Not My Brother’s Keeper

Lieutenant William Esaias Culp

The legend goes that William Culp was so incensed by his brother Wes’s fighting for the Confederacy that he would not speak his name nor allow it to be spoken in his presence for the remainder of his life. According to his service records, in January and February 1862, Wes went on furlough. In June of the same year, he is noted as being “taken prisoner while absent on furlough.” Had he headed north to see family? Hard to say, but he did wind up in a Union prison camp, and William managed to break his rules sufficiently to visit Wes. Thereafter, he wrote to their sister, Barbara Ann, that Wes was well and hoped to be released soon. And indeed, Wes was exchanged on August 5 and headed back south to rejoin his unit.

What caused the rift in the family? Part of this surely has to do with the company Wes kept. Why would William and Wes feel so differently, though, when both came from the same home and worked for the same carriage maker in Gettysburg? As with Wes, there are no obvious “why’s” in written correspondence for William, but station in life and responsibility might have had something to do with it.

William was fully eight years older than Wes, and while only four children survived in the home of Esaias and Margaret Culp, the family had buried seven other children and experienced enormous tragedy. The oldest surviving child, William may have felt a natural responsibility to his birth family. But by 1856, William’s life was vastly different from Wes’s already. Some time in the mid-1850s, William married Salome Sheads, daughter of Gettysburg residents Peter Sheads and Salome Troxell. Several happenings made 1856 a pivotal year in the Culp family.

As most know, Charles W. Hoffman elected to move his business to Shepherdstown, and he offered the Culp brothers, Daniel Edwin “Ed” Skelly, and his own sons their jobs in that location. Just sixteen years old and possibly longing for adventure, Wes took the offer, as did Ed Skelly. William passed on the opportunity. Why? Again, there are no firm answers, but it is highly likely that Salome was either pregnant by that spring or had already given birth–in 1860, William and Salome’s first child, William J. Culp, was already four years old (the younger William would apparently not survive to adulthood, as he is never listed as a survivor of his parents). Married with a child either on the way or already born and surrounded by his in-laws and his birth family, William was less likely to move away from his support system.

As was common with the Culps, though, tragedy was not far away. In November 1856, William’s mother, Margaret Ann, passed away at the age of forty-nine. William’s sister Julia was just nine years old at the time. William and his sister Barbara (then twenty-one) no doubt felt an obligation to their younger sister.

Might William have resented Wes’s untethered life in Shepherdstown? No record says as much, and later reporting makes it clear that neither Barbara Ann nor Julia held any grudge against Wes. The family feelings were further complicated when the brothers learned later that they met on the battlefield at the Second Battle of Winchester, which included the Battle of Carter’s Woods. The action between the 87th Pennsylvania and the Stonewall Brigade occurred at night, and according to Julia Culp, she quizzed Wes on his visit to her in July 1863, asking whether he really would have shot at his brother. Wes said it was night and he would not have shot at his brother.

But that battle saw Jack Skelly wounded and become a prisoner, and allegedly, improper medical treatment in Confederate hands would lead to his death in mid-July.

William Culp survived the war and finished as a 1st lieutenant, having risen from the ranks of the enlisted. He and Salome relocated their family to Chambersburg in later years, and then in 1882, at the age of fifty-one, William passed away unexpectedly. His body was returned to Gettysburg, and he was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery. Salome lived until 1912 and was honored in her obituary for her assistance of the wounded during the battle.

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