In my western novels, I enjoy using as many historical figures as I can, and while I will usually adapt them to fit the story line, I try to keep them as historically accurate as possible. Part of the fun of using real people from history is learning their story during the research process, and never was this more true than when I researched Benjamin McCulloch for my second novel, Hell and Half of Texas. Like many young men of the time, he came to Texas to fight for independence, and ended up helping to build the early history of his adopted state.
Benjamin McCulloch was born on November 11, 1811 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, though like many families of that time, the McCulloch’s moved between Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama as they sought to improve their circumstances. Ben’s father, Alexander, came from a prominent North Carolina family, but the Revolutionary War decimated much of the family’s wealth, and he managed to squander what little inheritance he did receive. By the time that Ben came along, the family could no longer afford to even educate their children, although several of his brothers were taught for a time by close family friend, Sam Houston.
Young Benjamin made his way the best he could, earning money by farming, hunting, and rafting, but he soon realized that his future lay beyond his home state. In 1835, Ben and his brother Henry, seeking adventure and a better life, followed another family friend, Davy Crockett, to Texas. Revolution was brewing in the Mexican Province, and many young men flocked from the United States to find their fortunes as Texians.
By the time that Ben and Henry arrived in Nacogdoches, Crockett had already moved south, and Ben set out for San Antonio by himself. In what may be the most fortunate cases of the measles in history, Ben McCulloch was delayed in reaching the Alamo, and by the time he was well enough to travel, the mission had already fallen to the Mexican Army.
Having avoided the massacre at the Alamo, McCulloch joined Sam Houston’s army, who was currently staying just one step ahead of the pursuing Mexican forces. At the battle of San Jacinto, Ben commanded one of the Twin Sister cannons, and distinguished himself so much in the eyes of Houston that he was given a battlefield promotion to First Lieutenant.
After the Revolution, Ben joined the Texas Rangers under John Coffee Hays where he distinguished himself as an able scout and Indian fighter. As a ranger, he made such a name for himself, that in 1839, he ran for and won election to the House of Representatives for the new Republic of Texas. The campaign was contentious, and resulted in a dispute with Rueben Ross, with whom McCulloch fought a rifle duel. During the duel, Ben was wounded in the right arm, which remained crippled for the rest of his life.
Ben chose not to run for re-election in 1842, and instead lent his services as a scout to the Texas Army, who were once again battling incursions by the Mexican Army. In the army, he was once again serving under John Hays, who’s Texas Rangers formed the bulk of the Texas forces. As a scout, McCulloch was instrumental in helping to force the Mexican Army back below the border, and in the process, he once again endeared himself to his adopted country.
In 1845, after Texas was annexed into the United States, McCulloch parlayed his popularity into a seat in the new Texas State Legislature, though once again a war would soon lure him from politics back to the battlefield. After the outbreak of war with Mexico, he raised a company of Rangers and moved with them to the Rio Grande, where he was made Chief of Scouts by General Zachary Taylor. His scouting expeditions into Northern Mexico proved invaluable in securing important intelligence for the army and earned him adulation from Taylor and the nation. Taylor promoted him to Major of the Texas Volunteers.
Never one to waste an opportunity, Ben McCulloch made good use of his popularity and political capital to try and secure an appointment to a military command, but his lack of education foiled these attempts. In 1852, Ben was made United States Marshal for the eastern district of Texas under Judge John Charles Watrous. In this role, he was appointed to a commission that met with Brigham Young, and McCulloch was credited with helping to stop an armed conflict with the Mormons.
When Texas succeeded from the Union, Benjamin McCulloch was commissioned as a Colonel and ordered to accept the surrender of all U.S. forts in Texas. On February 16, 1861, he took control of the arsenal housed in the Alamo, which were used to arm the newly formed Texas regiments.
On May 11, 1861, Jefferson Davis appointed McCulloch a Brigadier General and he was assigned to Indian Territory. Eventually, he established his headquarters in Little Rock Arkansas, where he began to build his army with regiments from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
On March 7, 1862 at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ben McCulloch led his army and drove the Union forces from their position, but as the day wore on, the enemy regrouped and fortified. McCulloch rode ahead of his own lines to scout the enemy position, but as he made his way through the thick brush, the Federals opened fire, knocking McCulloch from his horse and killing him instantly.
His command passed to General James Mcintosh who was killed moments later as he led an expedition to recover Ben’s body. With the death of the two commanders, the confederates lost the Battle of Pea Ridge and ultimately Arkansas.
Ben McCulloch was not born here, but through a dedication to service and a drive to build this land into something great, he became a native Texan and earned his place as one of the great heroes of the Lone Star State.
As always, your readership and support of Under the Lone Star are greatly appreciated, and I am gratified to see that my love of the stories and legends of Texas are shared by so many others. Now, saddle up, get out there, and enjoy all that the great state of Texas has to offer.
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