A corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania expires from wounds during the Second Battle of Winchester while a Major General for the Union in the American Civil War is marching towards the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Neither of the men have met before, but what they share in life makes a better tragedy than any writing of Shakespeare’s because their true stories are written in the annals of history.
The Brothers’ War
Long before the American Civil War began, two young boys– Johnston Hastings Skelly and Wesley Culp– grew up together in the rolling hills of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “Jack”, as Johnston was known throughout the town, and Wesley were boyhood friends. As the years passed, the boys turned into men and the men took up careers. Wesley Culp worked as a carriage-maker and when his employer decided to move to Virginia, Culp followed leaving his friends and family back home in Gettysburg.
Being new to Virginia, Culp joined the Hamtramck Guards, the local militia. In those days, local militia was more of a club than a military division. Groups would use the time to socialize or enjoy common pastimes as they relaxed in the company of friends. But when war broke out in 1861, local militia began to join the army. When his militia signed up for war, Wesley Culp found himself in Company B of the 2nd Virginia Infantry fighting on the side of the Confederacy.
Back home in Gettysburg, Jack Skelly took up arms with Wesley’s brother, William, in the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Later Skelly would discover he fought in opposition to his old friend Wesley Culp. As it turns out, it was fairly common for brothers or friends to join up on opposing sides of the war. So common, the American Civil War is often called “The Brothers’ War”. Though in this instance, circumstances would allow for a chance meet between the two boyhood friends which would culminate into one of the most tragic stories of Gettysburg.
The story of Culp’s chance meeting with Skelly follows the Battle of 2nd Winchester. Skelly, a wounded prisoner of war, is recognized by Wesley Culp. Culp sits beside his friend waiting for him to wake as he passes in and out of consciousness. Skelly’s eyes flutter open and he sees the visage of his young friend and implores him to deliver a missive to Gettysburg. Culp accepts the letter and promises to see it is delivered.
Married to the Military
Years before Culp and Skelly were born, fifty-five miles east of Gettysburg in the town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, John Fulton Reynolds was preparing for his career in the military. Then Senator James Buchanan (who would later become the 15th President of the United States) nominated Reynolds to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating, Reynolds fought in the Mexican-American War in the western United States, where he was first promoted to Captain and then to Major. After the war and several other missions out west, he then returned to West Point to serve as Commandant of Cadets.
When war broke out between the North and the South, Reynolds was given several assignments and orders as well as a promotion to Brigadier General. He fought in the battles of Second Bull Run and then Fredericksburg, where he was promoted to Major General. The campaign would then lead him to Chancellorsville.
During this time, President Abraham Lincoln was having troubles of his own finding a proper general to lead the Union Army. After General George Brinton McClellan failed to pursue Lee after Antietam, Lincoln ordered his removal. Major General Ambrose Everett Burnside assumed command of the Army of the Potomac his command disappointed Lincoln and, when Burnside offered to resign, Lincoln accepted his resignation and promoted Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker impulsively offered his resignation during a dispute with Army headquarters. His offer was also accepted and President Lincoln began to search for a new general.
On June 2, 1863, Lincoln met with Major General John Reynolds, where it is believed Reynolds was offered the position, but Lincoln could not agree to the terms Reynolds demanded– to be isolated from the politics that had stifled the effectiveness of the preceding generals. Three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln promoted Major General George Gordon Meade to the position of commanding General of the Army of the Potomac.
The First Tragedy of Gettysburg
On July 1st, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union Cavalry commanded by General John Buford engaged Confederates from his vantage on Seminary Ridge. Major General John Reynolds and his men were the first of the Union Army to arrive with reinforcements. Reynolds engaged in a conversation with Buford, where Reynolds allegedly challenged the already exhausted cavalry to hold their line while he moved his troops into position. After the exchange, which was shortly after 10 in the morning, Reynolds mounted his horse and was riding through the trees back to his brigade when he was fatally struck by a minie ball in the back of the neck.
It was after his death Reynolds’ military aides discovered the Major General had more than a few secrets about his life. Searching Reynold’s body revealed several interesting things. Firstly, that his West Point class ring was missing. This was a prized possession for any military man and the staff was sad when they considered they might have lost it while transporting the Major General’s body. The second curiosity, a discovery made by Major William Riddle, was the small catholic medal around the protestant Reynolds’ neck. Lastly, a gold ring depicting two clasped hands was discovered. The inscription on the ring read, “Dear Kate”.
On the Third Day of Battle
The battle at Gettysburg rages onward and Wesley Culp attempts to deliver his friend’s letter, but the recipient is behind enemy lines. Culp decides to wait to deliver the missive another day and heads back to his post on Culp’s Hill– land owned by his extended family.
Sadly, in the third day of battle, a fatal shot strikes Culp and the letter is never delivered to its recipient. Culp also does not let anyone else take the letter for later delivery– not that it would matter anyway…
The third and final day of the battle of Gettysburg was every bit as blood as the rest of the battle had been. The portion of the battle fought at Culp’s Hill was very tragic. Many Confederates died that day, but their pride did not die with them.
A visit to Culp’s Hill in modern-day times results in creepy feelings of animosity. It’s as if those men are still fighting and dying on that hill. Some people have recorded interesting EVPs that sound similar to the wartime calls of advance and retreat. Others have claimed to hear cannon fire or to see soldiers running through the woods. Some visitors report hearing disembodied footsteps following them up the observation tower. The most tragic haunting reported in this area, however, is the smell of peppermint and vanilla, which soldiers used to stifle the smell of the rotting flesh of those who were wounded in battle. Could one of these ghosts be the ill-fated Wesley Culp trying to deliver his letter?
The perplexing question posed by the finding of the “Dear Kate” ring was answered shortly thereafter when, on July 3, a note requesting to view Major General Reynolds’ body was received from a Miss Catherine Mary Hewitt– called “Kate”. Miss Hewitt had met Reynolds while they were both out west. In 1856, Kate had served as a governess in the family of a G. R. Woodward in California. At that time, John Reynolds had been stationed in San Francisco. Though she was half his age, Hewitt and Reynolds had grown terribly fond of each other. They’d made plans to marry and had even planned a honeymoon in Europe, but when civil war broke out the career driven soldier went to war.
Before parting, the pair planned for the possibility that Reynolds might not return. If he were to live, Reynolds would announce their engagement and they would marry. If he were to expire, they agreed that Kate should join a convent. And so, shortly after Reynolds’ burial, the grief stricken Kate Hewitt moved into the Mother Seton Convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hewitt served as a Daughter of Charity until 1868 when she became ill and eventually passed on.
After Reynolds’ death, in 1864, Kate was visited by Reynolds’ orderly, Charles H. Veil, who was with the Major General when he was shot. She inquired if the Major General had left her any message. Sadly, Veil reported that the shot that took Reynolds’ life left no time for the Major General to deliver any messages. He had expired almost instantly. Although Reynolds was unable to leave a message behind in life, it is quite possible that he has tried to send his love to Kate in death.
When I was vacation in Gettysburg in 1999, I had the chance to visit the National Military Cemetery which is in juxtaposition to the civilian cemetery called Evergreen. Just inside the gatehouse, stands one of four statues in memorial to Major General Reynolds. It was at this particular statue our cemetery tour guide wove the story of a ghost that closely resembles Reynolds being seen in that area of the cemetery. The guide relayed the story of the secret engagement and how it is possible that Major General Reynolds is still looking for his “Dear Kate” in the afterlife. Though, it would seem, the Major General also frequents Seminary Ridge, the place of his untimely demise.
Author of the Ghosts of Gettysburg series, Mark Nesbitt, recalls a story from April 1992 told to him by a student of the Seminary on Seminary Ridge:
… One night in the first week of March, (the student) had fallen asleep in his dormitory room in one of the newer buildings which sits on the west slope of Seminary Ridge just a few hundred yards or so from where the Union Army struggled on the first day of Gettysburg and John Fulton Reynolds spent his last moments on Earth. About 2:00 am he was awakened by a scream from down the hall. He recognized the voice as one of his friends, assumed that he was kidding around with someone in the dorm, and fell back asleep.
About 3:00 am he was awakened by a cold chill. Assuming he had left a window open and that the wind had changed direction, he opened his eyes. Standing against one wall of the room leaning against his dresser was a man dressed in dark blue with a dark beard. At first, assuming he was dreaming, he closed his eyes tightly and opened them again. The main still stood there… (He closed and reopened his eyes three times before attempting to confront the man)… and the man vanished. Sleep came with great difficulty…
A day or so later he ran into his friend whom he had heard kidding around in the middle of the night and asked him what tomfoolery he had been engaged in to cause such a wild screech.
The friend proceeded to tell him that, at about 2:00 am he had awakened to see a frightening and unexplainable intruder to his dormitory room. A man, darkly countenanced, had visited him through his locked door as he awakened, piercing eyes staring at him over a heavy, shadowed beard. What frightened him most is that no body accompanied the visage– just that veiled, disembodied face and head, floating surreally before him. While the head was completely discernable and distinct, the body just couldn’t materialize itself…
Unfortunately, Catherine “Kate” Mary Hewitt also haunts the battleground looking for her lost love, Major General John F. Reynolds. There are stories of a ghostly apparition searching for a long, lost love and a wedding gown. This story has been told in a YouTube video available here:
The Lost Letter
The intended recipient of the letter Culp had failed to deliver was Mary Virginia Wade. Like the romance between Reynolds and Hewitt, Skelly and Wade also kept their engagement secret. However, Skelly and Wade had not made contingency plans should Skelly perish in battle. Yet, the letter that was never sent was, sadly, unnecessary.
Mary Virginia Wade or “Jennie” (sometimes spelled “Ginnie”) was at her sister’s house, the now Farnsworth House Inn, baking bread in the early morning hours of the morning. As she was working in the kitchen, a bullet ripped through an exterior door and an interior door before striking Miss Wade in the back. The bullet pierced her heart and caught in her corset. She died instantly and with the infamy of being the only civilian casualty of the battle of Gettysburg. But with her death is a certain legacy for young, single women.
There is a legend about the infamous bullet hole from the shot that killed Miss Jennie Wade. Local lore says that if a young, single woman puts her ring finger through the bullet hole she will receive a marriage proposal within the year. (Granted, nothing says she has to accept the proposal.)
While vacationing at Gettysburg in 2005 with two of my college roommates after being bridesmaids at a third roommate’s wedding, the trio of us girls paid a visit to the Farnsworth House Inn. I remember we just popped inside for a moment and chatted with a guide, who told us about the legend of the door. The three of us, being single at the time and having just attended a wedding, got a good chuckle about the legend of the door. We did the whole “I’ll do it if you do it” thing as we goaded each other to stick our ring fingers through the bullet hole of the door before we left to catch our evening ghost walk. We all forgot about the door and the legend of the door… but isn’t it odd that within the year, all three of us had been proposed to– two of us were even married within that time. Were the proposals a result of the “magic bullet hole” or were they just coincidence?….
What did a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania have in common with a Major General? A deep and passionate love for their (secret) fiances. I hope you have a Happy Valentine’s Day… and leave you with this excerpt from a letter from George Edward Pickett to LaSalle Corbell Pickett, July 4, 1863:
Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your Soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.
Apologies for the late, unedited post… my house is battling some illness or other and I just don’t have the energy to spend more time on this. (It’s already a novel anyway. Sorry! I just love stories.)
My thanks to ScoobyFan for scanning the stories from the Ghost of Gettysburg books! Mine seem to have, strangely, wandered off just as I was preparing to write this post…
Finally, a shameless plug… Have you heard the travesty of a casino that is being threatened to be built on the Gettysburg Battlefield right through the middle of Pickett’s Charge?! I’m outraged! Are you?
Update: I’m happy to announce that the casino has been defeated in April 2011. Yay!
* Nesbitt, Mark. “The Homecoming.” Ghosts of Gettysburg. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1992. pp 13-16.
* —. “Castaway Souls.” More Ghosts of Gettysburg. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1992. pp 44-50.
* —. “Twice Hallowed Ground.” More Ghosts of Gettysburg. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1992. pp 27-33.