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
“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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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
“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.
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
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January
22, 2015 column