, Wesley enlisted with the local 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, under the command of General Stonewall Jackson. The 2nd Virginia had seen combat in the battles of First and Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. According to some reports, Culp himself had been captured by the Union Army at some point and was paroled (an arrangement through which both sides would release prisoners on the promise that they agreed not to enter the fighting again), but promptly re-joined his unit (an action which, if discovered by the opposing side, usually led to summary execution). Now, the 2nd Virginia Regiment was part of the Confederate force moving towards Gettysburg–and Wesley Culp was with them.

William Culp, meanwhile, was not at Gettysburg. The 87th Pennsylvania Regiment was on picket duty in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, recovering from the Battle of Winchester, one of the skirmishes that had taken place during Lee’s advance through Maryland towards Pennsylvania. Wesley Culp and the 2nd Virginia Regiment had also been at Winchester, but the two regiments (and brothers) did not meet each other on the battlefield.

On July 1, 1863, both the main Confederate and Union armies were near Gettysburg, but neither knew where the other was until two patrols accidentally met each other near McPherson Ridge, northwest of the town. During a day of fighting, the Confederates were able to push the Union forces back through the town of Gettysburg.

During the night of June 1, Wesley Culp was given a pass by his commander to go into town (now occupied by the Confederates) to visit his sisters Ann and Julia who were living there. According to the legend that later grew up around him, his sisters begged him to desert from the Confederate Army, but he refused. According to another legend, Culp had another mission to fulfill during his visit: in the aftermath of the earlier Battle of Winchester, Culp had encountered a childhood friend of his from Gettysburg, named Johnston “Jack” Skelly, who had enlisted in the 87th Pennsylvania Regiment and been wounded at Winchester and captured. Skelly reportedly passed a written note for Culp to deliver to their mutual friend (and Skelly’s fiancee) Virginia “Ginny” Wade who lived in Gettysburg. Skelly died from his wounds shortly after. Now, according to legend, Culp tried to deliver the message to Wade, but she was not home at the time. Wade herself (often misidentified as “Jennie” Wade) would die soon afterwards–she was hit by a stray bullet that entered her house as she baked bread in her kitchen, the only civilian to die in the fighting at Gettysburg.

By the morning of June 2, the Union forces had established themselves on a long ridge south of town called Cemetery Ridge, running from Culp’s Hill down to another hill known locally as Round Top, and the Confederate Army had occupied another parallel ridge, Seminary Ridge, about a mile away, centered around a Lutheran seminary. Here is where the Battle of Gettysburg would be fought.

On the morning of July 2, Lee, recognizing that Meade’s troops occupied a formidable defensive position atop Cemetery Ridge, nevertheless decided to attack. He made his first attempt to break the Union lines by sending General Longstreet’s divisions to attack the left flank of Meade’s position, towards the Round Top and Little Round Top hills–if he succeeded in taking these hills, he could bombard the Federals with cannons, turn behind their dug-in defensive positions, and run up the entire Union line and destroy them. Each of Longstreet’s thrusts, however, was repelled by the Federal troops, particularly the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on Little Round Top, and places now known as “The Peach Orchard”, “The Wheatfield”, and “The Devils Den” became the scenes of the heaviest fighting of the battle.

When the attacks on the Union left flank failed, Lee on the afternoon of July 2 had General Ewell send his forces to attack the Union Army’s right flank, at Culp’s Hill. The fighting there continued until nightfall, and resumed at sunrise. But despite several attacks, the Confederates were unable to take Culp’s Hill, and the Union line held.

According to legend, Wesley Culp was one of the Confederate troopers who were attacking Culp’s Hill on July 2 and 3–his uncle’s land–and he was killed in that fighting late in the morning of July 3, the only member of his Company to die. After the battle was over, he was buried by his sisters in a secret unmarked location (somewhere on the family farm–perhaps even under the basement of the farmhouse, according to some versions) to prevent his grave from being desecrated by relatives who resented his joining the Confederates.

But portions of the legend, at least, are wrong. According to researchers, the 2nd Virginia Regiment was not a part of the Confederate forces fighting at Culp’s Hill–instead, it was a part of the force that was repelling a Union cavalry attack at nearby Brinkerhoff’s Ridge. On July 3, the 2nd Virginia did attack the Union lines, but at nearby Wolf’s Hill, not Culp’s Hill. Wesley Culp was indeed killed during one of those actions–no one is sure which. So although he was not actually killed on his family land, as the legend says, he was indeed killed near it, in his own hometown. His body was never recovered (though some stories say that his rifle, with his name carved into the stock, was found on the battlefield) and his grave is unknown.  He was likely buried along with others in an unmarked mass grave.

With the failure on July 2-3 to turn the Union flank at Culp’s Hill, Lee now decided to make a bold move–he would attack directly into the center of the Federal lines, in one glorious mass charge that would drive the Federals off the ridge, destroy them, and win the war. At 1 in the afternoon of July 3, the Confederate cannon batteries opened up with one of the heaviest bombardments of the entire war; then, at 3 pm, 12,000 Confederates under General George Pickett charged across the one-mile gap between the lines, straight into the heavily defended Union positions. “Pickett’s Charge” was cut to pieces by cannon and rifle fire. After the shattered remnants dragged themselves back to the Confederate lines, Lee ordered Pickett to prepare his division to receive a Union counterattack.  According to legend, Pickett simply replied, “Sir, I have no division.”

Lee withdrew his army back to Virginia. Meade did not follow him–an action that was heavily criticized by President Abraham Lincoln, who realized that if Meade had pursued Lee’s beaten army and surrounded it, the war would have ended right then and there. Meade’s army, however, had been battered almost as much as Lee’s had been, and he concluded it was in no shape to fight another battle. But the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War. Lee would never again have the strategic advantage, and when overall command of the Union Army was assumed by General Ulysses S Grant, he systematically pushed Lee further and further back until the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

William Culp continued to fight with the 87th Pennsylvania Regiment until the end of the war. According to the legend, he never forgave his brother Wesley for fighting with the Confederates, and never spoke of him again.

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3 thoughts on “Gettysburg: The Strange Story of Private Wesley Culp”

    1. Judged from what I read online, some Americans are still embittered by it. Something similar happened with the Boer War here: a century later, some Afrikaners had still not forgiven the English, decades after everyone involved in the war had died. That is what happens when you subsume your individual identity into that of some national or ideological group.

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