Born in Missouri, on September 15, 1841, Robert McCulloch was orphaned at a young age and sent to live with relatives in Virginia. At the start of the war, he was a student at Virginia Military Institute and was thus sent with the rest of the student body to Richmond to drill Confederate recruits. McCulloch enlisted as a Private in the Danville Grays in July of 1861. He was elected 2nd Lieutenant in October 1861, 1st Lieutenant in October 1862, and then Captain on June 19, 1863 when Capt. James D. Turner resigned on a surgeon’s certificate of disability.
The excerpt that follows is from a speech Capt. McCulloch made after attending the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913.
“…and now came the third and last day’s fight, the only part in which I participated and the only part of which I had personal knowledge. Pickett’s division had been left at Chambersburg and made the twenty-eight mile march on the second day of July. That night we slept beneath the star-bedecked sky, fully dressed and the musket close at hand. As we lay on the ground we could see reflected in the sky the campfires of the men we were to fight on the morrow. Now and then a shot and sometimes a little volley told us that the pickets on both sides were watching each other. Our confidence in them robbed us of all uneasiness, and we slept a sound, refreshing sleep. A bright, clear sunshine opened a glorious day on July 3. Our scanty morning meal was eaten with hearty relish and then each regiment was formed for inspection. A quadruple allowance of ammunition was issued to each man, and everything except arms, ammunition and canteen was piled in company lots.
We had a thin picket line on the crest of the ridge and now we marched in that direction, halting in line of battle perhaps 300 feet from this crest. Here we lay flat on the ground and soon our artillery began to take position on the hill crown, the pickets retiring to their places in line. The artillery did not at once commence firing, but their appearance invited the attention of the enemy, and then ensued a desultory duel; finally, when all our guns were in place, there were nearly 150 cannon ranged in front of the fifteen Virginia regiments which constituted Pickett’s division on that day, being the brigades of Garnett, Armistead and Kemper. Midday had now come and the sun was beaming straight down on us, though the heat did not seem to be oppressive, for we were hardened beyond the danger of sunstroke or exhaustion. Soon the peals of thunder from our own guns became more frequent and this provoked a like answer from the other side, and for two hours nearly 400 guns of the largest size then known to field service belched forth streams of fire and whistling shot as fast as skilled gunners could serve them. The grandeur of that artillery duel has perhaps never been equaled in any battle of history.
Capt. Linthicam, Gen. Garnett’s Adjutant General, passed along our line and warned us that a cessation of firing by our guns would mean that the command forward would immediately follow. This was a caution that would enable us to act promptly and in unison.
Now a hush came to our hot guns and then in clarion tones, as he stood erect in his stirrups, Pickett sang out “Forward”. Gen. Garnett repeated the command, as did each brigade commander, then each regimental leader echoed the same, and in turn every company commander. The men rose from the ground at once, and in another instant the word “march” set the division in motion, and a line a half mile long and as beautiful as if for dress parade marched gaily forward. We passed through the artillery and our comrades then uncovered their heads and uttered a farewell prayer for our success. We were now passing over the crown of the hill and the picture which we had not previously beheld was passing before us. Garnett and Kemper, with their ten regiments, a thin line, just two men deep, formed the front. Armistead, with five regiments, came behind as a reserve and this was our all. Before us a field of wheat ready for the sickle, fences, roads and washes. More than half a mile of this and then lines of infantry in blue, some having the protection of fences and of stone walls and others out in the open field. Behind them parks of artillery and up on the high ground more artillery. The task set our little thin line was to destroy all this. There was no man in all our ranks who, had he stopped to think, would not have known that he was marching to his death, but there was no man amongst us who had not faced death many, many times before, perhaps with not such odds against us as this time; but we were flushed with many victories and with a confidence in our leaders that because they ordered us to perform a task we could perform it.
Never hesitating, never faltering, the little thin line went steadily on. We were soon far enough down the slope that our own artillery could safely fire over our heads, and they followed us continually. The enemy’s big guns were now loaded differently and they tore big gaps through our ranks, their infantry, too, had better rifles than we had, and they fired on us before we dared to waste our precious ammunition; but on we marched, leaving many of our comrades stretched on the golden wheat dead or wounded. Just midway on the march our whole line was moved to the left oblique, and then steadied and aligned under the galling fire which was constantly poured on us. And now we are within a range that our old guns will be effective and the order to fire is given. The men who are left close all the spaces to the center, they fight on without fear or even excitement, each one striving for the front, and to load and shoot as rapidly as possible: and they pour well-aimed, deadly volleys into the faces of our blue-coated antagonists. Three volleys follow in rapid succession, and we drive line after line back from their positions, and silence the first line of batteries. 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 in the beginning; and our little thin line which only a little while ago marched gaily 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 bullets and the grape and the cannister had not yet found. I was one of these until two bullets left me helpless beside a gun carriage.”
After Capt. McCulloch was wounded and captured at Gettysburg, and his health recovered sufficiently, he was sent to Johnson’s Island. Finally, on March 14, 1865, he was paroled and forwarded to Point Lookout for exchange.
When the war ended Capt. McCulloch returned to Rockbridge County, Virginia for a short time before relocating to St. Louis, Missouri. There he found work and eventually became the superintendent of St. Louis’s street railway system. He died unexpectedly on September 28, 1914 from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
Compiled Service Records of Robert McCulloch and James Daniel Turner. National Archives. Digitally imaged at fold3.com
Woods, C. C. (1915). Robert McCulloch: Address … before the Missouri Historical Society. Captain McCulloch’s classic narrative of two experiences, fifty years apart at Gettysburg. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society.