The Forgotten Hero: Ben Milam

By  | 
Tony Maples Photography


The Forgotten Hero Ben Milam

Photo: picphotos.net

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.

The Forgotten Hero Ben Milam

Photo: sanantonio.gov

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 Bejar?” we Texans might not have a state at all.

Page 5 of 5:12345