Born on November 11, 1811, Benjamin McCulloch was the fourth son of Alexander McCulloch and Frances LeNoir of Tennessee. His family had a tradition of militarism going all the way back to 14th century Scotland and the first man to take the name McCulloch. The McCulloch family moved from Tennessee to Alabama and then from there to Texas. Although never formally educated, Ben was an avid reader in military history and tactics, participated in the Texas War of Independence and the Mexican American War and became a popular Texas Ranger.
By the time of the American Civil War, Ben McCulloch, a staunch Democrat, denounced attempts by northerners and “free soilers” to suspend the expansion of slavery westward. When talk began of Texas secession in early 1861, Texas authorities made Ben a colonel and authorized him to raise a cavalry unit loyal to the southern cause and, above all, loyal to the state of Texas. On May 11, 1861, President Jefferson Davis made McCulloch the first civilian commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate States of America. At the time, only four field commanders outranked him. He was the first general officer in the Confederacy who had not attended West Point and one of only 11 Confederate generals who had received no college education. After his promotion, Ben McCulloch moved to take command of his forces, known then as the Army of the West and of Indian Territory.
Late summer 1861 saw McCulloch and his troops move to the aid of General Sterling Price, commander of the Secessionist Missouri State Guard, in southwestern Missouri. The relationship between Price and McCulloch was contentious and led to many bad leadership decisions. On August 10, 1861, McCulloch fought together with Price’s Missouri State Guard near Springfield against Federal forces under General Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Although considered a Southern victory, the Federals managed to retreat towards St. Louis without much opposition by the Southerners.
McCulloch removed his Army of the West back into Arkansas and placed them in camp at Camp McCulloch around Cross Hollows to resupply, address their wounds and continue their military training. By late February 1862, the Confederate forces in Arkansas amassed in the Boston Mountains, along with Missouri forces under Sterling Price, and established Camp Defiance near Crawford, Arkansas. When Major General Earl Van Dorn arrived on March 2, the newly reorganized Army of the West moved towards Federal Brigadier General Samuel Curtis’ army, which was entrenched along the Telegraph Road near Little Sugar Creek.
As the Army of the West was moving towards the Federals, Van Dorn decided to move around the Federal Army and attack them from their flank. As they were maneuvering, Van Dorn decided to split his army into two because the latter half was slowly falling behind. Van Dorn and Sterling Price took half of the Southern army along the Bentonville Detour towards the Telegraph Road. Ben McCulloch led the other half along the Ford Road with the goal of meeting Van Dorn’s division at the intersection of Ford Road and Telegraph Road. While moving eastward on Ford Road, McCulloch’s division was halted by a small Federal force. Initially successful, the Confederates pushed the Federals south across Oberson’s Field but halted in the woods on the north edge of that field to assess the Federal position. While scouting out his enemy near the edge of the woods on the western end of Oberson’s Field, Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch was killed by Illinois skirmishers. His body is buried in the government cemetery at Fort Smith, Arkansas.