William McCullough
William McCullough

By Spessard Stone

William McCullough was a pioneer settler of Fort Meade, Florida, whose Civil War experiences led to his self-exile from Fort Meade.

William McCullough was born October 1, 1821 in Kentucky and reared, apparently, in Lorance County, Ohio. Following the death of his mother, an uncle defrauded William and his siblings of their inheritance and bound him out to a master, who so cruelly mistreated him that he was saved from death only by the timely intervention of the town sheriff.

In 1839, William enlisted for five years in the U.S. Army. After leaving Cleveland on October 18, 1839, he was stationed at numerous posts, including New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin. After steaming down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, McCullough and company sailed to Tampa Bay, arriving there October 22, 1840.

Disembarking, they soon after marched to Fort King to begin their campaigns against the Seminoles. Assignments, thereafter, included various points in Florida and east Georgia, among which were: Tampa, Fort King, Fort Carroll (established), Fort Dade, the Big Cypress Swamp, and the Everglades. On January 2, 1843, they left Sea Horse Key with 110 Indians being deported west. After off loading the Seminoles at New Orleans, they returned to Florida. During his service, William had participated in numerous scouting expeditions and was involved in the burning of many Indian villages and their plantations, but only a limited number of skirmishes with the Seminoles as they generally chose to avoid direct battles.

Upon his discharge, William settled at Alafia in Hillsborough County. At Tampa on November 14, 1844, he was married by William Ashley to Nancy A. Whidden, born February 20, 1830, Hamilton County, Florida, daughter of James W. Whidden and Mary (Altman) Whidden. There was some irregularity with the marriage and Judge Simon Turman remarried the couple on March 11, 1852.

On July 3, 1849, William McCullough was hired as a clerk at the Kennedy-Darling Indian trading post at Hatse Lotka, a creek (later renamed Paynes Creek) flowing into the Peace River, eight to ten miles south of the ruins of the Indian town of Talakchopco (near where Fort Meade was to be established in December 1849). The store was operated by George S. Payne, a 32-year-old native of Cornwall, Connecticut. Also employed there was Dempsey Whidden, Nancy McCullough's 21-year-old brother.

On July 17, 1849 an outlaw band of Indians attacked the post. Payne and Whidden were killed, while both William and Nancy McCullough were wounded and the Kennedy-Darling store was burned. (Its site and the subsequently established Fort Chokonikla is today contained in Paynes Creek State Historic Site, southeast of present-day Bowling Green.) A war was averted only because the Indian leaders turned three of the murderers over to General Twiggs and executed a fourth.

Several versions of the attack exist. On July 6, 1939, Mrs. Ida M. Walker, the 72-year-old sole surviving child of the McCulloughs, then living in Los Alamitos, California, wrote in part:

"My Father and a captain Paine was keeping a government store for the Indians. One day they came to buy supplies, got what they wanted and went away. So as it was dinner time they set down dinner. My mother was up for the first time. She had a little baby girl. Her brother was there also. Well the Indians came back and began fireing in the door, killed Captain Pain and mothers brother.
"My Father fought his way out with my mother and baby. They were badly wounded. There was a creek with a log to cross on so Father took the baby and made my mother get down and crall across the log. They were lost in the woods and it rained on them. My Father tore bark from down pine logs and made a shelter for mother and the Baby. Mother tore up her skirt and bound up their wounds. The next morning they found their way out of the timber by going out the way mother had dreamed. They found every thing as she had dreamed. Grandfathers house burned down and his cattle drove off. They headed for the fort."

The McCulloughs remained on their Alafia farm for a time before returning to Key West where they'd previously lived. Later they resettled southwest of Fort Meade near a creek, which soon became known as McCullough Creek.

During the Third Seminole War, William enlisted as a private on January 3, 1856 and served until August 1856 in Capt. William B. Hooker's Company. In the Willoughby Tillis Battle of June 14, 1856, James D. Tillis, a son of Willoughby, later recalled the attack on his parents' home, one and a half miles from Fort Meade, in which Lt. Alderman Carlton, William Parker, and Lott Whidden, Nancy's 19-year-old brother, were killed, and three others, Daniel W. Carlton, John H. Hollingsworth, and John C. Oats, were wounded in coming to the defense of the family.

James D. Tillis wrote of McCullough's part in the action:

"McCullough, infuriated at the death of his comrades, dismounted and ran towards an Indian whom he spied secreted behind a pine tree. Pulling him out, he grappled with him, man to man. Daniel Carlton ran to his aid. Between them, they beat the Indian to the ground and cut his throat with his own hunting knife. Oats and McCullough then dragged the wounded Hollingsworth back to our house."

The 1860 census of Hillsborough County listed the family in the Fort Meade area. William had no slaves. With the formation of Polk County in 1861, William became a resident of it and was listed as a taxpayer in 1861. With the outbreak of the Civil War, William remained loyal to the Union, an action that led to threats to the personal safety of his friends and himself by the regulators and Capt. Pearson's conscript officers. Eighteen months after hostilities commenced, he fled to Indian territory. In June 1863, still harassed, he and his family made their way to Fort Capron, Indian River where, after five weeks, he took passage on the gunboat Sagamore and refuge in Key West. There he was employed at various jobs, including salvage of a wrecked ship.

On February 22, 1864, William was enlisted by Capt. Henry A. Crane as 1st lieutenant of Company A, Second Regiment of Florida Cavalry, United States Army. On April 18, 1864, he was mustered into service at Fort Myers. His personal description at this time was: 5 feet 6 inches, with light complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes.

On March 13, 1864, Lt. (later) Capt. James D. Green, with about thirty men, including Lt. McCullough, set out from Fort Myers to capture Confederate supplies at Fort Meade and recruit men. At the farm of Willoughby Tillis, provisions were confiscated, and several slaves were liberated. An encounter with the neighboring Confederate Thomas Underhill resulted in his death. With twenty-six new recruits and the seizures, they returned to Fort Myers.

In April 1864, Green and McCullough led nearly a hundred men out of Fort Myers enroute to Fort Meade with the mission of occupying the fort and capturing prominent Confederates. At Bowlegs Creek on April 7, the invaders met the Confederate forces of Capt. James McKay, Jr., and a brief battle ensued with two casualties, both Confederate, Henry A. Prine wounded, and James Lanier killed. The Second Florida, as it left, burned all the buildings on the Willoughby Tillis' homestead but had been stymied in its main purpose.

On May 6, 1864, Union forces, consisting of the Second Florida Cavalry and the Second Florida Colored Troops, disembarked off the mouth of Tampa Bay. Green, with McCullough as his second in command, led the South Florida Unionists. The invaders occupied Tampa briefly, but withdrew May 7.

Receiving reports of mistreatment of Union sympathizers, a force of over two hundred men, nearly evenly divided between the Second Florida Cavalry and Second Florida Colored Troops, the former led by Green and McCullough, again marched to Fort Meade, arriving there on May 19 after evading a Confederate ambush. After the Confederates declined an attack, the Union soldiers seized contraband, including 1,000 cattle, rescued refugee families, recruited men, and, before leaving, set fire to the fort's buildings. The nearly two-mile long train of soldiers and refugees returned to Fort Myers on May 27.

In July 1864, McCullough participated in the Second Florida's landing at Bayport which was used as a base to destroy plantations at Brooksville of such well-known Confederates as David Hope, William B. Hooker, and Capt. Leroy Lesley. From July until early October, William was stationed at Cedar Key, from which raids continued. Meanwhile, the health and morale of the volunteers and refugees suffered with tension developing between them and the officers of the colored troops and the colored troops themselves, with the former complaining of corruption, favoritism, and sexual immorality.

On August 20, 1864, Capt. Henry A. Crane wrote to H. W. Bowers:

"It has become really necessary to seperate the Col[ore]d Troops from the Refugee families. During our last months absence they have become greatly demoralized, and to such an extent has it been carried, that a long continuance can only tend to open irruption, & all this from a laxity of discipline that is truly unpardonable. Our women have been repeatedly insulted Officers threatened. Horses stabbed with bayonets & otherwise injured. My authority defied by the Guards. My person & house stoned, hissed at, threatened with death &c. & this in the immediate presence of an Officer (Capt Willet) without a remonstrance or an attempt to subdue open mutiny to the disgrace of a Military garrison. I[n] view of all these matters I would respectfully ask that they may be withdraw[n] from this Post or that my command & the refugees may be sent away."

After the death of General Woodbury in July 1864, the change of command and in-fighting resulted in Capt. Green and Lt. McCullough's loss of status. In October 1864, Col. Benjamin Townsend, commander of all Union forces on the west coast of Florida, recommended that the pair be discharged on the grounds of incompetence and were posted to Fort Myers to await the outcome. Meanwhile at Fort Myers the plight of the refugees and volunteers worsened. This culminated in Capt. Green and Lt. McCullough placing charges against Capt. Jonathan Childs in November 1864, with the result they were put under close arrest in the post stockade.

1st Lieutenant William McCullough and 1st Lieutenant John W. Platt had on January 24, 1865, by order of Major General E. R. S. Canby of Military Division of West Mississippi, been "dismissed the service of the United States, for signing provision returns not agreeing with morning reports, and for general incompetency and inattention to duties.";

Nevertheless, when an ill-conceived plan of the Cow Cavalry to attack Fort Myers on February 20, 1865 was realized, McCullough, now out of confinement, as he dropped his charges against Childs, was placed in command of one hundred white troops to set up a defense parameter.

William, commended for "good and efficient service" during the battle, suffered partial loss of hearing and injury to his spine when a shell exploded over his head. The Confederates, the same evening of the attack, withdrew without accomplishing much of anything, except perhaps as Capt. F. A. Hendry recalled "a day spent in canon and rifle practice."

Following the war, William decided that it would not be prudent to live again at Fort Meade, where his former neighbors would likely never accept his presence. Through the acting provost marshal at Cedar Key, William obtained passage for himself and his family to New Orleans, to which they arrived July 6, 1865, with him being discharged the following evening. Before Gen. Canby he appeared to request a hearing from proceedings of the court of inquiry at Punta Rassa and for transportation north, but was turned down. An application to the quartermaster was, however, successful, and on July 29 he and his family took passage to Cairo, Illinois where he had relatives and also near his old home in Ohio. On August 7, they arrived at Hamilton, Illinois where four days later William began work with a railroad.

Thereafter, William fought to clear his name. On May 31, 1866, the order was revoked, and he was honorably discharged as of the date of the order of the dismissal in orders from the Adjutant General's Office of the War Department. The order was amended so as to discharge him to date February 20, 1865; "he having continued on duty with his command that date on orders from this office dated April 5, 1867."

On March 8, 1889, William, then a resident of Kahoka, Clark County, Missouri, wrote: "I left Florida in August 1865 and went directly to Hamilton, Hancock Co., Ill. where I lived until February 1868 when I came to this county, where I have lived ever since. While I lived at Hamilton, I worked with the bridge gang on the Clayton Branch of the T. P. & N. Ry. Since coming to this county, I have been engaged at farming all the time."

On January 4, 1889, William applied for an invalid pension from his service in Company A, citing injuries sustained at Fort Myers in February 1865, which was compounded by an attack of bilious fever in July 1864 while on march to Bayport, Florida "during which time we were without tents or shelter of any kind and was exposed to heavy rains." His claim was rejected upon the ground of no pensionable disability. William McCullough died April 2, 1890.

On July 11, 1890, Nancy A. McCullough of Kahoka, Missouri applied for a pension as the widow of William McCullough under the Act of June 27, 1890, with George L. and Mary O. Gilbert as her witnesses. Continuing her claim on February 4, 1891, she presented a joint affidavit by William A. Walker and John Casey, in which in part they affirmed:

"At the death of Wm. McCullough, he left her claimant upon a sixty-acre tract of land, which is mortgaged for more than its full value. She rents the tillable land from twenty to twenty-five acres for the one/third, but the entire crop to her share will not pay the interest upon the notes. She has two cows, one of which is a milch cow only giving about a pint at a milking. She has two old horses; one will not work. She has three small hogs for her winter's meat and a few chickens."

Nancy's claim was approved at the rate of $8 per month, commencing August 9, 1890. She was last paid at $12 per month. Nancy Whidden McCullough died August 31, 1908.

Nancy and William McCullough, from Canter Brown, Jr.'s Florida's Peace River Frontier, 1991, p. 81

Issue of William and Nancy (Whidden) McCullough, 14 children, of whom the following children lived to adulthood:

1. Elisabeth Frances McCullough, born November 19, 1848, Key West, Fla.; died September 5, 1912, Beaver, Oklahoma; married on September 16, 1866 Charles Henry Griffith.
2. Mary Orelia McCullough, born December 7, 1852, Key West, Fla.; died January 25, 1935, Garfield, Oklahoma; married on October 5, 1876 George Luther Gilbert.
3. David Washington McCullough, born March 4, 1855, Fort Meade, Fla.; died September 19, 1917, Ben Hill Co., Ga.; married in 1878 Amanda Jane Small.
4. Charles Henry McCullough, born December 27, 1857, Fort Meade, Fla.; died September 28, 1937, Ft. Coob, Oklahoma; married on February 9, 1878 Martha Jane Toops.
5. Flourance Euphemia McCullough, born February 17, 1860, Ft. Meade, Fla.; died April 10, 1929, Kahoka, Missouri; married on March 21, 1879 James McCarty.
6. James Franklin McCullough, born April 24, 1861, Ft. Meade, Fla.; died February 5, 1937, Miami, Fla.; married on April 2, 1906 Karalina Agnes Pospi.
7. Alice "Emma" Adelaide McCullough, born March 21, 1863; died March 10, 1935, Fullerton, California; married in 1880 John Franklin Casey.
8. Ida Mable McCullough, born October 2, 1866; died February 26, 1948, Kahoka, Missouri; married on March 9, 1883 William A. Walker.
9. Clara Inda McCullough, born December 13, 1870, Kahoka, Missouri; died June 3, 1898, Kahoka, Missouri.

References: Mss. of William McCullough; Canter Brown, Jr., Florida Peace River Frontier and the same author's historical novel of Civil War and Reconstruction in South Florida, A Loyal Man (not published); pension applications of William and Nancy McCullough; Harry and Vera Merritt.

This article is adapted from my articles in The Herald-Advocate of March 1, 1990 and the Polk County Historical Quarterly of March 1994.

I also highly recommend "My National Troubles" The Civil War Papers of William McCullough, edited and annotated by Kyle VanLandingham.

Fort Meade Map of 1850s-1860s from Fort Meade 1849-1900 by Canter Brown, Jr. (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1995)

Feb. 2, 2001, Jan. 8, 2002, May 21, 2004 (photo), May 22, 2009 (Crane quote), Aug. 11, 2009 (Brown map), Feb. 8, 2010 (discharge & appeal papers scanned).