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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Forgotten Hero

Ben Milam

by C. F. Eckhardt

Who was the first—and possibly the greatest—hero of the Texas Revolution? He’s a man you may have heard of, but not very often. Try Ben Milam.

Surprised? You really shouldn’t be, but Ben’s been ignored and short-changed by both academic historians and writers like me for so long that he’s been all but forgotten. Ben, though, really started it all.

Ben Milam statue in Cameron Texas
Statue of Ben Milam in Cameron, Texas
TE photo
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Oh, sure—there were fits and starts as early as 1832. It was in 1835, though that things were set to pop. Martin Perfecto de Cos, Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, was arguably the best home-grown field general the Mexican Army had. Vicente Filisola and Adrian Woll were probably more competent overall, but they were European imports—soldiers-of-fortune with European training and experience who took their talents to Mexico in search of a market and found one. Filisola was Italian, Woll German. Cos was a native of Mexico who’d been a successful officer in the Revolution and—while he did have the patronage of Santa Anna—he was good at what he did in spite of it. He held the largest population and trade center in Texas, San Antonio de Bejár, with a force not of peon levies and convict soldiers, but hardbitten, well-trained veteran regulars.

Against this the Texicans could muster only untrained volunteers. Man-for-man they were among the best fighters in North America, but their style of fighting—one-on-one, hit and run, honed against Lipans, Tonkawas, and Comanches—wasn’t exactly suited to the task ahead. They had to take a town, not necessarily well fortified but certainly strengthened, held by well-trained, well-disciplined veteran combat troops. That meant house-to-house fighting from behind walls and fences against disciplined firepower and possibly even artillery. It was not an inviting prospect.

The Texican leaders, Bowie, Milam, and others, did try to instill some discipline into the men, drilling them in advancing and retreating in good order, exhorting them to discipline their fire and concentrate their firepower with volleys rather than picking targets. It takes more than a few weeks, though, to overcome the habits of a lifetime and build soldiers that fight effectively as a team. The Texicans had only weeks to do what they could, and the Mexican troops had been trained in their tactics for years.

The Texicans were, in that wonderful Biblical phrase, ‘sore afraid’—which means, in plain Texan, those folks were flat skeered. The Indians they were used to fighting were, for the most part, poor shots. Their fighting was unpredictable. Sometimes they’d fight, sometimes they’d run—and there was no predicting which they’d do or when or why they’d do it. In addition, Indians fought ‘every man for himself,’ totally without command discipline.

The Mexican troops in Bejár would fight. There was no doubt about that. Under Martin Perfecto de Cos they’d fight well and be skillfully deployed and maneuvered. Individually they might be no better shots than the average Indian—the average Mexican musketeer, shooting at a mark, was lucky to hit in the same county as the target. Disciplined fire was another story. In ranks of 100 or more, firing volleys on command, they’d put a curtain of large chunks of lead in the air and some of it would definitely get on somebody. “Catching the blue plum”—an euphemism for getting hit by a .75 caliber ball from the Napoleonic War surplus English-made Brown Bess muskets most Mexican infantry carried—meant a lifetime of debility if not a very painful death.

Somebody had to lead the Texicans into Bejár. The odds were that somebody would die very quickly. Nobody wanted the job, not even the redoubtable Jim Bowie. One man stepped forward—and, according to the story of one who was there, he drew a line in the dirt with a stick he had in his hand and said “Who’ll follow old Ben Milam into Bejár?”

Statue of Ben Milam in Milam Park, San Antonio
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

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Benjamin Rush Milam was a native of Kentucky, born about 1789. He was one of the earliest US immigrants into Texas, and one of the few who wasn’t a ‘Muldoon Catholic.’ Before emigrating to Texas, Ben converted to Catholicism and was baptized a Roman Catholic in Kentucky, where records of his conversion and baptism are preserved yet. For the record, there are a great many Catholics in Kentucky, and at least three proto-cathedrals grace surprisingly small rural towns there.

How deeply he felt his conversion may be open to question. He may not have been a Muldoon Catholic in fact, but he seems to have been one at heart. Ben was a high-ranking Freemason when he converted, but he doesn’t seem to have told the bishop about it. At the time, Freemasonry was proscribed by the Catholic Church and it’s still frowned on. The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men’s brotherhood, was specifically established in the US to give Catholic men an alternative to the Freemasons.

That didn’t mean Catholics—some of them very important Catholics—weren’t Freemasons. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de LeBron, who held the title—among others—of ‘Defender of the Faith,’ was a practicing Freemason. His display of the Masonic ‘brother in distress’ sign to Sam Houston, another Freemason, after his capture, probably saved him from almost immediate hanging and certainly contributed to the, in effect, VIP treatment he got from Houston and the other Texas officials, most of whom were Masons.

Ben Milam helped plan and personally led the assault on Bejár—and almost lived through it. The battle was mostly over when he stopped next to a tree in the back yard of the de Veramendi house. Oral history, passed down through the generations from those who were there to their descendants, says Ben had a reason for stopping by the tree. He hadda pee! While he was engaged in this most intimate act, a Mexican sniper shot him through the head.

Ben Milam Cypress,  San Antonio TX
Texas Historic Tree - Milam Cypress
On the Riverwalk in San Antonio

Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, May 2008

Whether the Mexican rifleman chose that particularly intimate moment to shoot Ben down or not we don‘t know for sure, but the story’s been around for about 170 years now. Trouble is, it couldn’t have been a ‘Mexican sniper,’ because the Mexican army had no snipers. What they had were special rifle battalions of highly-trained, well-treated troops who were armed with British-made .64 caliber Baker rifles. In fact, the whole Mexican Army was copied—weapons, organization, and tactics—from the British Army of the Napoleonic Wars. Santa Anna may have called himself ‘The Napoleon of the West,’ but he certainly appreciated the organization and tactics of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who was primarily responsible for the downfall of Bonaparte. As in the British Army, the Mexican Army’s rifle battalions were well-trained in the use of their weapons on individual targets. The worst of the rifle troops were pretty fair shots, while the best were certainly equal to anything on the Texican side.

Ben was buried where he fell, in the back yard of the de Veramendi house. There his bones lay for many years. Eventually he was disinterred and his remains removed, with appropriate Masonic ritual, to a corner of a Protestant cemetery on the site of what is now San Antonio’s Milam Park. The gravesite was marked with a limestone monument inscribed, simply, MILAM. It was assumed that no further identification would ever be needed.

Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

When the cemetery was dedicated as Milam Park, it was decided that, instead of being relegated to a corner, Ben should rest in the middle of the park. He was again disinterred — once more with appropriate Masonic ritual — and re-interred precisely in the center of the park that bore his name. In 1936 the by-then-badly-weathered limestone marker was replaced with the granite monument you’ve seen if you’ve ever visited Milam Park.

Over the years Milam Park’s neighborhood changed to one you wouldn’t care to enter after dark. San Antonio has been trying to revive the area and arrest its decay for a long time, and just a few years ago San Antonio’s Mexican sister city, Cuernavaca, offered to donate a gazebo-like bandshell to be erected in the middle of Milam Park as part of the rejuvenation.

Immediately objections were voiced—“You can’t put a bandshell there—it’ll be right on top of Ben Milam’s grave!” We seem to treat our Texas heroes, even our nearly-forgotten ones, with greater respect than some Europeans treat theirs. The grave of the founder of the Scottish Presbyterian Church is rumored—though no one knows for sure—to be under the blacktop of a Glasgow parking lot.

In fact, old Ben had been so thoroughly ignored or forgotten in San Antonio that, officially, San Antonio had no idea where his bones lay. The late Dr. I. Waynne Cox, together with Dr. Anne Fox, both of the UTSA anthropology/archaeology department, began researching Ben’s posthumous perambulations. Sure enough, they found long-forgotten newspaper accounts of the removal and second reburial of the forgotten hero “in the middle of Milam Park.” Those who objected to the bandshell said “See—we told you so! Ben’s right under the monument.”

Still, nobody knew for sure. Even if there was a grave there, nobody really knew if it was Ben Milam’s. A dig was organized to discover if there really was a grave under the monument, and if there was, to determine—if possible—whose grave it was. Nobody really expected much success in the latter.

There was a grave, exactly where the objectors said it would be. In the ground the archaeologists found the outline of an old wooden ’toe-pincher’ coffin, by then so deteriorated that the only trace of it was a discoloration in the soil. Inside the outline were the considerably deteriorated remains of a Caucasian male between the ages of 45 and 50, who stood about 5’7” in life.

Could this be Ben? All descriptions of Ben put him “six feet tall or a little better.” In fact most such descriptions were exaggerations. We have ‘eyewitness’ accounts describing Daniel Boone as ‘over six feet’ when he stood only about 5’6”, David Crockett as ‘a giant of a man’ when he stood only about 5’7”, and Sam Houston as ‘six feet six’ when he actually stood 6’2”. Other evidence was needed to say yea or nay.

The skull was badly shattered and much of the facial structure was gone, but enough remained for the cranium to be reconstructed. In the left rear aspect of the skull was a large hole, which a forensic anatomist identified as an exit wound caused by a bullet of approximately .65 caliber. According to eyewitness accounts, Ben was shot in the front of the head from the right, with a Mexican rifle-—which, remember, was .64 caliber—and “the ball went plumb through his head.” There is little doubt that the remains found in the middle of Milam Park are those of Texas’ great—but almost-forgotten—hero, Ben Milam.

Now let’s back up a mite, to that fateful evening in 1835 when Ben Milam cried “Who’ll follow old Ben Milam into Bejár?” Abraham Zuber—whose father was there when it happened—said his daddy told him Ben drew a line in the dirt with a stick he had in his hand for those who’d follow him to cross. A lot of historians have speculated since—based on the total lack of any known, surviving eyewitness testimony to the contrary, and on the fact that the one eyewitness to survive and testify to the goings-on inside the Alamo didn’t mention it until years after the fact—that Ben’s line in the dirt, drawn with a stick, has been transmogrified, over the years, to a line in the dust in the courtyard of the Alamo drawn by Buck Travis with his sword.

Well, Buck’s line in the dust certainly makes a better story, and from what we know of Travis’ personality that’s exactly what he would have done if he’d thought of it. Then there’s the question—why would Ben have a stick in his hand just before a battle? A rifle or musket, sure. A knife, a tomahawk, a sword, even a chopping ax—all of those would be reasonable. But a simple stick? Why?

Maybe it wasn’t a ‘simple stick.’ The leg bones of the skeleton unearthed in Milam Park were well preserved. On examination by competent physicians, they were determined to show evidence of a debilitating arthritic condition. From forensic evidence the man buried under Ben Milam’s monument in Milam Park probably couldn’t have bent his right knee at all, and bending his left knee would have been painful at best. Ben Milam—for there’s little question now of the identity of the original possessor of that skeleton—was crippled by arthritis. He could barely get around. He certainly walked with a cane if not a crutch. Without one or the other he probably couldn’t have walked at all.

The ‘line-in-the-dust’ controversy is not now settled nor is it ever likely to be. Travis’ line is such a part of the Alamo story that it will never die. We do have, however, an explanation for the stick with which Ben drew his line. It was a walking stick—and he always carried it, because he couldn’t walk without it.

Milam’s bones were at UTSA for several months, under study to determine the many things bones can tell about the people who once possessed them—diet, disease, habits, and abilities. Once UTSA completed its study, the Smithsonian requested a short-term loan of the bones for study. Ben did what no other hero of the Texas Revolution has ever done—he boarded a jetliner and flew to Washington and back. Of course he—or his bones—did it in a specially-designed suitcase, but it was still a first.

Ben Milam's Grave, in  Milam Park, San Antonio TX
Ben Milam's Grave in San Antonio's Milam Park
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

Ben Milam  Statue Base
Ben Milam's statue base
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

Milam Park has been renovated. Ben has been re-interred—hopefully for the final time—with full Masonic ritual and honors, together with an honor guard from those Texans who owe much of their history to him. But—how thoroughly has Ben Milam been forgotten? There’s a county named for him, a street in Seguin bears his name, there are schools called ‘Milam,’ and then of course there’s Milam Park in San Antonio. In the most comprehensive if not the most monumental novel ever written about Texas, James Michener’s TEXAS, Ben Milam is the only major participant in the Texas Revolution who is never mentioned at all.

It’s about time we started remembering old Ben. If he hadn’t stepped up and hollered “Who’ll follow old Ben Milam into Bejár?” we Texans might not have a state at all.

© C. F. Eckhardt
April 24, 2008 column

Photographer's Note:
Milam & the center of the park

This month's story on Ben Milam gave me fond memories of the evenings we played in the gardens at Santa Rosa Hospital while Papa visited his patients, and drew me down to Milam Park to take a look at Ben's grave and statue. I couldn't figure out how they moved that big statue to the end of the park. Then it dawned on me....Ben never moved, the park was chopped off by the freeway! The gazebo is in the new center of the park. Ben is at the west end of the park, centered, where he always was.

I have included an old postcard that clearly shows the location of Ben's grave in the center of the park, and have done an overlay for you. (See below)

"When the cemetery was dedicated as Milam Park, it was decided that, instead of being relegated to a corner, Ben should rest in the middle of the park. He was again disinterred—once more with appropriate Masonic ritual—and re-interred precisely in the center of the park that bore his name.

In 1936 the by-then-badly-weathered limestone marker was replaced with the granite monument you’ve seen if you’ve ever visited Milam Park." That granite monument is a part of the Centennial Celebration. - Sarah Reveley, April 27, 2008

Milam Park & Santa Rosa Hospital , San Antonio TX
Milam Park and Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio
Post card courtesy Sarah Reveley

Milam Park, San Antonio, Texas
Courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

Milam Park gazebo and Ben Milam Statue, San Antonio, Texas
Ben Milam Park gazebo
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

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