Benjamin McCulloch was one of twelve children. He was born November 11, 1811 in Rutherford County, Tennessee to Alexander and Frances Fisher Lenoir McCulloch. His father was a graduate of Yale College and served in the United States Army in Indian campaigns and also the War of 1812. The family migrated west from the eastern coastal states. Ben is thought to have first pursued some other businesses and moved around a lot until he came to Texas in 1835 with another brother and Davy Crockett, a neighbor, in Tennessee. Ben planned to meet up with Crockett and then head from Nacogdoches to San Antonio but was held up as he recuperated from a case of the measles, not arriving in San Antonio until after the Battle of the Alamo. He joined Sam Houston and the Texas Army in time for the Runaway Scrape, Houston’s retreat from Santa Anna.
(Image credit: Texas State Historical Association)
McCulloch was with an artillery company at the Battle of San Jacinto and is thought to have served as captain of a gun crew for one of the “Twin Sisters” cannons. For his participation in the Texas Revolution, he was awarded a grant of about 1,000 acres of land, under the process where the new Republic of Texas granted “bounties” to former participants. Some thirty-six years after the April, 1836 battle, a newspaper report recapitulated the numbers of Texas and Mexican troops involved, stating that the Texans fielded 783 against a Mexican force of 1,570. The day ended with 8 Texans killed and 25 wounded. The Mexican troops numbered 632 killed, 208 wounded and 730 captured, including their leader Santa Anna. The article went on to lament that to a man, Houston, Rusk, Hockley, Lamar, McCulloch, Millard and every other officer above the rank of captain were then deceased.
In 1838, McCulloch is believed to have joined the Texas Rangers under Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays. The following year, McCulloch was elected a Texas Representative. It was described as a bitter campaign and the disagreements with the defeated candidate, Col. Reuben Ross, led to a rifle duel in which McCulloch received a wound to his arm that left him somewhat crippled in that limb. The disagreement apparently festered as Ross was later killed in a similar incident by Ben’s brother Henry McCulloch about one year later.
In 1842, McCulloch did some surveying after having served, perhaps off and on, in the Texas Army, providing valuable duties as a scout. He served as a scout and commander in the Battle of Plum Creek in August, 1840 with the Comanche and also the successful drive to retake San Antonio after its brief capture first by Mexican General Rafael Vasquez and a second time by Mexican General Adrian Woll. He again joined Hays and the Texas Rangers along with his brother Henry. Both participated in the failed Somerville Expedition and narrowly missed being captured in the failed Mier Expedition in late 1842.
He was elected to the first Texas Legislature in 1845 after Texas became a state, but continued to serve in Company A, which outfit he reportedly raised himself from the Guadalupe area, under Hays in the First Regiment of the Texas Mounted Volunteers in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War under General Zachary Taylor where McCulloch was chief of scouts. After the War, he briefly went to California to look for gold. He was there long enough to be elected Sheriff of Sacramento, California, but by 1852, he had returned to Texas where he was appointed as a U. S. Marshall by President Pierce. He was an official representative of the United States to settle what is sometimes called the “Utah War,” a conflict lasting about a year in 1857 and 1858, between Mormon followers of Brigham Young and the United States Army.
McCulloch was living in Texas when the Succession Convention voted to secede from the United States in February, 1861. He joined the Confederate Army as a colonel. One of his first operations was the relatively peaceful retaking of all federal property in San Antonio. Early on, McCulloch was assigned to the Indian Territory and proceeded to make alliances with tribes including the Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw nations. McCulloch was then deployed with the other Confederate forces to particpate in various battles against Union troops.
McCulloch had previously been promoted to Brigadier General by Jefferson Davis and was the first general-grade officer to be commissioned from the civilian community. He had a strong personality and was openly vocal when he disagreed with strategic goals and tactics, including more than one occasion when he differed with General Sterling Price. McCulloch was ordered to be part of an expedition to capture St. Louis, an order which he resisted but he followed. In the Battle of Pea Ridge, also known as Elkhorn Tavern, McCulloch was killed by a Union sharpshooter on March 7, 1862. McCulloch was 48 years old at the time of his death.
By then, he had come to the notice of northern news writers. When the New York Times reported his death later in the month, it noted his many accomplishments but also cited his dispute with General Price, as noted above. The article went on to physically describe McCulloch as being six feet tall, slender and athletic with the appearance of a frontier fighter. The article closed by calling him “utterly unfit to command a large body of men,” in apparently somewhat of a throwaway comment, and did not support it with any reasons for the statement.
The Chicago Tribune also reported his death several weeks later and added certain details that we had not read elsewhere. One was that McCulloch had previously boasted that Union forces could not kill him. Another was that as he lay on the battlefield, realizing he was mortally wounded, McCulloch was quoted as having said “Oh, hell!” just before he rolled over and breathed his last.
McCulloch was first buried on the Arkansas battlefield, but his remains were twice removed, first to a cemetery in Little Rock and later to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. His honors include being inducted into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame in Waco, Texas for his service under Hays. McCulloch County in Central Texas was named for him in the 1800s. Numerous buildings, schools and streets across Texas are named for him as well.
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