25 September 2013

Private Robert S. Culbertson: From Shiloh to the Culbertson House

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Private Robert S. Culbertson: From Shiloh to the Culbertson House

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
July 31, 2013

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This month’s feature highlights Civil War veteran Robert S. Culbertson, nephew of Fort Benton’ founder Alexander Culbertson. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com..

While many Montanans know the Culbertson name and that Alexander Culbertson established the upper Missouri Fort Benton trading post for the American Fur Company, fewer are familiar with his nephew Robert S. Culbertson. Yet, Robert served in the Union army during the Civil War, came up the Missouri to Fort Benton to become a prominent hotel owner and raise a large family that is still spread around the state and country.

Robert Simpson, one of five sons of James F. and Biddy Culbertson, was born March 26, 1843 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania about fifty miles west of Gettysburg. Most of the James Culbertson family moved west to southern Ohio where young Robert was raised.

When President Lincoln called for 90-day volunteers to build up the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, eighteen-year-old Robert S. Culbertson enlisted as a private in Company K of the 6th Ohio Infantry Regiment. As it became clear the South would not quickly return to the Union, the 6th Ohio was re-formed, and Robert re-enlisted for a three-year term of service.

Immediately after being mustered in and equipped, the 6th Ohio was ordered to western Virginia to take part in operations at Laurel Hill and the subsequent pursuit of Confederate forces, ending in the battle of Carrick’s Ford. This minor but important battle routed the Confederates in a key victory for Union forces as they took control of what would become the loyal Union state of West Virginia.

The 6th Ohio transferred to operations in the Western Theater, and on April 5, 1862 went into camp at Savannah, Tennessee near Pittsburg Landing or Shiloh. The next morning the Battle of Shiloh opened, and the 6th Ohio rushed across country to become among the first of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of Ohio troops to cross the Tennessee River to reinforce General Ulysses Grant’s beleaguered force. The river crossing by steamboat was under fire and with two other regiments the 6th Ohio was thrown into the line just in time to repel the last charge Confederate forces made that day.

At the major Battle of Shiloh, the 6th Ohio commanded by Lt. Col. Nicholas L. Anderson was assigned to the Tenth Brigade under the Fourth Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. William Nelson, known as “Bull” Nelson for his 300-pound size. Gen. Nelson was a colorful leader, wearing his hat with a large ostrich feather dyed black and mounted on his 17 hands black stallion Ned. Colonel Anderson submitted this report of the battle:
   “The regiment was disembarked at about 5 o'clock on the evening of the 6th instant [April], and marched up the hill as quickly as possible amid the confusion and panic existing among some disorganized regiments at the landing place. I formed line of battle, under your directions, some 200 yards from the river, to support a battery then in danger of being charged by the enemy. The regiment laid on arms all night, two companies acting as skirmishers.
   “At daylight on the 7th the [Tenth] brigade formed in line of battle, skirmishers
in advance, the Sixth [Ohio] Regt. holding the right [flank]. About a mile from the place we had occupied in the night our advance met the enemy, and the battle was immediately opened. During the day the regiment was continually under a hot and heavy fire, supporting for the greater time Terrill's regular battery [5th U.S. Artillery], and at one time furnishing a company to manage the guns of said battery, its men having been mostly killed or wounded.
   “The regiment was held as a reserve, and once changed front perpendicular to the rear, and once forward on the first company, in order to re-enforce our hotly-attacked lines. Late in the afternoon we advanced briskly forward and occupied the left of the ground once occupied by [Confederate Brig. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s] brigade, which had been all day in the possession of the enemy.”

The 6th Ohio then participated in operations leading to the vital rail hub at Corinth, Mississippi, and in the subsequent pursuit of the Confederates for 60 miles south of Corinth. In December 1862, the 6th Ohio was heavily engaged at Stone’s River, losing 159 killed, wounded, or prisoners out of 383 officers and men. In the battle of Chickamauga the 6th Ohio took more heavy casualties, losing 125 of the 384-man force. The 6th engaged in more heavy combat at Chattanooga being deployed in advance of Four Corps on Orchard Knob and in the charge up Missionary Ridge.

More action came during the Knoxville campaign followed in the spring of 1864 by the Battle of Atlanta. On June 6, the 6th Ohio Infantry was released from duty and ordered home to muster out. The regiment arrived at Cincinnati on June 15, and after a public reception given by the residents, the regiment including Private Culbertson was mustered out June 23 with 30 officers and 495 men.

With the end of Robert Culbertson’s war, he decided to remain in Tennessee. In the words of his great-grandson Bill Culbertson, Robert became “a carpetbagger,” serving as Chief of Police in Memphis. In these early years of Reconstruction, Memphis faced many racial problems.

During the war Memphis had been a hub for freed slaves, and the black population had swelled rapidly. At the end of the war black Union Army soldiers patrolled the streets, often clashing with white Memphis policemen, most of whom were Irish immigrants. Most of the black troops were mustered out of service on April 30, 1866 and the following day fighting broke out between the black ex-soldiers and white policemen. Fighting escalated into three days of full-scale rioting, and these Memphis Riots coupled with the similar New Orleans Riot swept Radical Reconstructionists, who wanted justice and equality for former slaves, into office in 1866 fall congressional elections. With their veto-proof majority, the Radical Republicans were able to pass key legislation including the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing citizenship, equal protection of the law, and due process to former slaves.

The Memphis Riots led to major changes in modernization of the Memphis police force. What we don’t know is the exact role of Robert Culbertson in this tragic affair. The Chief of Police at the time of the riots was Ben G. Garrett. Did Culbertson come in as part of the reform movement after the riots? Based on the timing of Culbertson’s departure from Memphis, it is likely that he came as a reformer in the aftermath of the 1866 Memphis Riots.

In any event, by 1868 Robert Culbertson decided he had had enough of Tennessee. Prompted by the urging of his uncle Alexander Culbertson, who himself was just returning to the upper Missouri with his family, in the summer of 1868 Robert boarded a steamboat at St. Louis for the long trip up the Missouri River to Fort Benton.

Robert worked for his uncle for a short time before being hired to clerk in the store of I. G. Baker & Company in Fort Benton. Robert’s daughter Mollie Culbertson Sedgwick later wrote that her father told many stories of his experiences working there. He was regularly sent to the Cypress Hills with the payroll for the I. G. Baker store located there then doing extensive trade with the Indians. He would travel on horse back for several days on these trips. Mollie wrote that her father’s Indian name was Cap-cape-a-ca meaning “Cypress Hills.”

In 1877 Robert Culbertson left I. G. Baker & Co. to engage in the hotel business in Fort Benton. In partnership with Robert Mills, they opened a wood frame building on Front Street known as the Centennial Hotel in honor of the country’s centennial. By April 1881, Culbertson bought out his partner and became sole owner of the Centennial.

On April 7, 1879 Robert S. Culbertson and Lydia Ann Smith were united in marriage in Fort Benton. Eleven children were born, with nine attaining adulthood, and many descendants live today around Montana and other states.

By the early 1880s, the steamboat trade was booming, and Fort Benton was undergoing a building boom. Responding to the opening of the Grand Union in November 1882, R. S. Culbertson moved his Centennial Hotel to the back of the alley of his lot on Front Street in preparation for stonework for a new brick hotel. The Centennial continued to operate during construction of the new hotel, completed in 1883 and opened as the Pacific Hotel. Over the years this hotel became commonly known as the Culbertson House. Preserved by the family and other owners over the years, the Culbertson House stands today as a bright example of Fort Benton days of steamboat glory.

After the death of Lydia on October 15, 1912, Robert continued to operate his hotel until the fall of 1915 when decided he’d lived through enough [48] tough Montana winters and retired to an Old Soldiers Home in Los Angeles. Private Robert S. Culbertson passed on January 15, 1923 at Los Angeles, California. In the words of his great-grandson Bill Culbertson, “Montana was good to Robert, he went from being a clerk and deliveryman to eventually owning two farms and the Culbertson House Hotel in Fort Benton.” Today, Civil War veteran Private Culbertson rests in Riverside Cemetery.

Note: A special tribute to Culbertson descendants Kathy Lucke and Bill Culbertson for sharing their family history and photos with our Overholser Historical Research Center—and to Don and Kathy Lucke for their restoration work that has made the Culbertson House shine today.


1.     Robert S. Culbertson as he appeared about 1878. [Courtesy of Kathy Lucke]
2.     The Pacific Hotel when it opened in 1883. [Courtesy of OHRC]
3.     The family of Robert & Lydia Culbertson. [Courtesy of Bill Culbertson]


Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Michael Garringer said...

I recently bought the Robert Culbertson House in Troy,OH. was curious if anyone knew of any of the history on that home? or Robert Culbertson himself...