Old Ben

In Texas history, scholars refer to this man as Old Ben Milam.  He wasn’t old at all when he met his fate —just 47 years of age.  Benjamin Rush Milam was born in present-day Frankfort, Kentucky on 20 October 1788.  He was the second youngest child of six born to Moses Milam and Elizabeth Pattie Boyd. Ben had little formal schooling, which was normal in those days.  He was able to achieve early success and self-confidence through his military service affiliation.  At the outset of the War of 1812, he enlisted as a private soldier in the 8thKentucky Regiment, eventually earning a commission as an infantry lieutenant.

Following the war, which ended in 1815, Milam realized that there were trading opportunities among native Americans living along the upper Red River in the Province of Tejas, Mexico.  In 1818, he entered into an arrangement with David G. Burnet [1] to barter goods with the Comanche.  Burnet was then living among the Comanche while recovering from consumption (Tuberculosis).  In New Orleans, around 1819, Milam met Jose Felix Trespalacios [2] and James Long [3], who intended to lead a filibuster [4] to aid Mexico in its war of independence from Spain.  Milam joined the movement and took part in the Long Expedition (alongside Jean Lafitte and James Bowie).  The expedition initially enjoyed some success, such as with the capture of Nacogdoches in the summer of that year, and did help to establish a small independent republic that called itself the Republic of Texas (also known as the Long Republic).  However, the expedition crumbled when Spanish troops vigorously attacked and drove the Americans out of Mexico.  Long reorganized an expeditionary force near Galveston in the following year.  In 1821, Milam withdrew from the expedition to accompany Trespalacios to Veracruz and Mexico City; James Long marched his force to Presidio La Bahia near Goliad.  Both parties encountered a hostile reception and were promptly imprisoned.

James Long was murdered while in prison. Milam, suspecting Trespalacios of arranging the murder, conspired with others to kill Trespalacios.  When friends of Trespalacios discovered the plot, Mexican authorities again imprisoned Milam (and his co-conspirators) in Mexico City where they were held until the fall of 1822.  Joel Poinsett [5], who was then serving the United States as a diplomatic observer in Mexico, arranged for the release of these accused persons.  Except for Milam, all of these men were returned to the United States aboard the warship USS John Adams.

Ben R. Milam

Colonel Benjamin Rush Milam

Milam returned to Mexico in early 1824. Mexico was in the throes of adopting a new republican form of government.  After reconciling with Trespalacios, Milam was granted Mexican citizenship and commissioned as a colonel in the Mexican Army.

In the next year, Colonel Milam and Major General Arthur G. Wavell [6] formed a partnership in a silver mine operation in Nuevo Leon.  Both men obtained empresario grants in Texas.  In 1829, Milam attempted to organize a new mining company in partnership with David G. Burnet, but lacking funds, the enterprise collapsed.  Milam and Wavell’s attempt to establish colonies in Texas also failed; their contracts were cancelled by the Mexican government after they failed to attract new citizens for their colonies [7].

In 1835, Milam traveled to Monclova (the capital of Coahuila y Tejas) to urge the newly seated governor, to send a land commissioner to Texas to provide settlers there with land titles.  Before Milam could leave the city, however, word arrived that President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had suspended the congress and established a centralist dictatorship. It was an alarming bit of news, prompting federalist Governor Agustin Viesca [8] to flee the city with Milam.  In short order, however, centralist forces captured the men and they were imprisoned at Monterrey.  Then, thanks to sympathetic jailers, who provided him with a horse, Milam escaped.  En route back to Texas, Milam encountered a company of Texian soldiers under the command of George Collinsworth [9], from whom Milam learned of the movement in Texas for independence.  Milam joined Collinsworth’s company in the capture of Goliad on 10 October 1835.

Ed Burleson

MajGen Ed Burleson

With Goliad in the hands of the Texians, Milam joined the Texan Army and participated in efforts to expel all Mexican forces from Texas. The primary focus of these efforts was the capture of San Antonio de Béxar, which involved a siege of the headquarters of General Cos at the Alamo.  On 4 December 1835, having completed a scouting mission, Milam learned that most of the army were considering going into winter quarters rather than attacking San Antonio.  General Edward Burleson [10] and his council of officers were reluctant to assault the city, fearing an entanglement that they could not easily undo. When Milam petitioned Burleson for the right to call volunteers to storm the city, Burleson granted the petition, possibly believing that he had little choice in doing so.  Milam’s concern was that by delaying the assault, Texian volunteers would lose interest in continuing the revolution.  Milam sent out his call in his now famous plea, “Who will go with Old Ben Milam into San Antonio?”  Three hundred men stepped up and the assault began almost immediately.

Milam’s plan called for a two-prong attack with forces assembling at a nearby mill at 0300.  General Burleson would hold the balance of the assembled Texian army in reserve.  Captain James C. Neil would initiate artillery fire directed at the Alamo to distract the Mexican soldiers.  Early in the morning of 5 December 1835, Colonel Milam and Colonel Frank W. Johnson led their separate columns into the heavily fortified city.  After heaving fighting, the Texians obtained a foothold inside the city and began an entrenchment their positions.

The attack continued on the morning of 7thDecember with the Texians achieving additional gains.  Milam was standing with Johnson and Henry Karnes near the Veramendi House; Milam was attempting to observe the San Fernando Church tower through a telescope when he was shot by a Mexican sniper, killing him instantly, and causing him to fall into the arms of Samuel Maverick [11].  Johnson named Major Robert Morris to assume command of Milam’s division.

During this assault, the Mexican Army lost more than 400 men, killed, wounded, or deserted.  Texian losses were twenty to thirty killed.  The Siege of Béxar ended on 9 December when General Cos capitulated. As a matter of chivalry, before the Mexicans withdrew from Béxar Burleson provided them with as many supplies as he could spare.  Mexican wounded were permitted to remain in Béxar for medical treatment.  This was not a courtesy returned to the Texians in early March 1836 when General Santa Anna surrounded the Alamo, or when General Urrea talked Colonel Fannin into surrendering his force at Goliad.

Today, Texans remember Old Ben through several structures named in his honor.  Milam’s grave and a statue of him exists at Milam Park in San Antonio; another statue can be found outside the Milam County courthouse in Cameron, Texas.  It is also possible to stay at the Milam Hotel, travel on Milam Street in Houston, and there is also a Milam Building in San Antonio.

Sources:

  1. Miller, E. L. New Orleans and the Texas Revolution. Texas A&M Press, 2004
  2. Haythornthwaite, P. and Paul Hannon. The Alamo and the War of Texan Independence, 1835-36.  Oxford Press, England, 1986

Endnotes:

[1] David Gouverneur Burnet (1788-1870) served as interim president of Texas (1836, 1841), second vice president of the Republic of Texas (1839-1841), and Secretary of State for the State of Texas (1846).

[2] A member of the militia in Chihuahua-turned-revolutionary.  Arrested and charged with treason, he was sentenced to death in 1814, but his sentence was reduced to ten years in prison. Having escaped from prison on two separate occasions, he made his way to New Orleans where he helped recruit Americans to fight for Mexico.

[3] James Long was a former US Army surgeon who served in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.  He afterward settled in Natchez, Mississippi practicing medicine near Port Gibson.  In 1817, he purchased a plantation in Vicksburg. Between 1819-1821, Long was involved in creating and employing an expedition to Mexico to help secure Mexican independence from Spain.  The expedition of mercenaries was unsuccessful.

[4] Also “freebooter” is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a political revolution.

[5] Poinsett was a widely traveled physician and a diplomat, the first American Agent in South America, the first US Minister to Mexico (1825-1829), and Secretary of War under President James Monroe.  He was also a member of the South Carolina legislature, a member of the US House of Representatives, a unionist leader in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, and a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institute).

[6] Arthur Goodall Wavell (1785-1860) was a Scottish-born and well-educated soldier of fortune who began his career with service to the Bengal Lancers in 1805. Ill-health forced him to return home, however, but he later joined the Spanish Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1811.  Between 1811 and 1817, the participated on the side of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars at Cadiz, Barrosa, Tarragona, and Ateca.  In recognition for his distinguished service, he was promoted to full colonel along with the Cross of Distinction, the Military Cross of San Fernando, and the Order of Charles III.  Wavell resigned his commission in 1817, joining with revolutionaries in Chile, where he was promoted to Major General.  While living in Mexico, he met and befriended Stephen F. Austin—later claiming that were it not for his help, Anglo settlers would never have been permitted in Texas.

[7] The real reason these contracts were cancelled involved the Law of 1830, created out of concern by the Mexican government that Texas was in danger of being annexed by the United States and because the Anglo-American population in Texas had exploded over a short period of time.

[8] Viesca (1790-1845) served as governor during a period of some controversy relating to the location of the capital city of Coahuila y Tejas—the question being whether the capital should be located at Saltillo or Monclova.  Viesca ran afoul of General Martin Perfecto de Cos (brother-in-law of Santa Anna), who felt the capital should be located at Saltillo. The state legislature, however, determined that Viesca could move the capital to any location the governor chose, prompting Viesca to select Béxar.  Arriving there, Viesca began to urge Texians to revolt against the Centralist movement.

[9] Collinsworth (1810-1866) was a Mississippi-born farmer, soldier, and politician who, while living in Brazoria, Texas in 1832, participated in the Battle of Velasco. He recruited a company of infantry for service in the Texian Army.

[10] Appointed to command the volunteer army, replacing Stephen F. Austin as major general.

[11] Placed under house arrest by General Cos as a suspected interloper, Maverick kept a journal of events inside the city of San Antonio.  After his release on 1 December, Maverick made his way to Burleson’s camp, urging him to make an immediate attack.  Maverick guided Milam’s division into the city.

About Mustang

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

1 Response to Old Ben

  1. Andy says:

    I’ve heard the name, Ben Milam, all my life but never new much about him. Until now. Excellent informative bio.

    Liked by 1 person

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