James Butler Bonham

A country gentleman

In the old American south, in the years before the Civil War, southern gentlemen wielded every facet of economic and political power.  They also created their own standard of gentility and honor; they not only defined southern white manhood but created the standard for southern womanhood as well.  In so doing, they shaped what we know today as southern culture.  To defend what they had created over three-hundred years, it was necessary to defend the system of slavery that sustained it.  Economic survival in the non-industrialized South depended on slavery, for without the wealth created by field slaves, southern aristocrats could not maintain their genteel lifestyles.

Of course, not every wealthy southern gentleman was a slave owner.  Plantation owners were, of course, but there were also bankers, exporter brokers, lawyers, doctors, tradesmen, and shipbuilders.  If these people owned slaves, they were likely employed as domestic servants and generally well-cared-for.  Nevertheless, one could make the argument that these wealthy city men also benefitted from the labors of enslaved people.

Despite the prevalence of southern plantations, most whites living in the south were themselves poor and not much better off than the slaves that worked the plantation fields.  In fact, one might make the argument that the slaves were better off than most poor whites, for at least the slaves knew where their next meal would come from.  Poor whites didn’t own slaves, but psychologically, even on the edge of genteel society, they did identify with southern cultural traditions —including the ideal of southern manhood— and this was why poor whites flocked to join the Confederacy. They were not seeking to preserve slavery; they wanted to defend their homes and preserve southern culture.

James Butler Bonham, Jr., was one of the affluent southern city boys —and in this context, typical among lads of his own socio-economic class.  He was short-tempered, stubborn, a bit arrogant —and not at all disposed to bend his knee to any man.  Bonham was expelled from South Carolina College [1] for leading a protest of the senior class. He was upset about having to attend class in bad weather, and he didn’t like the food served in the cafeteria. The young lads weren’t the only folks to have an arrogant streak: South Carolina College not only expelled Bonham, they also expelled the entire senior class.  No matter, it was a matter of principal —from both perspectives.  In any case, Bonham took up reading the law and became a practicing attorney in Pendleton, South Carolina in 1830 —the third Texas adventurist with connections to Pendleton, also including Thomas J. Rusk and Samuel A. Maverick.

Bonham JB 1835-001

James Butler Bonham, Jr.

Bonham’s parents were James and Sophia Butler Bonham.  He was born at Red Banks (now Saluda) South Carolina on 20 February 1807, a second cousin of Lieutenant Colonel William Barrett Travis [2], who commanded the Texian garrison at the Alamo on 6 March 1836.

Not long after beginning his law career, an enraged Jim Bonham caned a fellow attorney for having made insulting remarks toward Bonham’s female client.  The magistrate, in deciding that he could not allow such behavior among local jurists, ordered Bonham to apologize.  Not only did Jim Bonham refuse to apologize, he threatened to tweak the judge’s nose.  Bonham spent the next 90 days in jail for “contempt of court.”  Apparently, Bonham’s learning curve resembled the letter “S”.

In 1832, family influence helped Bonham obtain a position as aide to South Carolina governor James Hamilton.  The position brought with it a lieutenant colonel commission in the state militia. Bonham concurrently served as a captain of militia artillery in Charleston.  His service to Hamilton coincided with the nullification crisis, which took place between 1832-1833 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  The issue was right of sovereign states to repudiate federal law.  Out of concern for its own economy [3], the South Carolina legislature declared the federal tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional, and therefore, null and void within South Carolina.  Nullification was a contentious issue in those days.

In 1833, Bonham moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he established a law practice.  Word of the unfolding events in Texas reached the American southwest in 1835, communicated in a manner best framed to elicit the sympathies of men who were most disposed to volunteer their aid.  Bonham was one of these sympathetic men, although unlike most, he was well to do and circulated among society’s elite.  He led a rally in support of Texas at the Shakespeare Theater in Mobile, Alabama.  Three days later, citizens of Mobile elected him to carry their resolution of support to General Sam Houston [4].  Within weeks, Bonham organized a volunteer company for service in Texas.  They called themselves The Mobile Grays.

By the end of that year, Bonham was in Texas familiarizing himself with its political and military affairs. On 1 December 1835, Bonham wrote a letter to Sam Houston volunteering his service for Texas and, coincidently, declining all pay, lands, or rations in return.  Bonham did receive a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Texas Cavalry, but was never assigned to a specific unit.  While waiting for a military posting, Bonham established a law practice [5] in Brazoria, a business he advertised in the Telegraph and Texas Register in early January 1836.

Bonham and Sam Houston developed a mutually respectful relationship.  On 11 January 1836, in a letter to Texas provisional governor James W. Robinson [6], Houston recommended Bonham for promotion to the rank of major, stating that “His influence in the army is great —more so than some who would be generals.”

Traveling with James Bowie and a detachment of thirty men, Bonham arrived in Béxar on 19 January 1836. It was an intense period for Texians. Colonel James C. Neill, then commanding 78-man garrison at the Alamo, was furious over the fact that his men lacked munitions, clothing, and adequate pay [7].  He spoke of leaving the Alamo.  Meanwhile, with their ear to the ground, Mexican families were evacuating San Antonio de Béxarin droves.

On 26 January, Colonel Neill recruited Bonham to help outline political resolutions on behalf of his garrison in support of Provisional Governor Henry Smith [8].  When the time came to elect delegates to the Texas Constitutional Convention, representing the men at Béxar, Bonham, a candidate for election, was overwhelmingly defeated.

Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis, who at the time served as Colonel Neill’s deputy commander, assumed command of the Alamo garrison after Neill’s departure to attend to his seriously ill family.  Travis dispatched Bonham to Washington-on-the-Brazos to plea for aid and reinforcement of the garrison.  En route, Bonham rode to Goliad where he learned that Colonel James Fannin was in no position to send any help.  Bonham returned to the Alamo on 3 March.  By then, Santa Anna’s army had surrounded the Alamo with 1,800 regular army troops.  Upon reaching the outskirts of San Antonio, Bonham courageously and cleverly avoided Mexican cavalry pickets.  Arriving at the Alamo, Bonham presented a dispatch from Robert M. Williamson assuring Travis that help was on the way, and encouraging him to hold out at the Alamo.

According to T.R. Fehrenback [9], “At the end [his mission at Washington-on-the-Brazos], the weary Bonham, a lawyer, a Carolinian of exulted family and a friend of Travis, turned his mount around and rode back toward San Antonio. He was told it was useless to throw his life away [by riding back to the Alamo].  He answered back that Buck Travis deserved to know the answer to his appeals, spat upon the ground, and galloped west toward his own immortality.”

James Butler Bonham died at the Alamo on 6 March 1836 [10].    He was a 29-year-old southern gentleman.  Historians believe that he died while manning one of the cannons in the interior of the Alamo chapel.  He did his duty to the end.

Sources:

  1. Fahrenback, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, Boston: Da Capo Press, 1968
  2. Bonham, M. L. James Butler Bonham: A Consistent Rebel, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 35 (October 1931)
  3. Chariton, W. O. 100 Days in Texas: The Alamo Letters, Plano Texas: Wordware, 1990
  4. Lindley, T. R. James Butler Bonham, Alamo Journal, August 1988
  5. Lord, W. A Time to Stand(New York: Harper, 1968)

Endnotes:

[1] Now, the University of South Carolina.

[2] Born in South Carolina, later moved to Alabama at the age of 9 years.

[3] The United States suffered an economic downturn in the 1820s, and South Carolina was particularly affected.  South Carolina politicians argued that the economic decline was a result of federal tariff policy that developed after the War of 1812.  The so-called Tariff of Abominations was actually enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, but the issue quickly shifted to the question whether a state had the right to nullify a federal law.  President Jackson ignored the state’s concerns; Washington politicians were split on this issue, and Vice President Calhoun, a native of South Carolina, became a leader of the Nullification movement.  Eventually, President Jackson threatened South Carolina with military intervention if it refused to comply with federal laws. Nullification, first proposed by Thomas Jefferson, would lead the United States to civil war.

[4] Formerly, the sixth governor of Tennessee, a member of the US House of Representatives from Tennessee’s 7th congressional district, and a US Army first lieutenant with service in the War of 1812.

[5] At this early date, there appeared to be more lawyers in Texas than deer ticks in Minnesota.

[6] Robinson was an Indiana attorney, a partner in law with William Henry Harrison, who after deserting his family in 1828, relocated to Texas in 1833 with a new wife and son, eventually settling in the area of present-day San Jacinto County.  Robinson was elected lieutenant governor at the Consultation of 1835.  When Henry Smith was deposed as governor, the provisional government named Robinson to replace him.  Smith refused to relinquish his office, however, which gave the provisional government two men, each claiming the governorship.  In 1840, Robinson was wounded during the Council House Fight and in 1842, he was taken prisoner by General Adrian Woll.  In 1850, Robinson moved to San Diego, California where he served as district attorney, school commissioner, and a promoter of railroad service in southern California.  He passed away in 1857, but his estate was never settled until 1903.

[7] After the surrender of General Cos at the Alamo, Colonel Frank Johnson and James Grant stripped the garrison of provisions to supply the Matamoros Expedition, leaving Colonel Neill to hold the town with but a hand full of men.  Neill wrote bitter letters to the council condemning these arbitrary measures and called for reinforcement and supply.  Neill departed the Alamo mid-February to attend to his family, leaving William B. Travis in command.

[8] Henry Smith (1788-1851) was the first American governor of Texas.  Smith moved to Texas in 1827, settling in Brazoria where he operated a farm, taught school, and became active in politics.  He was wounded in the Battle of Velasco.  In 1835, he was elected mayor (alcalde) of Brazoria and appointed by the governor of Coahuila y Tejas to serve as the political head of the Tejas Department of the Brazos.  Smith urged independence for Texas.  In November 1835, the General Council of the Texas Consultation elected Smith to serve as provisional governor of Texas.  Smith was no diplomat and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue of Texas Independence worked against him.  In January 1836, the council impeached Smith who, for a time, refused to relinquish his post.

[9] Theodore Reed Fehrenbach, Jr., was a historian, columnist, and former chair of the Texas Historical Commission (1987-1991).

[10] No defender of the Alamo has been more romanticized than James Butler Bonham.  It is often claimed that he was a co-commander at the Alamo, which isn’t true: the only commander at the Alamo was Travis, who agreed to share his command with Bowie for no other reason than to placate Bowie’s men, who in having no confidence in Travis, were threatening to leave the Alamo. Neither was Bonham a colonel in any Texian militia.  His rank was second lieutenant of cavalry, recommended (but not approved) for a commission as a major by Sam Houston.  Travis does refer to Bonham as “Colonel,” but historians suggest that this was only a title of respect owing to his position in the South Carolina militia.  Neither did Bonham bring word from Colonel Fannin that he was not coming to the aid of the Alamo.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James Butler Bonham

  1. Andy says:

    Having just read both biographies of Bonham and Allison, I can’t help but compare the two men. One was a man of honor; the other a man of disrepute. Still, in their own ways, each each helped mold the early Southwest into what it was.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.