Bridges: Ben Milam's journey to becoming a Texas legend
Ben Milam was an average man who traveled the early frontier. But the course of events would place him in the middle of the fight for Texas independence and into legend. Milam’s decisive actions made him one of the early heroes of the Texas Revolution.
Benjamin Rush Milam was born in 1788 in Frankfort, then just a tiny village on the Kentucky River in what was not yet Kentucky. His life was defined by the early frontier. He had very little formal education, as almost no schools were available.
As a young man, he was mostly interested in trade and bartering. Struck by wanderlust, he drifted from one adventure to the next. In 1812, he enlisted in the Kentucky militia and served honorably as a lieutenant in the War of 1812.
Milam made his first, brief foray into Texas in 1818. By the next year, he found himself in New Orleans, caught up in the excitement of a potential raid into Texas to seize it for the United States from Spain. In what became known as the Long Expedition, James Long made Milam a colonel and led his rag-tag army that crossed the Sabine River into Spanish Texas. They quickly took Nacogdoches and declared Texas independent of Spain. When the Spanish Army arrived, the Long Expedition fell apart.
Milam and Long attempted to reorganize at Galveston in 1820, but the effort quickly faltered. Milam then went to Veracruz and on to Mexico City. Instead of finding the cities defended by monarchists, he and his party found that the rebels had already taken the cities. He and the dozens of men with him were thrown in prison. An American diplomat later arranged their release.
He returned to Mexico in 1824 in the aftermath of yet another revolution, one that established Mexico as a republic. And with a new government came a new attitude. All was forgiven, and Milam was made a colonel the Mexican Army as well as a citizen. Times were good for Milam. He soon teamed up with a British immigrant, Gen. Arthur G. Wavell, and started a silver mine in Nuevo Leon, a northern Mexican state adjacent to Texas. In 1825, they also gained empresario grants in Texas– land grants that allowed them to sell or lease lands in order to attract residents to what was still a lightly-populated region.
Events, however, soon turned sour for Milam. The Nuevo Leon mine started to falter, and he and Wavell soon leased out a mine to a British company. In the meantime, Mexican officials grew increasingly concerned about American designs on Texas in light of offers by the United States government to buy Texas and raids such as the Long Expedition. In 1830, the Law of April 6 banned all immigration from the United States into Texas and expressly forbade the introduction of new slaves into the area even though Mexico had officially banned slavery the year before. This imperiled Milam’s empresario contract.
Agustin Viesca became governor of Coahuila y Texas in 1835. Ben Milam believed he could work with him to secure new land titles for Texas settlers. On his visit to the new governor, he found a willing audience in his attempt to secure legal protections for their lands. However, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had overthrown the elected government. His officials arrested Viesca and Milam both. Milam, however, was able to talk their way out of jail thanks to Viesca’s political allies. Milam reached Texas in October and joined George Collinsworth’s column as they marched to take Goliad on Oct. 10.
After Goliad, Collinsworth’s forces met with other armed Texans marching toward San Antonio. Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos held the city for Santa Anna. Mexico had a large armed force occupying the city. It was now December 4. With the weather growing cold, many Texans considered holing up for the winter, building their forces, and preparing for an attack in the spring.
Milam recognized that point was the time to try to consolidate their gains and was determined to lead the charge himself. With the permission of his superiors, he made an impassioned plea and declared to the troops, “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” Three hundred men stepped forward and marched into the lion’s den. They attacked at dawn the next morning.
After two days of fighting, Milam’s forces were making progress. On the morning of December 7, they were charging steadily forward for the third day. Milam stood at the fore of the battlefield, eyeing the positions of their attackers. A chance shot rang out. He was then struck in the head by the rifle fire and collapsed into the arms of his friends. He died at the scene at the age of 47 just as the Texas Revolution was heating up. Texas forces took the city two days later.
Milam was widely honored in the years after his death. In addition to streets, schools, and parks, a memorial site stands in San Antonio. Residents of the Sabine County community of Red Mound renamed their city after Milam in 1836. The Texas Republic established Milam County in Central Texas in 1837 and is now boasts nearly 25,000 residents.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.