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Bucket List Trip – Gettysburg

Part 2

My sons Matthew and Glenn Peterson and son-in-law Erik Craig took me on the trip of a lifetime in the fall of 2022 when we traveled to Gettysburg and then to Washington, D.C. I could write about Gettysburg the rest of my life, but I narrowed my musings to just a few subjects I found interesting and not frequently covered.

Our VRBO was out in the country so we had to drive into Gettysburg each morning. We screeched to a halt when I yelled, “That’s the Cashtown Inn.” Famous historical artist Mort Kunstler created the above picture of the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee passing the inn on the way to the battle. The movie Gettysburg recreated the painting in one scene. Today the inn is a bed and breakfast and by the way, may be haunted.

Three Friends

The viewing tower on Culp’s Hill behind Cemetery Ridge. I had been having heart issues and I tried but just couldn’t climb all the stairs and had to come back down. The young men made it easy of course. Culp’s Hill was the scene of under-reported but fierce fighting on the night of July 2 and the morning of July 3. In the irony of ironies, Culp’s Hill was the place where Wesley Culp, whose family owned the hill and surrounding area, was killed in action, but NOT fighting for the Union.

The story of Wesley Culp, Ginnie Wade, and Jack Skelly would make a great Shakespearean tragedy. Sadly, it’s true, not fiction. The three were childhood friends in Gettysburg and must have frequently romped around Culp’s Hill, part of a farm owned by Wesley’s uncle. Wesley took a job at a harness-maker’s shop when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, the harness-maker moved his business south to Shepherdstown, Va., (now West Virginia). It was only 47 miles but a million miles in culture and politics. The story is Culp fell in love with a Virginia lass, whose father was an enslaver and who was none too pleased with the Yankee suitor.

Culp solved his local problems by joining a militia that became Company B, 2nd Virginia Infantry of the Confederate army when war broke out. Some, not all, in Culp’s family considered him a traitor of the worst sort, including Wesley’s brother, William, who said he would shoot his sibling on sight. This is where the story turns truly outlandish. Jack Skelly had joined the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry regiment. Wesley and Jack’s units were among those that faced each other in June 1863 in the Virginia town of Winchester while the Confederates marched north. The rebels easily brushed aside the badly led Yankees, and Skelly was seriously wounded and captured. Culp apparently found out about the situation and visited Jack in the Confederate field hospital. Skelly reportedly passed a note to Culp to deliver to their friend Ginnie Wade. Ginnie and Jack were rumored to be secretly betrothed, which was quite common during the uncertainty of the Civil War when sweethearts didn’t know if they would ever see each other again in this world. Culp might also have had a deferred engagement to his Virginia sweetheart because the father had been mollified by Wesley’s service in the Confederate army.

Fate can be cruel

We’ll end the suspense right now. Back in Gettysburg, Mary Virginia Wade, known as Ginnie to her friends, (newspapers later misspelled her name as Jennie), became the only known civilian killed during the battle. I say known because the ghost tour guides tell the story of a pre-teen Gettysburg girl who on July 1 was taken away by Confederate soldiers trying to protect her from the battle raging on the town’s streets. The girl was never seen again. Anyway, Ginnie was eventually laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg, and she is considered one of the battle’s many heroes. For good reason. Along with her mother, Ginnie made bread and handed out water to Union soldiers as they desperately fought off rebel charges on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. They worked at the house of Ginnie’s sister, which was on the front lines and riddled with more than a hundred bullets and shell fragments. Ginnie’s luck ran out early on the morning of July 3 as she was kneading dough for another batch of bread. No one knows who fired the stray bullet that entered the house and killed Ginnie. After Ginnie’s body was moved to the basement, her mother finished the bread.

Here they are. Fortunately, photography became extremely popular and available in the Civil War period so many people sat for a picture. Ginnie Wade is at the top. Her impressive grave marker was erected in 1900 and a perpetual American flag is always flying beside it. Jack Skelly rests near Ginnie’s grave. The whereabouts of Wesley Culp’s remains are a mystery. Some say he was buried in an unmarked grave on Culp’s Hill near where he fell. Others say he was taken to Richmond, Va.’s historical Hollywood Cemetery with other Confederate dead and where he has a military marker.

Culp’s Hill Afterthought

The fighting on Culp’s Hill gets the short end of the stick in Gettysburg histories. Probably because there’s so much to cover and almost every engagement, especially on July 2nd or 3rd, could have been the decisive one. The Union line ran north from the round tops, curled around Cemetery Hill and ended at Culp’s Hill. Gen. Robert E. Lee understood its significance and late in the afternoon of July 2 ordered the troops under Gens. Ewell and Johnson to take it. That would mean Confederates would be roaming free behind the Yankees on Cemetery Ridge, probably winning the battle. Union generals were much slower to appreciate the danger, but were saved by 62-year-old Brigadier General George Sears Greene, who was old for a Civil War general. In fact, he was the oldest general in Gettysburg.

Greene was a master engineer and his trained eye correctly sized up the situation. He ordered some random regiments into the defense at the top of Culp’s Hill where just in time they built fortifications out of stone walls and tree trunks. Four times Confederates picked their way up the rough, heavily wooded hill only to be repelled. Much of the battle was fought in the dark. Rebels occupied some trenches and captured some cannon but couldn’t breach the crest of the hill.

Wesley Culp may have been killed in the July 2 fighting or maybe on July 3 when hostilities resumed at 4:30 a.m. Both sides had been reinforced, but the Union placed cannon and soldiers southeast of Culp’s Hill where they could hit rebels moving up the rise. Multiple Confederate attacks failed under a blizzard of Yankee fire. Union troops ended the Culp’s Hill fighting before noon by charging out of their fortifications and sweeping the rebels off the elevation. The battle then gave way to the climatic Pickett’s Charge in the afternoon of July 3, which overshadowed everything else. Poor Wesley Culp would not be around to see or hear the conclusion.

Either would Jack Skelly. He hung on until July 12 and was probably too feverish to hear about the great Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. “Old” Gen. Greene, however, lived to be 97. His son, Francis Vinton Greene, was a commander in the Spanish-American War, and another son, Samuel Dana Greene, was the executive officer on the Union navy ironclad USS Monitor.

Posted in Gettysburg, U.S. Army, Confederacy, Civil War, Historical Site, War History

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