Oil on canvas, Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers

Henry McArdle's 1901 ode to the Siege of Béxar

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by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content

This painting focuses on the story of Ben Milam (1788–1835), a Kentucky-born immigrant to Mexico who accepted a commission in the Mexican Army, and an empresario in Texas. After Milam joined the independence movement in Texas, he led an attack on Mexican forces stationed at San Antonio in December 1835.

After the initial skirmish between Texans and Mexican troops at Gonzales in October 1835, Milam and other volunteers surrounded San Antonio (Béxar) and laid siege to the town. By December the siege was stalling out. When commanding officer Edward Burleson was reluctant to order an assault, a disgusted Milam emerged from Burleson's tent and reportedly cried out, "who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?" Approximately 300 troops volunteered and launched the assault on December 5. Milam was killed by a sniper two days later. The Texans claimed victory on December 9 and took control of the city until March 1836.

Henry McArdle's painting captures the moment when Milam emerges from Burleson's tent and issues his call for volunteers. Rather than painting the intense combat of the battle itself, McArdle focuses on the heroic figure of Milam, emphasizing portraiture rather than action to dramatize the event. The artist corresponded with Milam's son who provided McArdle with images of his father and letters describing his "dark, piercing eyes." Other accounts of Milam's call for volunteers contributed to the painting as well. Texas Revolution veteran Creed Taylor described Milam as "waving his old slouch hat above his head." McArdle paints him in that moment. Taylor also stated that the Gonzales "Come and Take It" battle flag was flying at the camp; it is included in the painting as well.

Irish born artist Henry Arthur McArdle (1836–1908) moved to Independence, Texas around 1868 where he taught art at Baylor Female College and began work as a portrait painter. Stories from Civil War veterans from Hood's Texas Brigade propelled him into a full-time career painting scenes and people significant to Texas. McArdle’s other paintings include Dawn at the Alamo (1875–1905), The Settlement of Austin's Colony (1875), The Battle of San Jacinto (1895), Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers (1901), and portraits of Jefferson Davis (1890) and Sam Houston (1902). Dawn at the Alamo and The Battle of San Jacinto hang at the Texas Capitol as monuments to Texas's revolutionary heroes.

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Oil on canvas, Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers Artifact from San Antonio
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