Famous frontiersman, scout, and Texas Ranger, Benjamin McCulloch was a Confederate brigadier general who was killed at the Battle of Pea Ridge.
Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch was born on November 11, 1811, in Rutherford County, Tennessee. He was the seventh of thirteen children born to Alexander and Frances F. (LeNoir) McCulloch. He was also the older brother of Confederate General Henry Eustace McCulloch. McCulloch’s father, a graduate of Yale University, served as a major in the army during Andrew Jackson’s campaign against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Francis LeNoir was the daughter of a prominent Virginia planting family.
Like most of his siblings, Benjamin McCulloch received little formal education. Still, he became well-versed by reading from his mother’s extensive library.
During McCulloch’s youth, his family moved often, living in Alabama, North Carolina, and eastern and western Tennessee. In 1830, the McCulloch family settled in Dyersburg, Tennessee, near their close friend, the famed frontiersman, and U.S. Congressman David Crockett.
Battle of the Alamo
As a young man, McCulloch failed several times to strike out on his own at various places along the Mississippi River before returning to Dyersburg. In 1835, he made plans to meet Crockett at Nacogdoches, Texas, to take part in Texas’ fight for independence from Mexico. Upon his arrival, McCulloch learned that Crockett had already departed for San Antonio to join a group of Texas partisans who had taken refuge from Mexican forces in a Catholic mission named the Alamo. A bout with the measles delayed McCulloch’s plans to meet Crockett at the Alamo and undoubtedly saved his life. On March 6, 1836, roughly 2,000 Mexican soldiers stormed the Alamo and killed all the defenders inside. The commander of the Mexican force, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, then ordered his soldiers to stack and burn all the bodies.
Battle of San Jacinto
Santa Anna’s perceived brutality incensed McCulloch and prompted him to enlist in General Sam Houston’s Texian Army. At the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, McCulloch commanded one of two Texas cannons (known as the Twin Sisters) in the fight, before joining in the victorious final charge against Santa Anna’s forces. His bravery won him a battlefield commission as a first lieutenant on April 22, 1836. In addition, McCulloch later received 960 acres of land in the Texas Republic for his service at San Jacinto.
McCulloch remained in Texas only a few months after the victory. In July 1836, he returned to Tennessee for a year where his father trained him as a surveyor. In 1837, he returned to Gonzales County, Texas, with his brother, Henry, to practice his new profession.
Republic of Texas Legislator
Due in part to his fame from the Texas Revolution, the voters of the Gonzales area elected McCulloch to represent them in the republic’s house of representatives in 1839. A dispute with a political rival marred his election marred his victory. The disagreement eventually led to a duel resulting in a debilitating bullet wound that cost McCulloch full use of his right arm for the rest of his life. Choosing not to run for re-election in 1841, McCulloch served one term in the legislature.
While serving in the legislature, McCulloch also joined the Texas Rangers, the young republic’s military and law enforcement arm. After distinguishing himself campaigning against Comanche Indians at the Battle Plum Creek on August 12, 1840, McCulloch rose to the rank of first lieutenant. As a ranger, in 1842, he provided invaluable service as a scout, repulsing Mexican raids into Texas.
Texas State Legislator
When Texas joined the Union in 1845, voters elected McCulloch to a seat in the state’s first legislature. He completed one term from 1846 to 1847. While serving in the legislature, McCulloch received an appointment as a major general in the state militia commanding all troops west of the Colorado River.
When the Mexican-American War erupted on April 25, 1846, McCulloch raised a company of Rangers that mustered into the U. S. volunteer army. During the Northern Mexico Campaign, McCulloch served as chief of scouts for General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation, taking part in the American victory at the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846). McCulloch’s scouting exploits prior to the Battle of Buena Vista (February 23, 1847) won him a promotion to the rank of major of United States volunteers.
After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, McCulloch briefly served as a scout for General David E. Twiggs’ U. S. forces in Texas. In 1849, McCulloch joined a throng of Americans who headed for California after James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848. Like most other “Forty-niners,” McCulloch failed to strike it rich; however, he found work as a tax collector for Mariposa County. In 1850, voters elected him as sheriff of Sacramento County.
U. S. Marshal
Hungry for a commission in the U.S. Army, McCulloch returned east in late 1851 as his supporters in Washington lobbied President Franklin Pierce for an appointment to command the U.S. Second Cavalry. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who doubted the abilities of non-West Point officers, dashed McCulloch’s hopes in 1852 by giving the assignment to Albert Sidney Johnston. President Pierce cushioned the blow by appointing McCulloch as a U. S. Marshal in the Eastern District of Texas.
During McCulloch’s seven-year tenure as a lawman, President James Buchanan selected him as one of two emissaries representing the administration during negotiations with Mormon elders during the mostly bloodless Utah War in 1858. Afterward, McCulloch accepted an appointment to investigate and report on conditions in the Arizona Territory.
McCulloch was back in Washington when Texas seceded from the Union on February 1, 1861. He hurriedly returned to the Lone Star State, where a committee of public safety, established by the state’s secession convention, commissioned him as a colonel of the Texas militia. McCulloch quickly raised 500 volunteers and traveled to San Antonio where he forced Major General David E. Twiggs to surrender the federal arsenal and his garrison at the Alamo on February 16, 1861.
On February 22, seven seceded states, including Texas, ratified a constitution establishing the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, rapidly began organizing an army. On May 13, 1861, Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker informed McCulloch that
Having been appointed a brigadier-general of volunteers in the service of the Confederate States, you are assigned to the command of the district embracing the Indian Territory lying west of Arkansas and south of Kansas. Your field of operations will be to guard the Territory against invasions from Kansas or elsewhere.
Dating from May 11, McCulloch’s commission made him the second-ranking brigadier general in the Confederate army and the first general officer commissioned from the civilian populace.
Army of the West
McCulloch traveled to Fort Smith, near Little Rock, Arkansas, where he established his headquarters and began raising an army of volunteers from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. In June 1861, the Confederate War Department ordered him to Missouri where Union forces commanded by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon had driven Confederate forces to the southwest corner of the state following a convincing federal victory at the Battle of Boonville on June 17, 1861. McCulloch arrived in Missouri in July and united his forces with Missouri State Guard units commanded by Sterling Price and Arkansas State troops led by Nicholas B. Pearce. Price commanded the unified force known as the Army of the West.
Battle of Wilson’s Creek
As McCulloch strengthened his army, Lyon went on the offensive. On August 9, 1861, he led nearly 5,400 Union soldiers out of Springfield, Missouri, to assault over 11,000 Rebels encamped near Wilson’s Creek, roughly twelve miles southwest of the city. Lyon’s surprise attack, on the morning of August 10, caught the Confederates off guard.
The Federals initially drove the Rebels back, but the Southerners eventually halted the Union advance. The Confederates launched three counterattacks during the day, but despite being outnumbered over two to one, the Yankees held their ground. During the battle, Lyon was killed, making him the first Union general to die in combat during the Civil War. Major Samuel D. Sturgis took command of the Union army and ordered a retreat later in the day as his exhausted soldiers ran low on ammunition. The exhausted Rebels did not pursue.
The Trans-Mississippi District
After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, discord between McCulloch and Price prompted the former to return to Arkansas, while the latter continued operations in Missouri. During the winter, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to coordinate operations west of the Mississippi River by resolving the rift between Price and McCulloch. In January, Davis appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn as commander of both men’s forces in the newly created Trans-Mississippi District.
Death at Battle of Pea Ridge
In the spring of 1862, Van Dorn developed ambitious plans to sweep through Missouri, capture St. Louis, and then threaten Union operations in Kentucky. On March 4, Van Dorn started north from Fayetteville, Arkansas, with approximately 16,000 troops, including 8,000 soldiers commanded by McCulloch, 7,000 Missourians under Price, and roughly 1,000 American Indians, led by Brigadier General Albert Pike. Van Dorn’s plan was to advance north as quickly as possible and to surprise Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’ Army of the Southwest, which had advanced south from Missouri into Arkansas.
After three days of forced marching through the harsh winter weather, the Confederates approached Curtis’s position near Elkhorn Tavern in Benton County, Arkansas, near the Missouri border. The Rebel soldiers were cold, hungry, and exhausted, but Van Dorn attacked.
Learning of Van Dorn’s advance, Curtis concentrated the 10,500 soldiers under his command and established a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge, which runs in an east-west direction just north of Sugar Creek. Seeing that a head-on attack would be senseless, Van Dorn marched his entire army around Pea Ridge at Curtis’s rear on the evening of March 6 and then split it into two columns. Van Dorn ordered one column, under McCulloch’s command, to circle around the west end of the ridge. Meanwhile, Van Dorn led the other column around the east end to trap the Federals in between. Attacking from the rear on each flank, Van Dorn planned to force the Yankees off Pea Ridge and defeat them as they retreated toward Sugar Creek.
On March 7, 1862, the assault got off to a bad start for the Confederates. By dawn, Union scouts had detected both threats and Curtis turned his army around to face each Rebel assault. Faced with unexpectedly stiff Federal resistance, McCulloch rode forward at about 10:30 a.m. on a scouting mission. A volley of gunfire greeted him as he emerged from some thick brush directly in front of a Yankee regiment. A gunshot wound to the chest knocked McCulloch from his saddle, piercing his heart and killing him instantly. Peter Pelican, a sharpshooter from the 36th Illinois Infantry, took credit for the fatal shot but his claim was never substantiated. McCulloch’s untimely death no doubt played a major role in the Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge.
McCulloch’s men temporarily buried their fallen leader’s body on the field and recovered it the next day as the defeated rebel army retreated south. On March 10, 1862, Confederate officials hosted a full military funeral for McCulloch at Fort Smith, where they buried his body, again temporarily. Two days later, soldiers disinterred the general’s remains and transported them to Texas. Following a second funeral on April 12, McCulloch was buried at his final resting place at Texas State Cemetery in Austin.