CW & Pop Culture: Steve Earle’s “Ben McCulloch”

Steve Earle

I’ve been a longtime Steve Earle fan and I’m here today to share something with you…

Steve Earle is cooler than crap.

Here’s a guy who cut his teeth in the music business under the tutelage of the great Townes van Zandt. A guy who has consistently put out high quality albums for more than thirty years. A guy whose talent extends beyond the realm of music.

A Texas native, Earle flexed his acting muscles in two of the finest television series this author has ever seen – The Wire and Treme. He’s written a novel and an off-Broadway play. He’s remained as relevant and as necessary as ever when other artists of his vintage have faded into obscurity.

And like you and me, Steve Earle fashions himself as a Civil War enthusiast. This interest has spilled over into his songwriting and soap-boxing at his concerts. Earle has written a number of songs either referencing or directly relating to the Civil War. And while his jaunty ode to Buster Kilrain (“Dixieland,” from his acclaimed album The Mountain with Del McCoury Band—see Chris Mackowski’s 2011 post about it) might be the first of these songs to come to mind, I’d direct readers to an earlier, edgier Earle song highlighting another son of Texas, Ben McCulloch.

General Benjamin McCulloch

The name Ben McCulloch might be foreign to some Civil War enthusiasts, especially those who shy away from western theater studies. A longtime soldier, legislator, and lawman, by May 1861 McCulloch had been named brigadier general in the Confederate Army and soon after defeated a Federal army under Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. McCulloch was killed at the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, a significant loss of a steady hand in the Confederacy’s western theater command.

A masterful songwriter, Earle relates the story of a common soldier serving under McCulloch, the highs and lows undoubtedly common to soldiers North and South during the early days of the war. Let’s break down some of the lyrics…

We signed up in San Antone, my brother Paul and me
To fight with Ben McCulloch and the Texas infantry
Well the poster said we’d get a uniform and seven bucks a week
The best rations in the army and a rifle we could keep

Earle here demonstrates the incentives that no doubt enticed many men to enlist, especially those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, including arms, uniforms, regular pay and food. This optimism would be tempered with the realizations of what awaited them – discomfort, disease and death.

When I first laid eyes on the general I knew he was a fightin’ man
He was every inch a soldier, every word was his command
Well his eyes were cold as the lead and steel forged into tools of war
He took the lives of many and the souls of many more

Well they marched us to Missouri and we hardly stopped for rest
And then he made this speech and said “We’re comin’ to the test”
Well we’ve got to take Saint Louie boys before the Yankees do
If we control the Mississippi then the Federals are through

Both sides recognized the need for control of both St. Louis and the Mississippi River. Nathaniel Lyon secured the arsenal in St. Louis in the spring of 1861, and while the city would remain the occasional target of military action over the next four years (most notably Sterling Price’s 1864 expedition), it would remain under Federal control throughout war.

Well they told us that our enemy would all be dressed in blue
They forgot about the winter’s cold and cursed fever too
My brother died at Wilson’s Creek and Lord I seen him fall
We fell back to the Boston Mountains in the north of Arkansas

At Wilson’s Creek the narrator sees his brother’s life cut short in battle. While Sterling Price led his Missouri State Guard northward into the heart of the state, McCulloch instead took his army back into Arkansas, the narrator seething in frustration in the chorus and final verse…

Goddamn you Ben McCulloch
I hate you more than any other man alive
And when you die you’ll be a foot soldier just like me
In the Devil’s infantry

And on the way to Fayetteville we cursed McCulloch’s name
And mourned the dead that we’d left behind and we was carrying the lame
I killed a boy the other night who’d never even shaved
I don’t even know what I’m fightin’ for, I ain’t never owned a slave
So I snuck out of camp and then I heard the news next night
The Yankees won the battle and McCulloch lost his life…

Here we feel the confusion and disillusionment that no doubt pervaded the thoughts of men on both sides of the conflict, ultimately leading to the narrator’s desertion the day before the battle at Pea Ridge, where McCulloch was killed by an Illinois soldier.
The song offers a Civil War soldier’s full range of emotions in a way which doesn’t always convey in the history books. Have a listen here…

Full disclosure…I was secretly hoping that Kristen Pawlak would walk out to this song like a rock star to give her Wilson’s Creek talk at last year’s ECW Symposium.

4 Responses to CW & Pop Culture: Steve Earle’s “Ben McCulloch”

  1. Earle is an interesting song-writer but his admonishment of the Mississippi state flag retention, heroin use, serial marriages and left-wing ranting from a millionaire all fail to enhance his scatological “Coolness.” It always seems better not to know anything about anyone. Take General Hooker for example.

    1. Morning David,

      I believe Earle has been sober for some two decades. I give credit to anyone who can fight those kinds of demons. He’s also an advocate for autism awareness and is the primary caregiver for his youngest son, who was born on the spectrum. It’s not all black and white with Earle…he lives more in that gray area. Maybe that’s why he’s such an interesting character. Thanks for reading!

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