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Ben McCulloch, Texas Ranger

Not far from McCulloch's Chapel about 3 miles west of town, is a lone grave sitting on a small mound, inscribed with the name Alexander McCulloch. This is the old homestead site of the McCulloch family and it was very near this location that young Ben McCulloch had camped under a Sugar Tree, just before the family built their Cabin. As Ben grew older he would not allow them to cut the young tree and so it remained in the cabin yard and became known as "Ben's tree." Some of the family eventually moved west, but the site would always be regarded as home.

Ben's father Major Alexander McCulloch was himself a notable man and had served as aide-de-camp to General Coffee and fought with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, Tallahassee and Horse-shoe Bend. Ensign Sam Houston and Sgt. David Crockett also served at Horse-shoe Bend and both men would eventually shape the life of young Ben McCulloch. Sam Houston had taught Ben's two older brothers in a log school in Rutherford, and Crockett would live only 30 miles from the McCulloch home. The destiny of all three men would eventually lead them the Republic of Texas and forever shape the history of that state.

The McCullochs were originally from North Carolina, but Alexander married his wife Frances near Nashville and eventually moved near Florence, before finally striking out for Dyer County in 1829. Ben was about 17 years old when they relocated in their new home in West Tennessee. In Alabama he had learned the art of dug-out canoes and built a large one for transporting supplies and a smaller one for hunting and exploring. On one of his hunting trips, his dogs jumped two bears in a canebrake. As the first dogs took out after one bear, a lone dog treed the younger bear, on the bank of Coon Creek. The bear lost its hold on the tree, fell in the shallow stream and was engaged by the dog. McCulloch tried to shoot, but his flint lock had gotten wet crossing the water. The bear made a dash up the bank, but Ben managed to catch the animal by its hair and tumble it into the creek, where the dog jumped it again. "Ben drew his butcher knife and endeavored to kill the brute by a stab in its breast, but the blade struck breast-bone and glanced, inflicting but a slight wound. The bear caught his right arm in his mouth, at the wrist. Knowing the tenacity of the animal, he did not attempt to disengage his arm from the crunching vice, but struck with the knife in his left hand, and drove the blade through its heart." Even in death the bear would not relax his grip and McCulloch had to pry the bears mouth loose from his arm. It has been said that young McCulloch killed as many as 80 bears in a year, thus rivaling Crockett and Henderson Clark for the title of champion bear slayer of the area. Clark however had boasted of having killed two bears with one shot.

Davy became a frequent visitor to the McCulloch homestead, while Ben and the Crockett boys became frequent hunting companions. One of young McCulloch's chief endevors, however, was reading. Though lacking much of a formal education, he spent his spare time pouring over books, in later years he would be called one of the best read men in Texas.

Young McCulloch was often on rafting trips and one these early trips would take him down the Mississippi to the sea port of New Orleans. Ben took time to explore the city and then unsuccessfully sought out the grave of his fallen uncle, killed before the great battle of that City in 1815. He would sometimes make these rafting trips with his brother Henry, who often followed in his older brothers' footsteps. Henry later said "Ben was a father and brother, to him I owe all I am or have been." Life in the backwoods of Dyer County, must have seemed dull after seeing Natchez and New Orleans. He once wrote home saying "Dyersburg was a slow town, full of slow people." and that the women were so modest that they dared not walk through a potato patch, because "even taters got eyes." In any case he would not have to wait long for the chance of adventure. In the Early 1830's Ben headed to St. Louis, where he was to meet a trapper named Dent. Dent was organizing a trip to the upper Missouri, that was to extend to the Rocky Mountains. McCulloch decided to join them, but for some reason he delayed in getting up river and the party left before he arrived at St. Louis. Instead of that adventure he decided to travel into the Wisconsin area and stayed for sometime in and around the lead mines there. Finally Ben had seen enough of the region and retraced his steps to Dyer County. Upon his arrival he found out that Col. Crockett was raising an expedition to go to Texas. Crockett and others were to meet at Nacogdoches on Christmas. McCulloch decided to go as well, so Ben and his brother Henry set out for Texas in late 1835. Reaching the border, Ben convinced Henry that he should stay with the family another year, so Henry turned back and Ben continued on alone. Again he would arrive too late, but this time it apparently spared his life. Proceeding down the Brazos River he fell ill and was taken in by Mrs. Benton a former Dyer Countian. She nursed him back to health, but mean while the Alamo had fallen and Col. Crockett with many other Tennesseans had fallen with it. After his recovery he drifted down the Brazos again until he came to the Army of Texas and his old neighbor Sam Houston. General Houston immediately put him in charge of one of the two cannons called "Twin Sisters." It would not be long before the guns would see action. Santa Anna the Mexican commander was engaged in battle and defeated at San Jacinto. McCulloch received high commendations for his role in the conflict, including being promoted on the spot to 1st Lt. by General Houston. No sooner did the battle at San Jacinto end, than McCulloch was on his way back home, this time to form his own company. It was a quick journey and on his return he brought with him Robert Crockett, Davy's boy. By the time they made it back to Texas the war had ended and Ben turned the company over to Crockett. In later years a poem would commemorate Ben's role in the war.

"Hurrah for stout Ben! and hurrah for the band

That gave freedom to Texas that day!

And hurrah for the gun which so bravely was manned,

When the hero was passing that way!"

Again Ben went back to Dyer County, this time to learn surveying before returning and settling in Seguin. In 1839 he was elected to the congress of the New Republic. A political argument soon ensued, however, and Ben was badly wounded in a duel, never fully recover the use of his arm. In 1840 he would be in the Plum Creek Campaign. Nearly 1000 indians had raided the coast, burning the town of Lynnville and killing many of its citizens. The rangers were called into service. They began making hit and run attacks that slowed the indians advance. Waiting in ambush a mixed lot of 200 men, surprised the tribe at Plum Creek, killing 90 and sending the rest back into indian territory. In the early 40's Ben was active in the Vasquez Campaign and also as a 1st Lt. in the famous Texas Ranger Company under Capt. John Hays. Ben again was elected to the legislature, but this time to the State of Texas instead of the Republic.

Eighteen hundred and forty-six, found McCulloch in the Mexican war, as Capt. of his own Ranger Company. Later the Texan became Chief of Scouts under General Zachary Taylor and eventually would be appointed to the rank of Major. One his most daring exploits would be a 100 mile scout behind enemy lines, surveying the strength of Santa Anna Forces. He also acted as spy at Buena Vista, passing through enemy lines in disguise. It would be Ben that lead the opening charge of the battle. When sent on a scouting expedition looking for reported Comanches, he came to the rain swollen Rio Grande. The river was swift and full of floating debris, the rangers looked on cautiously. Ben said "Now boys, wade in to it" and with that McCulloch and his horse Tom lunged into the river and was soon on the other side. The others followed, though with some hesitation. They chased the indians for five days and nights till the war party struck out for home. In one clash with Mexican Cavalry, he ran up against a superior force. Not to be gotten the best of, he waved his sword above his head, as if motioning to a large unit behind him, and rode straight into Mexicans, scattering them in all directions. On a return trip from San Antonio he and some of his men had stopped for a rest, two commanches stampeded the horses except for McCulloch's and a Ranger named Cheshire. The two men pursued, dodging arrows until one struck Ben's horse, forcing him to dismount. Cheshire then wounded one of the indians and the other fled leaving their horses behind. McCulloch ended his war experiences by performing a valuable scout around Mexico City. A correspondent once said of McCulloch "He is as vigilant as a tiger... He is a border man, a ranger and indian fighter, is that all?...More than this,...Ben McCulloch is a great man...I fancied him a perfect devil, a backwoodsman, a ruffian, and unpolished desperado! ..." Instead the reporter found him a thinker with a precise and clear mind, but added that, he was not much of a talker, with him "it is!" or "it is not!" At the end of the war McCulloch's popularity was running high in Texas and he was elected Major General of the Texas Militia east of the Colorado. Things settled down however as U.S. troops began to take responsibility for the protection of Texas. Times for the Rangers seemed a bit dull. Ben like many of his contemporaries headed to California during the gold rush of 1849, but his luck with the precious metal was not good. He did however become Sheriff of Sacramento County, but was homesick for Texas, so in 1852 he headed back to the Lone Star State. The following year President Pierce appointed McCulloch U.S. Marshall to the coastal district of Texas, to which he would be reappointed until 1859. He was honored by having a county named for him and later President Buchanon sent him as part of a delegation to negotiate with the Mormons.

War was again on the horizon and when the Civil War broke out, Ben was appointed Colonel. Early on he received the surrender of Gen. Twiggs at San Antonio, and soon McCulloch became the first Confederate officer appointed to the rank of General, that had not been a veteran of West Point. His career in the Confederate Army was brilliant but short. After wining a significant victory at Wilson's Creek, the general would soon be engaged another clash, this time at a place called Pea Ridge near Elkhorn Tavern. The night before the battle, Ben McCulloch lay by the fire in deep thought, it had been twenty-six years ago to the day the Alamo had fallen. The next day as the contest began, the General was out front surveying the lines. Wearing a black velvet suit and swearing at his troops, McCulloch was shot through the heart and died on the battlefield. The General's sorrel horse, wounded four times, was claimed by an indian, a feat that could not be accomplished in Ben's life. He fell near Sugar Creek, surely named after the sugar trees that grew along the streams of the area. Near the same type tree he had protected in his youth, the one which had always been known as "Ben's tree"

By Earl L. Willoughby, Jr.

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