Ben, who never married (claiming it was because he was always away from home for long periods), was described as being about five foot ten inches tall, though of slight build, with light hair and brilliant blue eyes.
The McCulloch family, like many on the frontier, moved often by choice or necessity. In the twenty years following their move from North Carolina and Ben's birth, they lived in eastern Tennessee, Alabama, and then western Tennessee, finally settling at Dyersburg, where one of their closest neighbors was David Crockett -- a great influence on young Ben.
In 1834, McCulloch headed west. He reached St. Louis just too late to join the fur trappers headed for the mountains for the season. He then tried to join a freight company heading for Santa Fe as a mule skinner, but was told they had a full complement. He moved on to Wisconsin to investigate lead-mining, but found all the best claims already staked by the large mining companies. In the fall of 1835, he returned to Tennessee.
McCulloch joined the Texas army under Sam Houston in its retreat to east Texas. Assigned to Captain Isaac N. Moreland's artillery company at the Battle of San Jacinto (April 21, 1836), he commanded one of the "Twin Sisters" -- two six-pounder cannon sent to aid the Texans by the citizens of Cincinnati. He made deadly use of grapeshot against the Mexican positions and received a battlefield commission as first lieutenant. For his service (dating before April 18, 1836), McCulloch was issued Texas Bounty Certificate No. 2473 for 320 acres (1.3 km²). In 1839, he also received Donation Certificate No. 776 for 640 acres (2.6 km²), for his service at San Jacinto.
McCulloch was then attached to Capt. William H. Smith's cavalry company, but left the army to revisit Tennessee. He returned a few months later with a company of thirty volunteers under the command of Robert Crockett, Davy's son.
By 1838, he had taken up the profession of surveying land for the Republic of Texas in and around the community of Seguin, later joining the Texas Rangers as lieutenant to Captain John Coffee "Jack" Hays. He acquired a reputation as an Indian fighter, favoring shotguns, pistols, and Bowie knives to the regulation saber and carbine.
On the strength of his new fame, he was elected to the Republic of Texas House of Representatives in 1839. The campaign was contentious, and McCulloch fought a rifle duel the next year against Colonel Reuben Ross, resulting in a wound that left his right arm crippled for life. Ben considered the matter closed, but it flared up again the following year, this time involving Henry McCulloch, who killed Ross with a pistol.
In 1842, McCulloch went back to surveying and intermittent military service. At the Battle of Plum Creek, August 12, 1840, he served as a scout against the Comanches, and then commanded the right wing of the Texas army. When a Mexican raiding party under Gen. Rafael Vasquez invested San Antonio in February 1842, McCulloch was prominent in the fighting that pushed the Mexicans back beyond the Rio Grande. A second Mexican raid led by Gen. Adrian Woll in September of that year again captured San Antonio, and McCulloch served as a scout for Capt. Hays's Rangers. He and his brother, Henry, subsequently took part in the failed Somervell expedition and both escaped very shortly before most of the Texans were captured at Mier, Mexico in Tamaulipas, December 25, 1842.
Samuel Reid, a volunteer from Louisiana, described McCulloch and his Ranger company as "men in groups with long beards and mustaches, dressed in every variety of garment, with one exception, the slouched hat, the unmistakable uniform of a Texas ranger, and a brace of pistols around their waists, [who] were occupied drying their blankets, cleaning and fixing their guns, and some employed cooking at different fires, while other were grooming their horses. A rougher-looking set we never saw. They were without tents, and a miserable shed afforded them the only shelter. Captain McCulloch introduced us to his officers and many of his men, who appeared orderly and well-mannered people. But from their rough exterior, it was hard to tell who or what they were. Notwithstanding their ferocious and outlaw look, there were among them doctors and lawyers and many a college graduate."
McCulloch led his scouting company as mounted infantry at the Battle of Monterrey and his expert reconnaissance work preceding the Battle of Buena Vista probably saved Taylor's army from disaster. After Buena Vista he was promoted to the rank of major of U.S. Volunteers.
At the war's end, McCulloch scouted for Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs, but joined the rush to the California gold fields in 1849. While he never struck gold, he was elected sheriff of Sacramento. (His old commander, Col. Hays, had been elected sheriff of San Francisco on the same day.) His old friends Sam Houston and Thomas J. Rusk, both now in the U.S. Senate, tried to arrange for his appointment to command a frontier army regiment, but his lack of formal education was against him and the appointment never went through. In 1852, President Franklin Pierce promised him command of the U.S. Second Cavalry, but Secretary of War Jefferson Davis gave it instead to Albert Sidney Johnston.
McCulloch was appointed U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Texas in 1852, serving throughout the Pierce and Buchanan administrations. However, conscious of his lack of formal military education, he actually spent much of his term studying military science in libraries in Washington, D.C. In 1858, as one of the peace commissioners sent to negotiate with Brigham Young in Utah (the other being former Gov. Lazarus W. Powell of Kentucky), he helped to prevent open warfare between the Mormons and the federal government, which had sent troops under the command of General Johnston.
McCulloch was placed in command of the Indian Territory. He set up his headquarters at Little Rock, and began piecing together an Army of the West, with regiments from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. He disagreed strongly with his superior, General Sterling Price of Missouri, but with the assistance of Brigadier General Albert Pike, he was able to build alliances for the Confederacy with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek nations.
On August 10, 1861, McCulloch's troops, though relatively poorly armed, handily defeated the army of General Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri. "We have an average of only twenty-five rounds of ammunition to the man," McCulloch reported, "and no more to be had short of Fort Smith and Baton Rouge." He did not have a high opinion of Price's Missourians, noting that they were undisciplined, commanded mostly by incompetent and inexperienced politicians, and possessed only a poor mix of weapons and equipment. For some 5,000 of them, their enlistment time was up and they were anxious to go home. Cooperation between the Arkansas and Missouri contingents was feeble, with "little cordiality of feeling between the two armies." His lack of confidence in the Missourians led McCulloch to hesitate when a bold attack might well have destroyed Lyon's smaller force and given Missouri to the Confederacy.
The continuing feud between McCulloch and Price led to the appointment of Major General Earl Van Dorn to overall command, Henry Heth and Braxton Bragg having declined the honor. When Van Dorn launched an expedition against St. Louis, a strategy McCulloch strongly opposed, it was again McCulloch's reconnaissance that contributed most to what little success Van Dorn's plan was able to achieve.
McCulloch commanded the Confederate right wing at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas (or Elkhorn Tavern), and on March 7, 1862, after much maneuvering, he overran a key Union artillery battery. Union resistance stiffened late in the morning, however, and as McCulloch rode forward to scout out enemy positions, he was shot out of the saddle and died instantly. McCulloch always disliked army uniforms and was wearing a black velvet civilian suit and Wellington boots at the time of his death. Credit for the fatal shot was claimed by sharpshooter Peter Pelican of the 36th Illinois Infantry.
McCulloch's next in command, Brig. Gen. James M. McIntosh, head of the cavalry, was killed a few minutes later in a charge to recover McCulloch's body. Col. Louis Hébert was captured in the same charge, and the Confederate forces, with no remaining leadership, slowly fell apart and withdrew. Historians generally blame the Confederate disaster at Pea Ridge and the subsequent loss of undefended Arkansas on the untimely death of General Ben McCulloch.
McCulloch's body was buried on the field at Pea Ridge, but was subsequently removed with other victims of the battle to a cemetery in Little Rock. He was later reinterred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. The gravesite is in the Republic Hill section of the Cemetery, Row N, No. 4. His papers are housed at the Center for American History (previously the Barker Texas History Center) at the University of Texas at Austin. McCulloch County, Texas, formed in 1856 and located in the present geographical center of the state, was named for him. He is also one of thirty men inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Fisher, Waco.
Shortly after Pea Ridge, Albert Pike, now a brigadier general, constructed Fort McCulloch as the principal Confederate fortification in the southern section of the Indian Territory, naming it after his late commander. It was built on a bluff on the south bank of the Blue River and is now located in Bryan County, Oklahoma. It was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Camp Ben McCulloch was established near Austin in 1896 as a reunion site for the United Confederate Veterans and is the last such site still owned by the UCV's descendant group, the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. It is now a public recreation facility of some 200 acres (0.8 km²) and is a popular location for Central Texas musical festivals.
Several other members of McCulloch's family followed him to Texas, including his mother, who died in Ellis County in 1866 at the home of another son, John C. McCulloch, who had been a captain in the Confederate army. Her remains were exhumed in 1938 by the State of Texas and reinterred beside those of Gen. McCulloch, and a joint monument was erected. Other siblings lived in Gonzales and in Walker County.
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