Famed Gen. Ben McCulloch had his roots in Jefferson

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, August 28, 2017

Ben McCulloch was born in Jefferson.

Ben McCulloch, a military maverick, was born in Jefferson on November 11, 1811.  He gained fame in the Texas Revolution, Mexican War (as a Texas Ranger) and as a Confederate general in the Civil War.

Ben’s parents were Maj. Alexander McCulloch of North Carolina and Frances LeNoir of Virginia.  The family included six sons and six daughters.

Ben’s father Alexander, a graduate of Yale, fought in both the Creek War and War of 1812.  With his brother, he inherited a large plantation in Tennessee and settled on the Stones River.

He was known as a stern man; yet, he was also admired for his exemplary high character.  Alexander had once been wealthy and prominent in North Carolina; yet, his weakness of lavishing friends with gifts and money was his downfall.  In the end, he could not afford an education for his own children.

Alexander was a surveyor and plotted the county seat of Jefferson for Thomas Bedford and Robert Weakley when Rutherford County was established.

He bought an original town lot in Jefferson and signed as a petitioner for the forming of a new Rutherford County on Aug. 10, 1803.

Alexander promoted military loyalty to his sons.  Henry Eustace was a Texas Ranger and Confederate brigadier; Alexander served in the Mexican War and was a colonel of militia in Dyer County; and John served as a Confederate captain.  Ben was a superstar soldier, whom historians actively study today.  Youngest brother James was an invalid and tragically died in 1862.

Alexander was known as a wanderer.  In 1820, he moved his family to Alabama when Ben was 10 years old. Ben later had only one year of schooling at Jefferson, yet he read constantly.  He would regret his lack of education for a lifetime.

Near his new home in Muscle Shoals, Ben befriended the Choctaw Indians, who taught him how to build canoes and track animals, as well as humans.

In 1830, Alexander returned to Tennessee, settling in Dyersburg.  Ben was now 19 years old and met his greatest influence, neighbor Davy Crockett, who was his constant hunting companion.

Ben was a logger with his brother Henry and made frequent trips to New Orleans.  In 1835, Davy Crockett left for Texas, and Ben soon followed his trail seeking adventure.

In early January 1836, upon arrival to Texas, Ben set out alone on foot for San Antonio.  However, he contracted measles and was delayed, just missing the Battle of the Alamo on Feb. 23.  He also missed losing his own life at the Alamo.  His dear friend Davy Crockett was now taken from the world, and revenge lay ahead.

Ben joined Sam Houston’s army at age 24.  Houston, a neighbor and friend in Tennessee, had once taught school to Ben’s two older brothers.  Ben strongly avoided marriage and was a bachelor during his 51 years. Sam Houston once wrote him a letter saying “never get married.”  Ben chuckled in jest, as he had no intention of doing so.

Ben’s first combat was at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.  With a small force of 800 men, Ben was in charge of “Two Sisters” named for two six-pounder cannons.  The battle was over in 15 minutes with a victory over the Mexican Army’s 1,500 soldiers.  Santa Anna was captured in this battle, and Ben was promoted to first lieutenant.

After San Jacinto, Ben returned to Tennessee to survey with his father.  He had become a wanderer like Alexander.  Restless, he returned to Texas a few months later with a company of 30 volunteers under company of Robert Crockett, Davy’s son.

In 1838, Ben continued to survey in Texas and lived a diverse existence.  He joined the Texas Rangers and became an Indian fighter, favoring Bowie knives for a weapon.  He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1839.

Ben fought a rifle duel in 1840 against Col. Reuben Ross, resulting in a wound to his right arm that crippled Ben for life.

In 1842, Ben was a scout against the Comanche and fought in Mexican raids.  He was a Texas Ranger with a long beard and mustache.  There were no tents as shelter for a ranger, and Ben would seek old sheds to stay the night.

In 1845, Ben won a seat in the Texas state legislature.

In 1846, he was a major general in command of all of Texas militia west of the Colorado River.  He formed Company A of Colonel Hays’ 1st Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers.  This company would only take soldiers who traveled 250 miles in 10 days.  He was Chief of Scouts under Gen. Zachary Taylor and had an edge with his ability to speak fluent Spanish.

After the Battle of Buena Vista, Ben was promoted to rank of major United States Volunteers and scouted for Maj. Gen. David Twiggs.

In 1849, he traveled to California gold fields to seek fortune.  By 1852, he was U.S. Marshal for Eastern Texas; and in 1858, he was peace commissioner to negotiate with Brigham Young in Utah.  He proved himself as a man on the move with unending ventures to accomplish.

On May 11, 1861, President Jefferson Davis appointed Ben a brigadier general in the Civil War.  His new command was the Indian Territory.  His main effort was to forge alliances for the Confederacy with Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek nations.  Known as a former Indian fighter, Ben had now embraced the Indians, as he did in his youth in Muscle Shoals.

On Aug. 10, 1861, Ben, poorly armed, was defeated in the army of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri.  Moreover, he commanded the right wing at the Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as Elkhorn Tavern), in Arkansas on March 7, 1862.  He overran a key Union artillery battery.

As Ben rode forward to scout enemy positions, he was wearing a black velvet civilian suit and Wellington boots, as he disliked army uniforms.  Lamentably, he was shot from his saddle and died instantly by the shot of a minie ball.  Ben’s body was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.  His mother Frances died in 1866 and is buried beside Ben.

Ben’s legacy was far-reaching and still intact today.  He was one of 30 men inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Fisher in Waco, Texas.  Brigadier Gen. Albert Pike constructed Fort McCulloch as the principal Confederate fortification in Oklahoma.  This site is currently on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  Camp Ben McCulloch in Driftwood, Texas was established in 1896 as a reunion site for Confederate veterans and is comprised of 200 acres.

Born and raised in Jefferson, Ben embraced life to the fullest.

Country music artist Steve Earle wrote a song entitled “Ben McCulloch” on his album “Train a Comin,’” nominated for a 1996 Grammy.  The lyrics sang: “When I first laid eyes on the general I knew he was a fightin’ man “He was every inch a soldier, every word was his command “Well, his eyes were cold as lead and steel forged into tools of war “He took the lives of many and the souls of many more.”

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail.com.

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