The world loves a hero and Texans no more so than their Texas Rangers. Ben McCulloch’s life reads like something from the pages of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lonesome Dove.
Born Nov. 11th, 1811, the fourth son of eleven children to Alexander and Frances F. McCulloch, Bens mother was the daughter of a prosperous Virginia planter and his father was an army major during campaign against the Creek Indians in Alabama.
The family had suffered financial ruin from the Revolutionary War and moved many times in order to regain their lost wealth. The McCullochs moved from North Carolina to various towns in Tennessee and Alabama, finally ending up near Dyersburg where Davy Crockett was a close neighbor.
Ben was the fourth son out of 11 children, receiving no formal education and working his early life hunting, trapping, farming and rafting. Ben and his brother Henry fell in with Crockett’s intentions to test their luck in Texas and agreed to meet in Nacogdoches on Christmas Day, 1835.
Ben and Henry arrived as planned, but late. Too late to help Davy Crockett who died in the famous battle at the Alamo. Although measles prevented Ben from reaching the Alamo before the epic battle, Ben joined Sam Houston’s army on its retreat into East Texas.
It was during the Battle of San Jacinto, that Ben McCulloch first won Texas fame with the “Twin Sisters”, two 6-pound smoothbore cannon donated to the Texas independence cause by the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio.
It took several days to get the “Twins” to Sam Houston’s retreating army chased by the overwhelming forces of Mexico’s Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. The sisters were the only artillery the Texans had and they were first given to Col. James Neill who was wounded during a skirmish between the armies of Houston and Santa Anna and then transferred to George W. Hockley’s command.
The next day, the “Twin Sisters” played a decisive role at the Battle of San Jacinto when Houston’s army caught Santa Anna by surprise near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The “Twins” shot musket balls, broken glass and even horseshoes that quickly cut down the Mexican troops and was completed by charging Texans troops.
It was a decisive victory for the Texans and Ben McCulloch who received credit for manning one of the Sisters. A decade and a half later, the “Twins” would reappear into McCulloch’s life as the spark for secession.
After leaving the army, Ben started work as a surveyor in the rough frontier towns of Gonzales and Seguin. Indian attacks on the settlers began in earnest as settlers headed west.
Turning Indian fighter, Ben joined the Texas Rangers as first lieutenant under John Coffee Hays and by 1840 was captain of his own Ranger company. Jack Hays, Ben McCulloch, John S. Ford and Samuel Walker all became famous as Texas Rangers, but they weren’t law enforcement per se. They were tough and rough citizen soldiers more like mounted militia who took the law loosely in the wilds of Texas before there was law.
Hays and his Rangers were involved in important actions at Plum Creek, Cañon de Ugalde, Bandera Pass, Painted Rock, Salado and Walker’s Creek. The Texas Rangers were the first to use early production models of the Colt five-shot revolver in combat, rejected by the US Army.
A true maverick, he trained his men to aim, fire and reload their weapons from horseback instead of dismounting for shooting and reloading. This technique proved devastating to Indians and outlaws alike.
The Rangers fighting style is told when a south Texas custom saddle shop was robbed of 32 saddles by Mexican outlaws, but unfortunately for the thieves they left behind one identical saddle. The rangers spent hours studying that saddle until the image was burned into the memory. Orders were given to shoot to kill any man on the saddles found. The Rangers recovered every stolen saddle.
In 1839, McCulloch was elected to the House of Representatives of the Republic of Texas, but his reputation was marred by a rifle duel with Reuben Ross who was killed, whereas McCulloch received a wound that partially crippled his right arm for the rest of his life.
After many battles scouting for the Army and Texas Rangers, McCulloch was elected to the First Legislature after the annexation of Texas. At the outbreak of the Mexican War he commanded the company A of Texas Rangers and was ordered to report to the United States Army on the Texas Rio Grande and was soon named President Zachary Taylor’s chief of scouts. Ben won his commander’s praise and the admiration of the nation with his exciting reconnaissance expeditions into northern Mexico.
After the war he struck out for California during the gold rush, but failed as took a job as sheriff of Sacramento. When secession came to Texas, McCulloch was commissioned a colonel and authorized to demand the surrender of all federal posts in the Military District of Texas. In 1861, Jefferson Davis appointed McCulloch a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, the first general-grade officer to be commissioned from the civilian community.
McCulloch was assigned to the command of Indian Territory and established his headquarters at Little Rock, Arkansas, where he began to build the Army of the West.
McCulloch helped established vital alliances with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and other Indians in eastern Oklahoma. He later won an impressive victory over the army of Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri.
Ever the fighter, McCullock overran a battery of artillery and when he rode through the thick underbrush to determine the location of the enemy line, was shot from his horse and died instantly.
McCulloch was first buried on the field, but his body was moved later to Austin, Texas. McCulloch never married, but he left a lasting legacy of bravery, skill and founder of the famous Texas Rangers.