In the decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon to find the letters “GTT” painted or carved in the front door of a rural Tennessee cabin.
“GTT” was short for “gone to Texas,” which meant the occupants of said home had high-tailed for the opportunities presented by the Lone Star republic.
David Crockett – trapper, Indian fighter and former politician – was just one of the famous Tennesseans to try his luck in the Southeast.
In fact, when the pro-Jackson forces knocked Crockett out of his U.S. House seat, he assembled a group of his followers in a West Tennessee tavern, stood on a table and literally proclaimed:
“Yaw’ll can go to hell ... I’m going to Texas.”
Crockett left the state and took along with him two Rutherford countians, brothers Ben and Henry McCulloch. A twist of fate prevented them from sharing the fate of “The King of the Wild Frontier” at the Alamo.
The McCulloch brothers went on to be legitimate Texas heroes and Confederate brigadier generals.
Actually, Ben McCulloch’s life reads like something from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, “Lonesome Dove” series of books.
He was born in Rutherford County, on Nov. 11, 1811, the fourth son of Alexander and Frances F. McCulloch. His mother was the daughter of a prominent Virginia planter, Fisher LeNoir, and his father, a graduate of Yale College, was a major on Brig. Gen. John Coffee's staff during Gen. Andrew Jackson's campaign against the Creeks in Alabama.
Like many colonial families, the wealth of the McCullochs had been crushed by the Revolutionary War, and the family found itself moving time and time again in attempt to regain its lost fortunes. The McCullochs moved from North Carolina to several different parts of Tennessee and Alabama, finally ending up near Dyersburg where Crockett was one of their closest neighbors.
Ben was the fourth son out of 11 children. and while his two oldest brothers attended a school taught by future Tennessee/Texas governor Sam Houston, he received no formal education and worked his early life hunting, trapping, farming and rafting.
The brothers took up Crockett’s plan to explore the promises of Texas and agreed to rendezvous in Nacogdoches on Christmas Day, 1835. Ben and Henry arrived too late, however, and Ben followed Crockett alone toward San Antonio. When sickness from measles prevented him from reaching the Alamo before its fall, Ben joined 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.”
Texas’ famous “Twin Sisters” were two 6-pound smoothbore cannon donated to the Texas independence movement by citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The two cannons were cast at the foundry of Greenwood and Webb in Cincinnati and then shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
The artillery pieces were placed on the schooner Pennsylvania and taken to Galveston Island in early April 1836. On board the Pennsylvania was the family of Dr. Charles Rice, who was moving to Texas. Upon arrival in Galveston the guns were presented to representatives of Texas under the sponsorship of Dr. Rice's twin daughters, Elizabeth and Eleanor. Thus the “twin” cannons became known as the “Twin Sisters.”
It took several days to get the “Twins” to Sam Houston’s retreating army chased by the overwhelming forces of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. The two small cannons were the only artillery available to the Texans and were placed under command of Col. James Neill who was wounded April 20, 1836 during a skirmish between the armies of Houston and Santa Anna. Command was transferred to George W. Hockley.
The following day, April 21, 1836, the “Twin Sisters” played a key role during the Battle of San Jacinto.
Houston’s army caught Santa Anna by surprise near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The “Twins” held the center of the Texas line firing broken glass, horseshoes and musket balls at a distance of 200 yards in advance of the infantry.
The deadly shrapnel-type cannon fire cut into the Mexican troops and started a rout, which was completed by charging Texans troops.
It was a decisive victory for the Texans and a feather in the cap of Ben McCulloch who received great credit for manning one of the Sisters.
Some decade and a half later, the “Twins” would come back into McCulloch’s life as a rallying point for another cause ... Secession. But before then, McCulloch’s frontier fame would grow to mythic proportions as one of the most famous Texas rangers.
After leaving the army, Ben started work as a surveyor in the rough frontier communities of Gonzales and Seguin. As settlers moved in, Indian attacks increased markedly.
He then joined the Texas Rangers as first lieutenant under John Coffee Hays, another former Tennessean from Cedar Lick in Wilson County. Hays first joined the Rangers under Erastus “Deaf” Smith and by 1840 was captain of his own Ranger company.
Jack Hays, Ben McCulloch, John S. Ford and Samuel Walker were the prototypical Texas Rangers. The Rangers weren’t law enforcement offers. They were rough and ready citizen/soldiers more in the nature of mounted, irregular militia.
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. The weapons had earlier been rejected by the U.S. Army.
A true martial revolutionary, Hays trained his men to aim, fire and reload their weapons from horseback instead of dismounting for shooting and reloading. This technique proved devastating.
The effectiveness of the Colt revolvers was improved greatly by the Rangers’ “field trials.” Ranger Samuel H. Walker urged Colt to increase the power and range of the handguns, which evolved into a six-shot version, the Colt Walker, which was the .44 magnum of its day.
Using two of the big Walker Colts, McCulloch and William “Bigfoot” Wallace and other Rangers became renowned frontier fighters.
The Rangers’ reputation went national with the outbreak of the Mexican War. McCulloch raised a command that became Co. A of Col. Jack Hays' First Regiment, Texas Mounted volunteers. Due to his great skill in tracking and scouting, he was named Gen. Zachary Taylor’s chief of scouts. He and his men rendered invaluable service to the U. S. Army at the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista. McCulloch ended the Mexican War with the rank of major.
Returning to Texas, McCulloch resumed his business of surveying, but it didn’t take long for “gold fever” to catch him. He traveled to California with the rest of the 49ers and became sheriff in Sacramento in 1849.
In 1852 he returned to Texas and was appointed U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1857 he was appointed as one of the commissioners charged with investigating the “Mormon troubles” in Utah.
Elsewhere – farther east – other troubles were continuing to build.