By now, the story has become familiar to people interested in Gettysburg. John Wesley Culp–yes, with the same surname of the family for whom the famous hill is named–leaves Gettysburg in 1856 to work with carriage maker C. W. Hoffman in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia). He is friends with Jack Skelly and Jennie Wade. The war starts. Jack joins the Pennsylvania 2nd Infantry, then later the 87th. So do Wes’s brother William as well as Wes’s other Skelly friend, Charles Edwin “Ed” Skelly. Wes, however, joins the 2nd Virginia Infantry, which becomes part of the Stonewall Brigade. In 1863, Jack is wounded at the Second Battle of Winchester. Supposedly, Wes sees him in Confederate custody and gets a letter to bring back to Mrs. Skelly or Jennie Wade or maybe both. But he is never able to deliver it (or them). He is killed on the hill that bears his surname at The Battle of Gettysburg. Or actually, maybe not on the hill. Turns out, maybe it was near Wolf’s Hill or maybe Benner Hill.
The day after Wes is killed, Jennie is killed by a Confederate sharpshooter’s bullet. In her apron pocket is a photo of Jack Skelly. A few days later, still in Confederate custody, Jack Skelly dies from infections in his wounds, never to know that Jennie has died. William Culp, Wes’s brother, never speaks his brother’s name nor permits it to be mentioned in his presence for the rest of his life. And through the years, the Skelly, Myers, and Wade families will insist that the undelivered message was a proposal or plans for a fall wedding between the two fallen young sweethearts. Brother versus brother. Friend versus friend. Star-crossed lovers. Tragedy. A thousand what-ifs.
The story itself probably isn’t quite so tidy, though close, and a well-researched version of it can be found here.
A question that hangs over the entire story, though, is why? Why did Ed Skelly return home from Shepherdstown while Wes did not? Why did the circle of friends–the Skellys (including Johnston, Sr.,), William Culp, cousin David Culp, etc.–go with other Gettysburg young men to enlist for the Union, while Wes not only remained in the South, but joined the famous Stonewall Brigade?
No writings exist that explain precisely why, but we get hints from the old records. And those hints point to status, money, friendships, premature death, and restless souls that could never quite settle down. To see the roots of these tensions, it helps to go to 1850s Gettysburg. Wes’s father, Esaias Jesse Culp (went by Jesse) is a tailor–like Johnston Skelly, Sr., James Wade, Mary Ann Wade, Georgia McClellan, and Jennie Wade. Money is an issue for at least the Wade and the Skelly families. The Wade family had a stint in the Alms House in 1846 while Mary Ann was pregnant and James was struggling to provide for the family. By 1852, James Wade is in the Alms House, declared “very insane.” Mary Ann, Georgia, and Jennie are scraping by, as they perform tailoring functions for the Skellys (the Skellys will vouch for Mary Ann in her petition to receive a pension because of Jennie’s death).
Similarly, Jack Skelly and his brother write home frequently to their mother, always mentioning when money is coming, always promising to send home almost their entire paychecks, always checking to see whether what they were sending is sufficient.
Wesley Culp descended from Peter Kolb who changed his name to Culp. His progeny were all over Gettysburg working in anything from cabinet making to tailoring to management at the Alms House (Jesse’s cousin Jacob and his family lived at the premises and served the population; they may well have been working with James Wade).
It’s probably not surprising, then, that both William and Wesley Culp took positions with carriage and coach maker Charles William Hoffman. Charles Hoffman was one of Gettysburg’s most prominent property owners and businessmen. In addition to his business, he owned ten properties in and around Gettysburg. In 1856, for reasons unclear to historians, but maybe more obvious to business people, Hoffman moved his business to Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Hoffman had three sons–Robert, Francis, and Wesley–working for him, and he offered, as well, to bring the Culps and Skellys in his employment. William Culp was eight years older than Wesley. In most family group sheets, we see four children born to Jesse and Margaret Culp. This is not accurate–in fact, Margaret Culp gave birth to eleven children, many of which did not live long enough to be given names or christened. Tragedy haunted the family, as did ill health. As the oldest, William likely felt obligated to stay, and in fact, his mother may have already become ill–while Hoffman, his sons, Ed Skelly, and Wesley Culp would leave for Shepherdstown in the spring of 1856, Margaret Culp would pass away in November of that same year.
The contrast in the families’ circumstances may well have contributed to Wes’s decision. Further, a contrarian and independent spirit may have run in the family. Wes’s father, Jesse, a lifelong Lutheran until adulthood had upset his own family be becoming a Methodist during a revival period. Once in Shepherdstown, Wes’s strongest influences were undoubtedly the Hoffman boys, the chief of which would have been the stubborn and restless Robert Hoffman.
Robert and Wes went together to join the Hamtramck Guards, a local militia unit with roots back to the early 1800s. For Wes, this probably connected him to other young men and strengthened his social network. And for most observers, that seems to be why he fell in with the Confederacy–he joined the Guards to get friends, the Guards joined the 2nd Virginia, the 2nd Virginia became part of the Stonewall Brigade, and the Stonewall Brigade went to fight at Gettysburg. The end.
It’s important to remember that Ed Skelly went home and enlisted for the Union, while Wes did not. Not only did he not return home, he took up arms against his friends and family–literally. In 1861, Jack Skelly wrote home indicating he had heard they might have passed by Wes Culp on the way to a possible battle. In the Second Battle of Winchester, the 87th Pennsylvania and the Stonewall Brigade faced each other. Both Jack Skelly and his brother were captured.
Again, no one has written down Wes’s why, but family and friend circumstances might suggest the answers. Just two years after opening his carriage business in Shepherdstown, Charles Hoffman announced that he was selling his Gettysburg properties and his business space in Shepherdstown. In the course of time, he bought a 500-acre property on the border of the Faquier and Warren counties, Virginia, that he called Linden. With it, he purchased seven enslaved persons. The Hoffman boys moved with their parents, and Wes moved to Martinsburg in order to take a similar job. Why didn’t Wes go home when the Hoffmans went further south? He had already lost his mother, and some time thereafter, his father remarried. The new bride was Martha G. Creager–born in 1833, she was twenty-six years younger than Jesse and just six years older than Wes. Even that was a fleeting adjustment to the family. In June 1861, after the first shots at Fort Sumter and before First Bull Run, Jesse Culp also died.
Both Robert and Wes kept their involvement in the Hamtramck Guards, and both traveled to Shepherdstown periodically to see friends and attend Guard events. When the War opened, Wes may well have felt more connected to the Hoffmans, particularly Robert, than to the family members left back in Gettysburg. With the Hoffman family involvement in the “peculiar institution” and with deep social connections, Wes’s decision seems more natural. Hence, it’s more understandable that the two enlisted with the Hamtramck Guards.
Robert, who had dropped out of college during his stint in Shepherdstown, proved to be restless and stubborn in the service. His record is dotted with various instances of being AWOL (absent without leave), though like many Confederate young men who did not respond well to authority, he appears to have shown back up in time for campaigning and battles. This generally meant little to no punishment. After the war, Robert bounced around different farms and jobs until he wound up in Texas, then died relatively young in the 1890s. Robert may well have been at Gettysburg with Wes, though not in a combat role.
According to the family, Wes visited the night of July 1 / morning of July 2. Beyond indicating that he had a message for Mrs. Skelly, he also promised his sisters that he would never fire on his own brother and had not known that he had squared off against the 87th Pennsylvania at Winchester until the fight was over. His sisters begged him to stay through that whole night, but Wes felt obligated to get back to his unit. He promised to visit the next night. Instead, he became the only man in the 2nd Virginia killed on July 2. His family never recovered his body (despite legends to the contrary), and his body was never identified, though the butt of his rifle was recovered and is now in possession of the Gettysburg National Military Park. His body may well have been moved to the cemetery in Shepherdstown or possibly to Richmond. Or it may still be on the field today. That and his real reasons remain mysteries to this day.