Holding Culp's Hill: the 66th Ohio at Gettysburg

Seated atop the rocks on Culp’s Hill south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, First Lieutenant Robert H. Russell of the 66th Ohio celebrated the nation’s 87th birthday by writing his uncle a letter describing the battle through which he had just passed. The lieutenant had just returned from scouring the battlefield in his front and brought back a few souvenirs scavenged from the dead Confederates that littered the ground: some paper, an ink well and pen, a portion of the sash worn by an officer, a button from the coat of Major Benjamin Watkins Leigh of Virginia, as well as a fragment of the battle flag of the 21st Virginia Volunteers.

“The loss in our division is small- about one to every 20 killed by us,” he wrote. “Our boys are in fine spirits. We have taken altogether from 12,000-20,000 prisoners and killed or wounded I don’t know how many. Our victory is a great one.”

 

Captain Robert H. Russell, Co. G, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
(Brad and Donna Pruden Collection)


Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

July 4, 1863, 9 a.m.


Dear uncle,

          You will be rejoiced to learn of our success in the great Battle of Gettysburg. It commenced on the 1st of July. We came up to the field on the afternoon of that day, but we were not engaged. Early on the morning of the 2nd, our division was deployed in the woods south of town half a mile. Had nothing to do that day but to dodge shells which came about us very thickly.

          Yesterday the 3rd at daybreak, we were taken out in front of the breastworks which had been thrown up on the 2nd by General [Nathaniel] Greene’s brigade and we soon had our hands full. We were on top of a high hill [Culp’s Hill] and the Rebels all down the side of it behind trees and rocks and some of them within two rods of us. After firing a while, we retired inside the breastworks. The Rebels came up thick and fast, but only to be mowed down by our boys. Continual musketry was kept up all day along our line- never stopped a minute until after dark. It seemed one of the longest days I ever saw. About 10 a.m. Major Joshua Palmer was shot through the breast-mortally wounded. He is not dead yet but will die the Surgeon says. Lieutenants Morgan and Butts were also wounded, both in the leg. Sergeant William Scott of Co. D was mortally wounded about this time. In the evening, Sergeant W.V. Taylor was shot in the forehead by a spent ball. He is the only one hurt in Co. G. It would have done your heart good to see the boys come up to the work with a yell. And then they took everything so coolly. Brave boys are they.

Major Benjamin Watkins Leigh, assistant adjutant general on the staff of General Ewell. To read more about Watkins' life and demise, check out Jonathan Tracey's article entitled "More than a Stereotype? A Reflection on the Life of Benjamin Watkins Leigh."

          We killed General [Richard] Ewell’s adjutant general yesterday [Major Benjamin Watkins Leigh]. He came up on horseback within a hundred yards of us and the boys just riffled him and his horse. I send you a piece of his coat and a piece of the battle flag of the 21st Virginia, and also a piece of a sash worn yesterday by a Rebel officer of the day. [Adjutant Tod Keller of the 66th Ohio took the sword knot from Leigh’s sword and put it on his own sword.]

 

“General Ewell’s assistant adjutant general Major Benjamin W. Leigh came up with orders to break our line at all hazards and led the column to within a short distance of our lines when they received the fire of the whole division. Leigh and his horse, together with over 100 men, fell together and from the number of balls which passed through him, it is supposed at least 500 men must have aimed at him. His body was brought in and Lee’s order found on him commanding General Ewell to break the line at all hazards and at whatever cost.” ~ Private William A. Brand, Co. G, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

 

          This morning all was quiet, so we went over the breastworks and examined the field in front of us. Oh, it was terrible to see the loss of life. There must have been a thousand Rebels lying over the ground and all but five or six were dead. I heard General John Geary’s adjutant general say that our division had gathered up 5,000 stand of arms this morning. Yesterday, the 24th Virginia threw down their arms and poured over the breastworks in fine style. They said they were going to quit. Our brigade took ten or eleven stands of colors. [78 Confederates, primarily from the 4th Virginia, surrendered themselves to the 7th Ohio Infantry, in the same brigade as the 66th Ohio, on July 3rd.]


          On our left yesterday, Longstreet with 20,000 infantry tried to break the lines, but they signally failed, only about 5,000 escaped. The rest with old General Longstreet were either killed or taken prisoners. Longstreet had one leg shot off and this morning he is reported dead. There is a report that General A.P. Hill is a prisoner, but I don’t credit it. We have lost two major generals- Reynolds and Sickles. The loss in our division is small- about one to every 20 killed by us.

          Our boys are in fine spirits. We have taken altogether from 12,000-20,000 prisoners and killed or wounded I don’t know how many. Our victory is a great one. On the left, they are still shaving Lee and we expect to take his whole army yet! You ought to be here just to see for yourself how large a battlefield looks. This is Rebel paper and ink with which I write. It is beginning to rain and I’ll have to quit. Give my love to all. I send this by a citizen to the office.

 

Yours faithfully,

Robert H. Russell

 

          Captain John O. Dye of Co. D of the 66th Ohio also brought a souvenir from the battlefield: it was a letter written by a woman in Onslow County, North Carolina to her beau in the Confederate army, a soldier named Moses D. Mott. Moses Mott served as a private in Co. K of the 3rd North Carolina State Troops and was listed as being killed in action at Gettysburg. The 3rd N.C. was part of General George H. Steuart’s brigade of Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps and suffered 40% casualties during its July 2nd evening assault on Culp’s Hill.

 

Culp's Hill at Gettysburg. The profusion of graves on the eastern slopes of the hill gives testimony of the desperate fighting that occurred on July 2nd and 3rd. 

Onslow Co., North Carolina

May 11, 1863

Mr. Moses D. Mott, dear respected friend,

          It is with much pleasure that I now attempt to write you a few lines in compliance with your request of April 19th which came to hand a few days ago. I was truly glad to hear from you and to hear that you were well. We are well at present.

          I have no news to write you more than we are expecting the Yankees in Onslow every day. They killed one of our pickets last week and I have heard heavy firing towards the [New] river yesterday. You spoke of this not being a people’s war and I think you are right. It is the poor people fighting for the rich people’s property- for their Negroes. I want the tormenting war to end and I want it to end without one Negro in the southern states. I shall not insult you by saying I don’t care which side whips for I am a Union lady and I am not afraid nor ashamed to own it. I am sorry you fare so badly. I fault no one for deserting, for if you believe, I would not fight at all.

          I am glad to hear from your brother that he is well and doing well. I would go to him if I were in your place. As for a good reason, I do not think you need stand for that for if you stay where you are till you get killed, the rich people won’t care for you. So my advice to you is to go where your brother is by hook or crook, and if you go write me before you go and when you get there, too, if you can.

          We have just received a letter from brother; he had just returned from the fight at Suffolk. When I think of past times we have all seen together and the trouble now, I can’t help shedding tears. Moses, I would be glad to see you and want this war to end so I may once more see some of my friends. When you write to your brother, give him my best respects. Excuse me for not writing sooner, for I could not get stamps. Mother sends her best compliments. Excuse bad writing for one of the pickets is waiting for my letter. You will oblige me by an early answer.

Your affectionate friend,

Nancy E. Morris

 

Source:

Letter from First Lieutenant Robert H. Russell, Co. G, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Urbana Citizen & Gazette (Ohio), July 23, 1863, pg. 1

Quote from Private William A. Brand, Masters, Daniel A., editor. Army Life According to Arbaw: Civil War Letters of William A. Brand, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2019, pg. 155 (purchase here)

Letter from Nancy E. Morris; Masters, op. cit., pg. 157; Onslow County is along the Carolina coast between Wilmington and New Bern, Jacksonville being the largest city.




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