A Very Personal Civil War: The Divorce of Chaplain William D. McCulloh

The following essay  was written and published on January 16, 2020, by Civil War scholar Jeff Giambrone on his blog, Mississippi in the Civil War.  With its focus on the Civil War’s effects on the personal lives of people beyond the battlefield, and with Unionism playing a role as well, I’m sure many Renegade South readers will find it interesting. Thanks, Jeff, for allowing me to re-publish it here!—vb


by Jeff Giambrone

The American Civil War is known by many names, but one of the more common and poignant ones is “The Brother’s War,” as the conflict often split families and caused brother to fight against brother. Thus familial conflict over the war did not confine itself to brothers; it sometimes tore apart couples and separated husband from wife. 

In the fall of 1863 Reverend William D. McCulloh [also spelled in some records as McCullough] wrote out a petition to the Mississippi legislature asking them to dissolve the bonds of matrimony that existed between himself and his wife Harriet. It was probably with a heavy heart that McCulloh penned the following letter:

Canton, Miss., Oct. 23d, 1863

To the Senate & House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi

            Your petitioner would respectfully represent, that in 1840 he removed from N.C. to your state, married & reared a family, that his wife dying in 1861 he married Miss. L.H.C. Rogers of Tippah County in your state, that when Gov. Pettus called the citizens to defend the state from further invasion your petitioner joined the army as a volunteer, being now above fifty years old, that nearly all his wife’s connections including her father, mother, brother & sisters, went to the enemy soon after he joined the army & his wife went with them. That she was declared, in Corinth, free from matrimonial bonds on the ground that her husband was in the Rebel Army, and that she married a Federal and resides inside the lines of the enemy. Your petitioner states on his honor, that the only complaint made by his wife or her relatives was his joining the army & the only cause of leaving him was his absence from home in the army, and that he had not given aid to the Confederacy, his wife would be with him now. Your petitioner respectfully asks your honorable body to say he is free from bonds with one now an enemy to his country, and your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray &c.

W.D. McCulloh, Chaplain

23d Miss. Regt.

(Series 2370, Box 14128, Folder 1863, Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

I found this petition intriguing, and decided to see what else I could turn up about Reverend McCulloh and his wife. I searched the 1860 U.S. Census, and found W.D. McCulloh and his wife Elizabeth living in Tishomingo County with seven children, ranging in age from 18 to 1. McCulloh listed his occupation as minister, and he made a very comfortable living, listing the value of his real estate at $1,600, and his personal estate at $7,000.  (1860 United States Census, Tishomingo County, page 39)

McCulloh stated in his petition to the legislature that his wife died in 1861; I could not find any record of her death, but I did find the marriage license between him and his second wife, Harriet C. Rogers, which stated that the ceremony took place on December 11, 1861. (Tippah County Marriage Book 1, page 309) I looked up Harriet in the 1860 census, and found her listed with her family; parents Cornelius “Neel” Rogers and Mary Rogers, and her five siblings. The thing that immediately jumped out at me was Harriet’s age: she was 14 years old. In that same census her future husband has given his age as 47. I was surprised that Harriet’s parents would agree to let her marry William McCulloh, a man that was 33 years older than her; in fact, he had children that were older than his future bride. A closer look at the census however gave me a possible explanation: the Rogers family was poor. In the 1860 census, Cornelius Rogers listed the value of his real estate at $80.00, and his personal estate at $100.00. These were people living hand to mouth, and the thought of marrying off their daughter to a rich minister much have been an enticing proposition. (1860 United States Census, Tippah County, page 455)

The next documentation I was able to find on W.D. McCulloh was from his Confederate service record. He enlisted in the 23rd Mississippi Infantry as the regimental chaplain on December 25, 1862. His military record does not go into much detail, but it does show that he served with the regiment until January 26, 1864, when he resigned his commission. (Service Record of W.D. McCulloh, 23rd Mississippi Infantry, Microfilm roll #2289, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.)

I was not able to find any additional information regarding the difficulty between William McCulloh and his wife Harriet, but the fact that she and her family were Unionists is not surprising. Northeast Mississippi was home to many small farmers who had little love for the large slave owning plantation owners in the cotton producing regions of the state. Historian John K. Bettersworth described the Unionist sentiment in Tishomingo County where William McCulloh resided, thus:

The Tennessee River county of Tishomingo was composed mainly of nonslaveholding hillbillies who not only had stood by the Union in 1851 but also had sent their four delegates to vote against the Ordinance of Secession in 1861. When the common man’s party in the state became disunionist, Tishomingo had remained a sort of enclave of Jacksonian Democracy unassimilated by the dominant Fire-eaters. (John K. Bettersworth, “The Home Front, 1861-1865, page 519, in A History of Mississippi, Volume 1, edited by Richard Aubrey McLemore, 1973) 

Much the same could be said of Harriet McCulloh’s home county of Tippah, which also had considerable Unionist support among the local population. Nearly a dozen Mississippians from Tippah county joined the 11th Illinois Cavalry, providing expert knowledge of the local area while the unit served in north Mississippi. (https://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/a-few-of-us-remained-true-to-the-old-government-unionists-in-tippah-county-mississippi/) Prominent Choctaw County Unionist the Reverend John H. Aughey, when forced to flee the state, made for Tippah County, believing he could find aid there:

Feeling confident that i must be near Tippah county, and knowing that there were many Union men in that county, I resolved to call at the first house on my route. If I remained where I was, I must perish, as I could go no further, and if I met with a Union family, I should be saved. (The Iron Furnace by John H. Aughey, page 85)

I was not able to trace Harriet McCulloh’s movements during the war, but I did find her on the 1870 United States Census, living in Jackson, Iowa, with her husband, James Harvey Merrick, and their two year old daughter, M.J. Merrick. (1870 United States Census, Lee County, Iowa, page 174b) Her husband, James H. Merrick, was born May 12, 1844, in Corning, Ohio. (Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916 – 1947) In the 1860 United States Census James was living with his parents, Seth and Margaret Merrick, in Jackson, Iowa. (1860 United States Census, Lee County Iowa, page 393) Although he was of the proper age to have served in the military, I could not find him on any roster of Civil War soldiers, and in the 1910 United States Census, which specifically asked about Civil War service, he was not listed as a veteran. (1910 United States Census, Macoupin County, Illinois, Enumeration District 37, page 7b)

It could be that William McCulloh was mistaken about his wife marrying a Federal soldier in Corinth; it could have been merely salacious gossip. In fact, in the 1900 United States Census, James and Harriet’s marriage year was given as 1866. (1900 United States Census, Macoupin County, Illinois, Enumeration District 57, page 8) As of this writing I simply do not know how Harriet and James met – it might have been in Mississippi during the war, or perhaps Harriet and her family fled north to Iowa to get as far away from the war as possible and the couple met there.

I was able to find some additional documentation concerning William McCulloh’s petition to the Mississippi legislature asking that his marriage to Harriet be dissolved. In November 1863 the petition was presented to the legislature, and was then referred to the committee on Propositions and Grievances with instructions to report by bill or otherwise. After due consideration, the committee made the following recommendation:

The committee on Propositions and Grievances to whom was referred the petition of W.D. McCulloh, Chaplain of the 23d Mississippi Regiment, have had the same under consideration, and have instructed me to report that the case made out by the Petitioner is one of great hardship and gross outrage, and your committee sincerely wish that it was in their power to recommend some plan by which immediate and instantaneous relief might be granted to the petitioner, but the Chancery Courts of the State are the only tribunal, where according to law, the petitioner can have cancelled that bond which your committee feel must indeed, under all the circumstances, be now odious and hateful to him. They therefore ask to be discharged from the further consideration of the subject. The report was received and agreed to. (Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, December Session of 1862, and November Session of 1863, page 294)

Having his petition rejected by the legislature, William McCulloh would have had to seek a divorce through the chancery court system. I checked the chancery records in both Tippah County, where the marriage took place, and Tishomingo County were the couple resided, but I was unable to find any surviving records concerning the divorce proceedings. I did, however, find proof that Reverend McCulloh did marry again – on April 25, 1864, he was united in the bonds of holy matrimony with Miss. S.A. Howard in Tippah County, Mississippi. (Tippah County Marriage Book 1, page 388)

I did some research and found that the reverend’s new bride was Sinai Howard, daughter of Mansell and Mahala Howard of Tippah County, Mississippi. In the 1860 United States Census for Tippah county she was living with her parents and seven younger siblings. Sinai was the oldest child, at 20, with the youngest, brother John, only 8 months old. Mansell Howard reported on the census that he only owned real estate worth $500.00, and a personal estate of $600.00, so marrying his daughter off to the wealthy reverend certainly made good financial sense. (1860 U.S. Census, Tippah County, page 659)

In 1914, Sinai McCulloh applied for a Confederate widow’s pension in Tipton County, Tennessee, and stated in the document that her husband had died on November 15, 1883. She also made the following deposition:

Mrs. S.A. McCulough the above named applicant and after being by me duly sworn deposed as follows: Her husband W.D. McCullough now deceased, returned to his home in the state of Mississippi from the army in the early part of the year 1864, and he and she were married in the state May 1st, of that year. Her husband told here that he was discharged from the army on account of physical disabilities, and showed her a certain pocket book which contained his discharge certificate but she did not examine said paper, and after his death she at the request of a son of said soldier gave the pocket book to him without removing any of its contents. Affiant does not know the present whereabouts of said son, Mit Mcullough, if indeed he is still living as she has not heard from him in many years, but she states on information and belief that soon after she gave said pocket book to said Mit McCullough his valise containing said book and discharge was either lost or stolen. Affiant further states that she knows of her own personal knowledge that her said husband was at the time of his return from the army and for sometime thereafter a sufferer from rheumatism and unable to perform any army service. They continued to reside in the State of Mississippi until November 1865 and Confederate soldiers often passed through their community and her husband was never called on to return to the army, for it being a matter of common knowledge at the time that he had been discharged for the reason given. Affiant further states that she has made efforts to find someone familiar with the facts, but as she has lived continuously in Tennessee since her removal to the State in 1865 she has been unable to obtain such evidence, she having been out of touch with her former home so long. (Pension application of Sinai A. McCullough, #5500, accessed through Familysearch.org, January 15, 2020)

As far as I can tell, William McCulloh and his ex-wife Harriet never had any contact after their wartime separation. McCulloh moved to Tipton County, Tennessee in 1865, and Harriet and her new husband James eventually moved to Illinois where they lived for the rest of their lives. Harriet Merrick died in Bunker Hill, Illinois, on January 24, 1930, at the age of 83, outliving her husband James, who passed away in 1928. Interestingly, Harriet’s parents and three of her siblings moved to Illinois as well. They may well have decided that post-war Mississippi was no place for a family with decidedly Unionist sympathies. (Findagrave listings for Harriet Merrick, James H. Merrick, Cornelius A. Rogers, Mary J. Rogers, Daniel W. Rogers, Anna O. Webb, and Virginia M. Fletcher.) 

NOTE: For more on the topic of Civil War divorce, see Ed Payne’s article, “Collateral Damage: Civil War Widows of Jones County, Mississippi

2 replies »

    • I agree, Karen. The loss of so many young men’s lives on the Civil War battlefields was secondarily a tragedy for young women, whose primary economic option was marriage. After the war, a good many married men far older than themselves rather than remain single. For more on this topic, I’ve linked Ed Payne’s essay on Civil War widows, above.



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