Benjamin McCulloch served in the War for Texas Independence and the Mexican War, and as a United States marshal, before becoming a brigadier general in the Confederate army. McCulloch led Arkansas troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri but was killed at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas. While not a native Arkansan, McCulloch played an important role in the state’s military history. He led Arkansas troops at both the first major battle fought west of the Mississippi River in the Civil War, as well as at the first major battle in the state.
Born to Alexander McCulloch and Frances LeNoir McCulloch in Rutherford County, Tennessee, on November 11, 1811, Benjamin McCulloch was the fourth of thirteen children (seven sons and six daughters). A younger brother, Henry, would also later serve as a Confederate general.
After serving in the war against the Creek (Muscogee) in 1813, Alexander McCulloch moved his family to Alabama in 1819. Returning to Tennessee in 1830, the family moved to Dyersburg, near the home of Davy Crockett. Following Crockett to Texas in 1835, McCulloch missed the Battle of the Alamo due to a case of the measles. Joining the Texian Army under the command of Sam Houston, McCulloch was placed in command of one of the two cannon the army possessed. At the Battle of San Jacinto, fought on April 21, 1836, McCulloch effectively commanded the gun before abandoning it and joining in the final push against the Mexican troops. After the victory, McCulloch remained in the Texian Army until July, when he resigned and returned to Tennessee for a year.
After learning the craft of surveying from his father, McCulloch returned to Texas and settled in Gonzales, where he was joined by his brother Henry. The two men worked and lived together, supporting themselves through surveying jobs and other temporary work. The brothers also helped reestablish the town of Seguin and served in several expeditions against hostile Indians and Mexican troops threatening to reinvade.
Continuing his service to the Texas republic, McCulloch was elected to the House of Representatives in 1839. Challenged to a duel by the man he defeated for the office, McCulloch eventually fought a friend of his opponent, Ruben Ross. Wounded in the arm during the subsequent duel, McCulloch eventually recovered, and Henry McCulloch later killed Ross in an unrelated encounter.
After serving in the Mier Expedition in 1842, the McCulloch brothers continued to live and work in the Seguin area, and Benjamin was elected to the Texas State House of Representatives in 1845, when the state joined the Union. The next year, he was named major general in the state militia and was charged with commanding all troops west of the Colorado River. When the Mexican War broke out in the spring of 1846, McCulloch served with the First Texas Mounted Riflemen. Joined by a correspondent of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, McCulloch and his company soon became famous across the country for their exploits against Mexican forces. Serving with General Zachary Taylor’s army, McCulloch and his men fought at the Battles of Monterey and Buena Vista.
At the end of the war, McCulloch briefly went to California as part of the gold rush and was selected to serve as tax collector for Mariposa County before being elected to a two-year term as sheriff of Sacramento County in 1850. Tiring of California, McCulloch returned to the east in late 1851.
After the election of Franklin Pierce to the presidency in 1852, McCulloch was selected to serve as United States Marshal for Texas, a position he held until 1859, when his brother Henry took the office. In 1858, McCulloch also served as one of two emissaries for President James Buchanan during the Utah Expedition and turned down the governorship of the Arizona Territory the next year.
When Texas seceded on February 1, 1861, McCulloch was first appointed as a colonel, with state forces organizing to force Federal troops in the state to surrender. He was shortly promoted to command the District of Texas and led volunteers in capturing the Alamo from Federal forces on February 16. Commissioned as a brigadier general on May 11, McCulloch was assigned to command the Indian Territory. First moving to Little Rock (Pulaski County), the new general quickly traveled to Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where he began to organize a force of troops from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas to oppose Federal troops in the area. Traveling with Albert Pike into the Indian Territory, McCulloch successfully negotiated treaties with the Osage, Quapaw, and several other tribes. These tribes also began to organize military units to join McCulloch’s forces.
In June, McCulloch’s mission was modified when the Confederate War Department ordered him to work with Missouri officials, and in July, he led his small army into that state. Joining Missouri State Guard units under the command of Sterling Price and Arkansas State Troops with Nicholas Bartlett Pearce, McCulloch took command of the entire force. He led the combined army to victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, defeating a Federal force under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. After the conclusion of the battle, McCulloch returned to Arkansas with his troops while the Missouri State Guard embarked on a campaign into central Missouri; the men under Pearce’s command disbanded as their enlistments expired. In November, the Indian Territory was removed from McCulloch’s responsibility, and Albert Pike was promoted to brigadier general and took command.
In an effort to organize Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi, Major General Earl Van Dorn was appointed to command the department. Van Dorn’s major objective was to capture St. Louis, Missouri, but he was forced to respond when Federal forces under the command of Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis entered northwestern Arkansas. Taking field command of both the Confederate and Missouri State Guard forces, Van Dorn made a bold plan to attack Curtis. Splitting his force into two, Van Dorn moved around the Union army’s flank and attacked on March 7, 1862, near Pea Ridge (Benton County). Now commanding a division of troops from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, McCulloch led his men successfully in their initial attack near Leetown (Benton County). Personally scouting an enemy position, McCulloch was shot by Federal soldiers and was killed. His second in command, Brigadier General James McQueen McIntosh, was also soon killed, and the Confederate forces struggled to regroup. Eventually, the Federal army prevailed and won the Battle of Pea Ridge. McCulloch was buried first at Fort Smith but was later moved to Austin, Texas.
For additional information:
Cutrer, Thomas. Ben McCulloch and the Frontier Military Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Warner, Ezra. Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
Henderson State University