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Confederate Reunion
at Camp Ben McCulloch

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

His straw cowboy hat balanced on his knee, 84-year-old Luther Watson sat talking about his father’s service in the Confederate army.

“Well, he didn’t want to go,” he began.

“You better not tell that,” Mrs. Watson interrupted, “he’ll put it in the newspaper.”

“That’s all right,” Watson interrupted back, “it’s the truth.”

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 after years of national acrimony over slavery and state’s rights, Watson’s grandfather, father, and his Uncle Jim – along with others – did not feel like they had a dog in the hunt. But they did believe it would be an opportune time to tour Old Mexico.

The party started riding south, but a group of armed Union sympathizers got wind of the Texas boys’ exit strategy and took up their trail. The Mexico-bound group made camp for the night at a cave on the Pedernales River.

“They built a fire in the cave,” Watson went on. “Then the Yankees came up on ‘em and they had a big fight. I don’t know how many…we’re killed.”

What he did know was that his grandfather, father and Uncle Jim had all been outside the cave when the shooting started. His grandfather and Uncle Jim being notably near-sighted, they stayed in the shadows so as not to get in the way. Watson’s father joined the fight.

No matter their earlier pacifist leanings, the surprise attack ignited the patriotic spirit of the two young men.

“Uncle Jim and my father slipped off in the night and enlisted the next morning,” Watson said. “Grandpa went on to Mexico.”

A few days after telling this story in the summer of 1977, Watson answered the roll call for his father at the 81st annual Confederate reunion at Camp Ben McCulloch near Dripping Springs.

The first reunion of Confederate veterans took place near the present camp in 1896, with the current site developed in 1904. By the 1930s, it had grown into the South’s largest yearly encampment of aging Rebels. Their number dwindling every year, the old soldiers kept coming until 1946, when the last two Hays County veterans died.

Watson first started going to the reunion with his father, riding there in their family buggy. At one reunion, he recalled, the war briefly rekindled.

As his father sat cooking bacon over a campfire, a fellow named Hab Stubbs approached. For some reason, he had come to Camp Ben McCulloch even though he had fought for the North.

“Well, this was the day we whupped you,” Stubbs said, referring to the anniversary of some distant engagement.

By this point, Watson had used his knife to take a sizzling slice of bacon off the green stick he had been cooking it on. Likely, Stubbs only intended to rib Watson in a good-natured way, one old soldier joking with another. But Watson didn’t see the humor in the remark.

With a quickness of movement quite impressive for an older gentleman, Watson “greased [Hab’s] throat with that bacon on his knife.”

After that, “You couldn’t see Hab for the trail of dust.”

The old soldiers certainly ate better at Camp Ben McCulloch than they did during the war.

While fighting for the Confederacy, Watson said, many of the soldiers “nearly starved.” Their larder ran so lean that “they’d pick up wild cat bones they’d find and make soup of them. Might add a little corn meal to give it some thickness.”

Sometimes the soldiers did enjoy fresh meat, but not without some effort.

“Father said a man named Ben Watson (of no relation) seen an old sow and some little pigs,” Watson said. “He got after one of those pigs and cut his feet all up running it. I guess he was barefoot. They took pieces of a blanket and wrapped it around his feet.”

Even though Ben Watson ended up with bloody feet, his fellow Confederates got to enjoy a pork dinner.

Seventy-one-year-old Dayton Roberts attended the reunion for the first time with his family in 1910 when he was only four. He was a regular until 1925, but work kept him away until 1946. After then, he went for years without missing a single reunion.

Way back, Roberts recalled, “there’d be fiddling every morning. The old soldiers would take the sideboards off their wagons and lay ‘em on the ground to make a platform about three feet wide and 12 feet or so long. Then they’d start jigging on those wagon boards.”

One of the veterans Roberts remembered had a memorable name – Joseph Santa Anna Cruze.

“He had been a bugler in the Confederate cavalry,” Roberts said.

Santa Anna, as he was known, became the reunion’s official bugler. And he didn’t wait until he got to camp to start blowing.

“When he’d get 300 or 400 yards from a farm house, he’d start playing something,” he said. “That’s how we kids would know it was time for the reunion.”

The first, second, and third generations of Confederate veterans are long gone, but the annual reunion at Camp Ben McCulloch marches on.



© Mike Cox January 22, 2015 column
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