“My God, what a scene it was!” On the right flank at Chancellorsville

This letter was published in the May 19, 1863 issue of the Norwalk Reflector. First Lieutenant Edward C. Culp of Co. C, 25th Ohio Infantry was serving as a member of General Nathaniel McLean’s staff during the battle; McLean led the Second Brigade of General Charles Devens’ First Division of the 11th Corps. McLean’s brigade consisted of the 17th Connecticut (a new regiment) and four Ohio regiments- the 25th, 55th, 75th, and the sole German regiment of the brigade, the newly formed 107th Ohio. General Devens was wounded during the battle and McLean took command of the division, hence Culp’s heading as being at the headquarters of the First Division.

Lieutenant Edward C. Culp, 25th Ohio Infantry
(Photo courtesy of Tom Edwards at Find-a-Grave)

Nathaniel McLean, the son of Supreme Court justice John McLean, was a noted Cincinnati attorney that with John Reilly raised the 75th Ohio regiment in late 1861. Following the battle of Cross Keys, he was given command of a brigade consisting of the 25th, 55th, 75th Ohio regiments; these three regiments would serve together until shortly after Gettysburg when, with the 25th and 75th so reduced by losses, those regiments were sent to South Carolina. McLean led his Ohioans to glory during Second Bull Run, the 55th Ohio in particular gaining recognition for its staunch fighting on August 30th. McLean was promoted to brigadier general November 29, 1862 and his future looked promising. But the debacle at Chancellorsville changed that.

McLean’s brigade was one of the first Federal units struck during Stonewall Jackson’s celebrated flank attack at Chancellorsville and was driven from the field after suffering very heavy losses. General McLean assumed division command for a time after Chancellorsville but in the 11th Corps command shake-up that followed Chancellorsville, General McLean was ordered back to Ohio where he served as provost marshal under General Ambrose Burnside. Edward Culp would be promoted to the rank of major and would later write a regimental history of the 25th Ohio. He passed away in 1904 at age 61 and is buried at Gypsum Hill Cemetery in Salina, Kansas.

As a key member of General McLean’s staff, Lieutenant Culp was riding with McLean when the Confederate flank attack hit and recorded the shock of that assault. “Suddenly a terrible crashing noise was heard on our right flank and the next instant grape and canister were tearing through us. While we were expecting the enemy from the front they had massed their troops on our right flank and now 30,000 Rebels were surrounding our small division of not more than 4,000 men. My God, what a scene it was!”

Brigadier General Nathaniel C. McLean

Headquarters, 1st Division, 11th Corps

Camp near Brooks’ Station, Virginia

May 7, 1863

          I returned last night from the hardest campaign I ever experienced. I will try and give you a detailed account of it from the time we left here on the 27th of last month. For several days we had been expecting marching orders and were continually supplied with eight days’ rations. On the morning of the 27th, we packed up and at 9 o’clock were on the march. None of us knew where we were going, but the boys were in fine spirits and ready to meet the enemy.

Major General Oliver Otis Howard led the 11th Corps at Chancellorsville
          Our march was towards Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock, which we crossed on the night of the 28th without loss, the 11th Corps leading the way. Our corps rested here until the next day about noon letting the 12th Corps (General Slocum) take the advance. That night we reached Germanna Ford on the Rapidan; here 150 Rebels were taken while building a bridge. Our pioneers immediately went to work on the bridge and at 3 o’clock the next morning the 11th Corps crossed without loss and encamped about a mile from the river. We rested here until 10 o’clock that day, letting the 12th Corps again precede us as we had taken the advance across the river. We were annoyed some on the march that day by a section of Rebel flying artillery which shelled our column but without at all impeding our march. That night, the 30th of April, we encamped at Chancellorsville, throwing out strong pickets.

Lieutenant Culp later met up with his close friend
William S. Wickham of the 55th Ohio in an attempt
to rally the brigade.
          On the 1st we still held our position, throwing entrenchments and digging rifle pits, as from the movements of the enemy it was evident they intended to attack us. Heavy skirmishing was kept up all day and several times we were in line of battle; but the enemy were only feeling us to find our weak places. I had had very little sleep while on the march as General McLean had his hands full and gave all his staff officers plenty to attend to. It was evident to us that on the morrow (the 2nd) we would have a battle, and we laid down in the evening to obtain some rest. I was called up in the night to make a detail of three companies to throw up some earthen works and it was daylight before I again laid down. Skirmishing was then going on along the line. I hardly know what force we had in the vicinity of Chancellorsville at that time but think about 40-50,000 and perhaps more.

          The morning of the 2nd of May opened beautifully; the men were all in fine spirits and waited impatiently for the enemy. Our division occupied the extreme right of the line, Colonel Von Gilsa’s brigade first and General McLean’s brigade next. I did not know the disposition of the other divisions but supposed that we were amply supported. The sequel will prove whether we were or not. As you are already acquainted with our brigade, I will explain to you how we were dispersed. Our line of rifle pits ran nearly east and west fronting a little southwest. The 55th Ohio lay in the entrenchment on the right next to Von Gilsa’s brigade, the 75th Ohio in the rear as reserve. On the left of the 55th Ohio lay the 107th Ohio, a German regiment, also in the entrenchments; the 17th Connecticut on the left of the 107th. The 25th Ohio lay in reserve in rear of the left of the brigade.

Map showing the position of the 11th Corps on May 2, 1863. McLean's brigade was positioned along the Plank Road right out on the right flank; only a few New York regiments refused the flank and when the Confederates struck, it was with the unstoppable strength of an avalanche. Colonel John C. Lee of the 55th Ohio later wrote that the men of his brigade were no more to blame for the disaster at Chancellorsville then bowling pins in an alley when struck by a ball.

          As the day advanced the skirmishing gradually died away and at noon and ominous clam pervaded the whole line. Our horses were saddled, the bits being only out of their mouths at feeding time. Division and our brigade headquarters were together in the yard of a farmhouse owned by a Connecticut man named Hatch. He was Secesh and the family all left for the woods. Three o’clock came and all was silent as the day was hot and the air sultry.

Charles P. Wickham of the 55th Ohio later served in Congress.
He was serving as Captain of Co. I at Chancellorsville.
(Photo courtesy of Bill McKern, Find-a-Grave)

Five o’clock passed without anything occurring and evening was fast coming on. The General looked at his watch and said it was six o’clock. I told him I would take the bits out and give my horse some oats. My hand was on the bridle when some excitement was manifested down the line. “Mount gentlemen!” exclaimed General McLean. In a moment we were galloping down the line. The men were all at their posts looking in front for the enemy. As the General passed they clapped their hands and he told them to remember their duty and stand to the work like men. We reached the right of the brigade. All was quiet for a moment and I wondered what the alarm was. Suddenly a terrible crashing noise was heard on our right flank and the next instant grape and canister were tearing through us. While we were expecting the enemy from the front they had massed their troops on our right flank and now 30,000 Rebels were surrounding our small division of not more than 4,000 men. My God, what a scene it was!

A map showing the position of the First Division at the point of attack- the arrayed ranks of troops to the right represent the regiments of Jackson's flank attack. It is plain to see why this flank folded so quickly when confronted by such a concentration of force. Captain Elias Montfort of the 75th Ohio had this map drawn up to accompany his 1891 National Tribune article about Chancellorsville.

Von Gilsa’s brigade broke, hardly firing a shot. What could our brigade do? General McLean sent me with an order to Colonel [William P.] Richardson of the 25th Ohio to deploy his regiment to try to check the enemy. Right gallantly the 25th came in line under the most terrible fire I ever experienced, but they could not fire for fear of shooting Von Gilsa’s men who were breaking through the ranks; the 55th Ohio then moved by the flank and formed in rear of the 25th. Our brave boys went down by hundreds but now they delivered their fire steadily, closing up the ranks as the grape and canister tore through them. Soon the order was given to fall back and then it looked to me like a total rout.

Colonel John C. Lee, 55th Ohio
Lee later served as lieutenant governor of Ohio
Before the order to retreat had been given, my horse became perfectly frantic and dismounted me in about two seconds. I supposed he was struck by some pieces of spent shell that burst some distance from me and he has common sense enough to know when he is safe. I found him last night all right. Most of the loss of our brigade sustained was while we maintained our position which was only about ten minutes. Colonel [John C.] Lee’s [55th Ohio] horse was mortally wounded and became so excited that he dashed the Colonel off bruising him somewhat. Colonel Richardson and Major [Jeremiah] Williams of the 25th were both wounded and fell from their horses while getting the regiment into line. Major [James M.] Stevens of the 55th is missing and is supposed to be a prisoner; that was a report that he was shot dead. Colonel [Robert] Reilly of the 75th Ohio was shot dead. Colonel [William H.] Noble of the 17th Connecticut was badly wounded while Lieutenant Colonel [Charles] Walter of the same regiment was killed. Colonel [Seraphim] Meyer of the 107th Ohio was also badly wounded. So you can see by the loss of mounted officers that they all did their duty. When General Mclean rode down the line just before the battle commenced five staff officers were with him. In ten minutes but two were left: Lieutenant McQuhae and myself. Captain Powers, assistant inspector general was badly wounded; Captain Weber, aide-de-camp, his arm was shot off; Captain Mensel, aide-de-camp, his horse was shot and he was missing.

As we retreated it became quite a panic among some of the brigades. Our division commander General Devens was wounded and the last order I carried was from him to General McLean to take command of the division. General McLean’s horse was wounded but he kept to the saddle, doing all in his power to rally the men but it was no use. A German division that was to support us broke and ran before we came to them without firing a shot! The 12th Corps came to our support and gallantly checked the enemy. The 11th Corps is of course disgraced but with a loss of 1,000 out of our one brigade (more than all the balance of the corps lost) I think we can stand it.

The fight lasted till about 11 o’clock that night, winding up with the most terrible cannonading I ever heard. All of our artillery was massed and opened on the closed columns of the Rebels; it effectually checked their advance. During the whole fight that afternoon and evening the Rebels must have lost terribly, much more than we did. The loss of our brigade in killed, wounded, and missing is as follows from the official report I sent in the next evening: 55th Ohio 193, 25th Ohio 216, 75th Ohio 213, 17th Connecticut 183, 107th Ohio 197, total 1,002. No troops could fight better than the 55th, 75th, and 25th Ohio did before they were ordered to retreat. Both of the color bearers of the 25th Ohio were wounded but the colors were brought off safely. The flag staff of the 55th colors was shot away but the color sergeant Paul Jones brought the colors off. Both flags of the 107th Ohio were lost.

Captain [William S.] Wickham and myself came across each other during the retreat and agreed to stay with each other and do what we could for the cause; late in the evening we succeeded in rallying some portions of our brigade. We did not take part in the fight on the 3rd but it was a terrible one and resulted in the repulse of the Rebels. You will see an account of that day’s fight probably in a few days. On the 4th and 5th we were in readiness for a fight, but nothing was done but skirmishing. The Rebels tried several times to break our lines but were each time repulsed with terrible slaughter. On the morning of the 6th we recrossed the Rappahannock unmolested and last night were back at our old quarters at Brooks’ Station.

Major General Joseph Hooker

Thus ended the shortest and most terrible campaign ever witnessed on this continent. Whether we lost or gained is a matter of conjecture. But I am just as confident in General Hooker now as I was before the battle and I believe he will yet clean them out. The Army of the Potomac is yet confident and willing to be led by old Joe Hooker. I sent you a dispatch from the battlefield saying that Charlie, Will, and myself were safe. [Culp is referring to Charles and William Wickham, both officers of the 55th Ohio and sons of the editor of the Norwalk Reflector Frederick Wickham] I do not know whether you received it or not. I got off with my usual good luck being only struck with a spent ball. General McLean is now commanding the division and Colonel Lee the brigade, what there is left of it.

E.C. Culp

For another story concerning McLean's Ohioans at Chancellorsville, please check out my blog post regarding Captain Franklin Sauter of Co. B, 55th Ohio who was killed during this engagement and is buried in my hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio. 


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