Spotlight: Wesley Culp

Confederate pickets on Culp's Hill
It’s July 1, 2009, which means that 146 years ago today the Army of Northern Virginia tripped over some Union cavalry stationed at a small, college-friendly crossroads called Gettysburg. The Confederate troops were from A. P. Hill‘s corps and included men in Henry Heth‘s division. Yes, they had been looking for shoes, but they found instead the Army of the Potomac, and Heth—pronounced “Heeth,” and whom Lee reportedly referred to as Harry—ended the day with a head wound.
Also on the field that day was a young man named Wesley Culp. Although born in Pennsylvania—right here, in fact; one of the hills outside of town was named for his family—he had followed his employer to nearby Shepherdstown, Virginia, in 1858 and there joined the local militia. When the war started, he signed up with the Confederates while his brother William joined a Pennsylvania regiment. He was twenty-four years old in the summer of 1863 and just a smidge over five feet; he was so short, in fact, that his officers needed to fashion a special gun for him to use. He died with that gun on July 2 on or near Culp’s Hill.
According to our entry, there are various legends surrounding Culp,

for instance, that Henry Culp [the owner of Culp’s Hill] was his father or perhaps his uncle. The historian Thomas A. Desjardin has argued that Henry Culp was, in fact, “a distant cousin he may scarcely have known.” This would make it less likely that young Wesley spent his summers playing on the fields where he was killed, as is often claimed. Another story has Culp visiting the Gettysburg home of his sister, Julia, the night of July 1, when she begged him to desert. Still another suggests that when he died, Culp was carrying a message addressed to Mary Virginia Wade of Gettysburg. It had been given to him by Wade’s fiancée, Johnston H. Skelly of the 87th Pennsylvania—another Gettysburg native and a friend of his brother’s. Culp had met Skelly after being captured and paroled at the Second Battle of Winchester (1863), where Skelly had been wounded (he later died). Wade, meanwhile, was the only civilian to have been killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. (She was hit by a stray bullet while, supposedly, baking bread.) As with many such stories, however, it is unclear whether these are true.

What is true is that the folks of Adams County, Pennsylvania, were not happy that one of their own had returned in an enemy’s uniform. In the June 3 Adams Sentinel, just below an item on the capture of Culp’s employer at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, was this:

It is also said that another of our young townsmen, WESLEY CULP, was taken prisoner at the battle of Winchester—took the oath of allegiance to the U. States—was released—then joined a band of guerillas, and has been captured again. He is good and ripe for summary process, or at least ought to be.

Ouch. That still smarts, even after 146 years.
IMAGE: Confederate pickets on Culp’s Hill, from the Century magazine, 1884


3 thoughts

  1. I have done extensive research on Wesley Culp and several statements made in this artical are incorrect. Henry Culp (of Culp’s hill) was Wesley’s uncle. He was not taken prisoner in Wenchester, His cousin David was and he did not take an oath. Wesley’s sister Julia wrote a statement of which I read the original, when she was up in age recounting the night Wesley visited her. He did have a message for Jenny, from John Skelly. His sister begged him to let her deliver it, but he insisted on delivering it himself because he had promised John. The next morning he was killed.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sheila.
    Re Henry’s uncle, the historian Thomas A. Desjardin, in his book “These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory,” writes:
    “… In other variations of the tale, Wesley is said to have died on his uncle’s farm. Like so many other Gettysburg myths, this is a truly compelling story — that is simply not true … and the farmer who owned Culp’s Hill was a distant cousin [Wesley] may scarcely have known.”
    Re his capture at Winchester, we took that from the Adams Sentinel mentioned above.
    If we’re wrong, we’d be happy to correct our entry. Could you tell me what your sources are and what they say?
    Thanks again.

  3. Shelia, is it possible you provide a copy of the letter written by Weslays sister Julia? I’m considering writing an article for pubication on the true facts and story of Weslay culp and his mission for Jack Skelly.


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