Ben Milam: Texan Hero
A tall bronze statue stands in a small San Antonio park located between Santa Rosa Hospital and the Mexican Market. Visitors who pass by rarely give much thought as to who this figure represents. Even upon hearing the name Ben Milam many out of town visitors and younger Texans probably still have little idea as to who he was or the important role he played in Texas’ early history.
Benjamin Rush Milam was born in Franklin, Kentucky, in 1788. He lived in an age of constant change and movement. The change that was taking place involved the spread of republican ideas throughout the Western Hemisphere. The movement involved the westward migration that eventually swept over Texas. Milam was a main character in this frontier epic.
Milam came to Texas in 1818. His first venture, trading with the Comanche on the Colorado River, revealed a fearless nature that was the hallmark of his life. In 1819 he joined James Long in a filibustering expedition intended to wrestle Texas away from Spain and establish a republic. He supported the fight for Mexico’s independence, an act that gained him many friends among the new government in Mexico City. Although most people identify Anglo colonization of Texas with Moses and Stephen F. Austin, Milam also received an empresario contract to bring settlers into the region. Thus, Milam was a prominent man in early Texas, someone who his neighbors and contemporaries often looked to for advice.
Colonel Milam, a title retained from his early days of military service to Mexico, was caught up in the volatile political situation that affected his adopted county. Two factions vied for control of Mexico. The Federalists supported a federal style government as laid out in the Constitution of 1824 in which the individual states within the Mexican Union retained much of their power. The Centralists, on the other hand, favored a system of government that replicated the “centralized” authority that the nation had experienced under Spain. The Centralist had valuable allies among the Mexican military, especially in the person of a popular general named Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was chosen to become the nation’s president.
Santa Anna’s Centralist administration abolition of the Constitution of 1824 split the Mexican twin-state of Coahuila and Texas. In 1833, shortly after Santa Anna’s announcement that the federal republic was to be dismantled, state officials had a falling out over which course to follow. Federalists within the state government opposed Santa Anna and moved the capital from Saltillo to Monclova, a town more inclined to their point of view. This riled more conservative leaders in Saltillo and the two factions carried on a localized civil war for a time. Santa Anna agreed to let the capital remain at Monclova as part of a settlement to end the hostilities. When the Monclova faction voted in 1835 to sell land as a way to raise money for its continuing conflict against Centralist officials in Mexico City, Santa Anna ordered General Martín Perfecto de Cos to occupy the state capital and arrest Governor Agustín Viesca and his Federalist supporters.
Ben Milam was in Monclova at the time, requesting that the legislature send a land agent to the Red River settlements to help his colonists achieve clear title to their land. He left Monclova with Governor Viesca and other officials who had decided to move the state capital once more, this time to San Antonio. A party of Cos’ men intercepted the group and took them to Monterrey where they were imprisoned. From captivity Milam wrote to a friend, Francis W. Johnson:
All is uncertain. The whole part of the state has and will support the central government. The Interior from the last information we have, has fallen into the central system. Santa Anna is Dictator — the constitution is thrown away . . . .
After enduring several months as a prisoner of the Centralist government, Milam slipped away from Monterrey with the help of sympathetic Mexicans.
Ben Milam arrived back in Texas just in time to participate in the revolt that had erupted in his absence. On the night of October 9, 1835, he encountered a group of Texans on the outskirts of Goliad who were on their way to capture the old fort, Presidio La Bahía, from its Centralist garrison. Although a loyal Mexican citizen for almost fifteen years, Milam made the decision to join in on the attack and therefore oppose Santa Anna by force of arms. In the weeks after the capture of Presidio La Bahía, he traveled to San Antonio, where an army of several hundred colonists had gathered to lay siege to the Centralist garrison holding the city. The Mexican commander was someone Milam already knew — General Martín Perfecto de Cos. Milam, whose experience in Texas was an asset to the army, served the Texans as a valuable scout.
On December 4, 1835, Milam returned to San Antonio from a scouting mission to find that the Texan army on the verge of giving up and going home for the winter. Milam had learned from other scouts that the Centralist garrison in San Antonio was not as strong as some Texans claimed. Moreover, the colonists had recently been joined by more than one hundred volunteers from New Orleans. He could not believe that the army would withdraw without making an attempt to drive Cos out of the city.
Benjamin Rush Milam was determined to stir his comrades to action. That evening (December 4) he addressed those who still remained in camp and explained why it was important to take the city from the Centralist that held it. He exclaimed: “Who will follow Old Ben Milam?” More than three hundred men stepped forward to answer his call. Early the next morning (December 5), the Texans entered San Antonio and commenced a five-day-long battle for the town. On December 10, General Cos surrendered his forces and San Antonio to the rebels. The victory gave the Texans control of the ad interm capital of Coahulia and Texas.
Colonel Milam did not live to see the victory. On the afternoon of December 7, 1835, he was shot in the head and killed as he stepped out from the Veramendi House on Soledad Street. His friends buried him in the courtyard where he fell. His body was disinterred in 1848 and moved to the old City Cemetery at present-day Milam Square. A statute honoring him was erected in 1938. His remains were unearthed in 1993 during renovations to the park that bears his names. The following year Milam was reinterred at the base of the statue that depicts the moment he asked his famous question.
Dr. Richard Bruce Winders is the Historian & Curator at The Alamo. A specialist in United States-Mexico borderlands, he is the author of numerous books and articles on the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War.