On July 18, 1914, Confederate veteran Robert McCulloch stood in front of the City Club of St. Louis to give a speech on “The High Tide at Gettysburg.” Known colloquially as “Captain,” McCulloch was no ordinary St. Louis citizen. At the time of the speech, he was the president of the United Railways Company and had a long career in the railroad business. Perhaps more importantly, McCulloch was severely wounded and remarkably survived being left for dead on the Gettysburg battlefield after participating in Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. Fifty years later, he descended once again on that battlefield to be a part of the famous 1913 50th Anniversary and Reunion. Now, on that July 1914 day in the Gateway City, Captain McCulloch was to share his story with fellow St. Louisans.
Born in 1841 in the western Missouri town of Osceola, Robert McCulloch was actually raised in Rockbridge County, Virginia. He attended Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I) until the outbreak of the war. In the fall of 1861, McCulloch enlisted in Company B of the 18th Virginia Infantry in Fairfax Court House. He was soon promoted to lieutenant, likely due to his experience at V.M.I. According to his compiled service record, McCulloch was wounded on June 30, 1862 at the Battle of Glendale during the Peninsula Campaign. Almost a year to the day of his wounding on the Peninsula, as the Army of Northern Virginia began its march north through the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1863, McCulloch was promoted to captain, forever giving him his cherished nickname.
As Captain McCulloch spoke to the City Club in St. Louis fifty years later, he described his experience, wounding, and subsequent capture at Gettysburg. A part of Garnett’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division, McCulloch and the 18th Virginia advanced straight into the II Corps’ line upon Cemetery Ridge.
Garnett has been killed, Kemper has a leg shot away, and the command is all Armistead’s now, and smaller in number than had been his own brigade at the beginning; and our little thin line, which only a little while ago marched galley over the crest of the hill half a mile away and beyond the wheat field, has grown thinner and thinner, the survivors being just those whom the bullet and the grape and the cannister [sic] had not yet found. I was one of these until two bullets left me helpless beside a gun carriage.
McCulloch survived his wounding and capture at Gettysburg, and would be exchanged and returned to the front lines later in the war. Just three years after the war, he married and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, McCulloch had a successful career in the railroad business in Missouri and Illinois. By the time he gave this speech at the City Club in 1914, he had been the president of the United Railways Company for ten years.
Reflecting on his experiences from fifty years prior, McCulloch described the importance of a reunion to honor the veterans of Gettysburg and of the Civil War. As an attendee of the 50th anniversary at Gettysburg in 1913, to him, the reunion represented the spirit of reconciliation and reunion between the former adversaries.
The half century that has drifted behind us since this contest has vested the battle of Gettysburg with a large degree of importance, because it was a measure of strength and valor and endurance between two splendid armies of hardened and trained soldiers … a realization of these conditions brought to the government at Washington the conception of a plan to bring together on this same battle ground the survivors of the men of both sides who had so valiantly faced each other … Never before were there 50,000 and more men assembled in one compact camp, whose ages averaged more than three score and ten. These men were antagonists fifty years ago, and they had come to renew and revive memories of the bitterest and bloodiest struggle of history; the eyes that glared savagely into each other then were filled with kindness now; the hand that clutched fiercely and wielded with deadly purpose the implement of death then were extended now in hearty grasp of good will.
Most special to McCulloch, however, was meeting his fellow veterans of Pickett’s Charge, both Federal and Confederate. Though adversaries fifty years ago, McCulloch and the other veterans embraced one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
A little knot wearing Pickett badges had gathered at a historic spot where another party in blue uniforms and wearing their corps insignia gathered with us. We found that right here fifty years ago, almost to the minute, we had been almost as close together but each seeking the other’s life. “I am glad I didn’t hurt you,” was the sentiment heartily expressed now and emphasized by a hand grasp and that was some times an embrace and a mutual expression of admiration.
Toward the end of his speech, McCulloch reflected on the meaning of the reunion to the old veterans of the “Blue & Gray.”
And as we came away there was this reflection and this sweet memory. There had been no apology, no explanation, no expression of regret, no humiliation, no retraction, no recanting. Each conceded to the other the well-earned right to boast of his prowess, each honored the other’s loyalty and zeal and skill of the other, each acknowledged that the other had been a “foreman worthy of his steel.” The cheek of each flushed, the eye of each gleamed the fire of youth, the form of each became involuntarily and unconsciously tense as memory recounted the past, but overshadowing the it all and absorbing all came welling up from the heart. “Old boy, I’ll never, never, never, shoot at you again.”
Less than two months after Robert McCulloch gave this speech, he succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. According to The St. Louis Star & Times newspaper, his City Club speech about Gettysburg was the last speech he ever made. Though not all Civil War veterans embraced reconciliation, McCulloch himself cherished the brotherhood of the reunion. Seen throughout his last speech, fraternity and reconciliation were the themes of how McCulloch remembered his service in the Civil War and in the reunion.
“Capt. M’Culloch Head of U. Rys. Dies Suddenly,” September 28, 1914, The St. Louis Star and Times, St. Louis, MO.