Washington and Lee University

The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton

CHAPTER VII
THE CAVALRY OFFICER

IN 1854, after a bitter fight against it in Congress, the regular army was increased by the addition of two regiments of cavalry, the first in the service, although there had already been troops of dragoons. These regiments were organized by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Pierce. Albert Sidney Johnston was appointed colonel of the Second Cavalry and Lee, lieutenant-colonel. It was with deep regret that Lee left the Corps of Engineers. He had been in that branch of the service for twenty-six years and stood among the first in the profession. The change meant not only giving up the work he loved, but also going into work of a very different character. However, next to the engineers, Lee liked the cavalry. He was devoted to horses, and underneath his calm exterior lay a fiery nature to which this branch of the service appealed more than he himself knew. Of course he had to learn much of cavalry tactics, to begin study anew, as it were, but Lee believed in accepting promotion when it came, and, in view of the usual slowness with which officers in the army rose in rank, the leap from captain to lieutenant- colonel was very gratifying.

The officers of these two regiments formed a remarkable body of men. Among those in the Second Cavalry were Albert Sidney Johnston, Lee, Thomas, Hardee, Van Dorn, Hood, Fitzhugh Lee, Palmer, Emory, Oakes, Stoneman, Garrard, Cosby, Lomax, Major, Byres, Evans, Kirby Smith, O'Hara, Bradfute, Travis, Brackett, Whiting, and Johnson, all generals in the Federal or Confederate armies. In the First Regiment were Sumner, Sedgwick, Stanley, Carr, and Joseph E. Johnston.

In the absence of Colonel Johnston, Lee took command of the regiment at Louisville, Kentucky, in April, 1855. A little later the regiment was removed to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for recruiting and organization. In this work Lee was very valuable on account of his wonderful power of discipline and organization, and he rendered great service. In the fall the regiment, numbering about seven hundred and fifty men, with eight hundred horses, started on its long march to Texas. Lee did not go with it because at the time he was serving as a member of a court martial, or military court, but he joined it in Texas in March, 1856.

The troops were sent to Texas to protect the settlers there from the Indians. The State was so large and so sparsely settled that the regiment had to be divided into small detachments so that it might spread over a large territory. Lee was stationed at Camp Cooper, on the Brazos River, in command of two squadrons, charged with the duty of watching the Comanche Indians, who were very hostile and dangerous. In a letter home Lee described his first interview with the chief, and expressed the opinion that the entire race was very uninteresting. In June Lee was sent with several companies on an expedition against some scattered bands of Indians, but failed to locate them. This small body of troops was the largest Lee had ever had under him in actual service, and he commanded no other as large before the outbreak of the war between the States. In a letter written to his wife while he was on this expedition, Lee said:—

I hope your father continued well and enjoyed his usual celebration of the Fourth of July; mine was spent, after a march of thirty miles on one of the branches of the Brazos, under my blanket, elevated on four sticks driven in the ground, as a sunshade. The sun was fiery hot, the atmosphere like the heat of a hot-air furnace, the water salt, still ray feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hopes for advancement as unabated as they would have been under better circumstances.

Life on the frontier was not pleasant. Roving bands of Indians constantly attacked the settlers and there was never any certainty of their safety. The posts, or forts, were lonely spots in wide unpeopled prairies, and there was little communication with the outside world, as there were no railroads, no telegraph, and no telephone. The army quarters were poor and utterly without comfort. The weather was changeable, and, even as late as April, freezing temperature was not unusual. Bread and beef were the chief articles of food, so there was usually little variety. There was much sickness, and the death of little children wrung Lee's heart. There were other discomforts not easily endured. Lee wrote his wife: “Every branch and leaf in this country nearly is armed with a point and some seem to poison the flesh. What a blessed thing the children are not here. They would be ruined.”

The greater part of the military work here was done by the lower officers, but those of higher rank had the responsibility of deciding what was to be done and of seeing that it was all properly carried out. This was the part that fell to Lee, and he studied with the greatest care each problem that arose. Stern as was his sense of duty, it was no barrier between him and those with whom he worked, and he always had their admiration, confidence, and warm affection. His letters home at this time still dwell upon his affection for animals, especially for cats. This last fondness he had come to have through his association with his father-in-law, for Mr. Custis was especially devoted to them. The following are characteristic examples of such allusions:—

Tell your father Mrs. Colonel Waite has a fine large cat which she takes with her everywhere. He is her companion by day and sleeps on her bed at night. In public conveyances she leads him in the leash, and carries along a bottle of milk for his use. In her own carriage he sits in her lap. I have been trying to persuade her to let me take him to Camp Cooper, but she says she can't part with him. He must go to Florida. I have seen some fine cats in Brownsville in the stores kept by Frenchmen, but no yellow ones; the dark brindle is the favorite color on the frontier. In my walk the other evening I met a Mexican with a wild kitten in his arms enveloped in his blanket; it was a noble specimen of the Rio Grande wildcat, spotted all over with large spots like the leopard. I tried very hard to buy him, but he was already sold. I should prefer one of those at Camp Cooper. I fear, though, I should have to keep him chained, for they are very wild and savage.

In a letter to his little girl, he said:—

You must be a great personage now—sixty pounds! I wish I had you here in all your ponderosity. I want to see you so much. Can you not pack up and come to the Comanche country? I would get you such a fine cat you would never look at “Tom” again. Did I tell you Jim Nooks, Mrs Waite's cat, was dead? He died of apoplexy. I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea, and Mexican rats, taken raw for supper. He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him. I saw in San Antonio a cat dressed up for company. He had two holes bored in each ear, and in each were two bows of pink and blue ribbon. His round face, set in pink and blue, looked like a big owl in a full blooming ivy bush. He was snow white. . . . His tail and feet were tipped with black, and his eyes of green were truly catlike. But I “saw cats as is cats” in Sarassa, while the stage was changing mules. . . . I left the wildcat on the Rio Grande; he was too savage; had grown as large as a small-sized dog, had to be caged, and would strike at anything that came within his reach. His cage had to be strong, and consequently heavy, so I could not bring it. He would pounce upon a kid as Tom would on a mouse, and would whistle like a tiger when you approached him.

In still another, he writes:—

Tell Mr. Custis I at last have a prospect of getting a puss. I have heard of a batch of kittens at a settler's town on the river, and have the promise of one. I have stipulated if not entirely yellow, it must at least have some yellow in the composition of the color of its coat; but how I shall place it—when I get it—and my mouse on amicable terms I do not know.

Lee's second son, William H. F. (“Rooney”), was graduated from Harvard in 1857, and was at once, through the influence of General Scott, appointed a second lieutenant in the army. When he joined his command, his father wrote him:—

You are now in a position to acquire military credit, and to prepare the road for promotion and future advancement. Show your ability and worthiness of distinction, and if an opportunity offers for advancement in the staff (I do not refer to the Quartermaster's or Commissary Departments), unless that is not your fancy, take it. It may lead to something favorable and you can always relinquish it when you choose.

I hope you will be always distinguished for your avoidance of the “uinversal balm,” whiskey, and every immorality. Nor need you fear to be ruled out of the society that indulges in it, for you will rather acquire their esteem and respect, as all venerate if they do not practice virtue. I am sorry to say that there is a great proclivity for spirit in the army in the field. It seems to be considered a substitute for every luxury. The great body may not carry it to extreme, but many pursue it to their ruin. . . . I think it better to avoid it altogether, as you do, as its temperate use is so difficult. I hope you will make many friends, as you will be thrown with many who deserve this feeling, but indiscriminate intimacies you will find annoying and entangling, and they can be avoided by politeness and civility. . . . When I think of your youth, impulsiveness, and many temptations, your distance from me, and the ease (and even innocence) with which you might commence an erroneous course, my heart quails within me, and my whole frame and being trembles at the possible result. May Almighty God have you in His holy keeping. To His Merciful Providence I commit you, and will rely upon Him, and Efficacy of the prayers that will be daily and hourly offered up by those who love you.

Some months later, he wrote:—

I cannot express the gratification I felt in meeting Colonel May in New York, at the encomiums he passed upon your scholarship, zeal, and devotion to your duty. But I was more pleased at the report of your conduct. That went nearer my heart, and was of infinite comfort to me. Hold on to your purity and virtue. They will proudly sustain you in all trials and difficulties, and cheer you in every calamity. I was sorry to see from your letter to your mother that you smoke occasionally. It is dangerous to meddle with. You have in store much better employment for your mouth. Reserve it, Roon, for its legitimate pleasure. Do not poison and corrupt it with stale vapors or tarnish your beard with their stench.

In 1857 Colonel Johnston was ordered to Washington, and Lee took command of the regiment. In the fall of that year Mr. Custis died, and Lee returned to Arlington to act as executor and to be with Mrs. Lee. Mr. Custis in his will had ordered that all his slaves be set free at the end of five years, and in 1862 Lee carried out this provision in the midst of the tremendous military campaign of that year. The few negroes he himself owned he had already freed at the beginning of the war.

Arlington was left to Mrs. Lee during her life, to go at her death to her son Custis. The latter at once deeded it to his father who replied to the graceful act in the following letter:—

ARLINGTON, 17th March, 1858.

My dear Son:—

I received to-night your letter of the 18th February, and also the deed relinquishing to me all your right and title to Arlington, the mill, adjacent lands, personal property, etc., bequeathed to you by your grandfather. I am deeply impressed by your filial feeling of love and consideration, as well as your tender solicitude for me, of which, however, I required no proof, and am equally touched by your generosity and disinterestedness. But from what I said in a previous letter, you will not be surprised at my repeating that I cannot accept your offer. It is not from any unwillingness to accept from you a gift you may think proper to bestow, or to be indebted to you for any benefit, great or small. But simply because it would not be right for me to do so. Your dear grandfather distributed his property as he thought best, and it is proper that it should remain as he bestowed it. It will not prevent me from improving it to the best of my ability, or of making it as comfortable a home for your mother, sisters, and yourself as I can. I only wish that I could do more than I have it in my power to do. I wish you had received my previous letter on this subject in time to have saved you the trouble of executing the deed you transmitted me. And indeed I also regret the expense you incurred, which I fear in that country is considerable, as I wish you to save all your money and invest it in some safe and lucrative way, that you may have the means to build up old Arlington, and make it all we would wish to see it. The necessity I daily have for money has, I fear, made me parsimonious.

Lee remained on leave until the summer of 1859 when he went again to Texas. He was there only a short time, returning almost immediately to Arlington, and was thus in easy reach of Washington in October, when a sudden and dangerous crisis caused the Secretary of War to call upon him for service. On October 16, 1859, John Brown, an abolitionist fanatic, who was then a fugitive from Kansas where he had participated in the Pottawattomie Massacre, led a small force of men into Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He had organized and armed them for the purpose of stirring up a slave uprising all over the South. He planned, as the slaves joined him, to arm them to fight for their freedom, and, in order to get a supply of arms, he took possession of the United States Arsenal in the town, which was well supplied but poorly guarded. News of this action reached Washington quickly, and Secretary Floyd, who knew that Lee was at Arlington, called on him to take command of a detachment of marines and go to Harper's Ferry.

On reaching there, Lee found that Brown's plan to rouse the slaves had failed because of their refusal to rebel against their masters, but he had captured a number of the leading citizens of the town and was holding them as hostages while he was besieged in the engine-house of the Arsenal by the militia companies, which had arrived promptly. Lee at once surrounded the place and then sent his volunteer aide, Lieutenant J. E. B, Stuart, with a flag of truce, to demand the surrender of those within. Brown declined and demanded that he be allowed to march his men out under arms and to take his prisoners with him. This demand was flatly refused, and Brown's reply to this was a threat to kill all the prisoners. Among these was Colonel Lewis Washington, who called out, “Never mind us, fire!” and at this Lee said, “The old Revolutionary blood does tell.” Acting on a plan of Lee's, Stuart now raised his hand, and, at the signal, the marines rushed in, forced the door, and captured the building before the threat of killing the prisoners could be carried out. The entry in Lee's memorandum book is brief:—

October 17, 1859. Received orders from the Secretary of War in person to repair to Harper's Ferry.

Reached Harper's Ferry at 11 P.M. . . . Posted marines in the United States Armory. Waited until daylight, as a number of citizens were held as hostages, whose lives were threatened. Tuesday about sunrise, with twelve marines, under Lieutenant Green, broke in the door of the engine-house, secured the insurgents, and relieved the prisoners unhurt. All the insurgents killed or mortally wounded, but four, John Brown, Stevens, Coppie, and Shields.

Lee then turned his prisoners over to the Virginia authorities and returned to Arlington. Brown and his confederates, who had killed as many as five people, were soon afterwards tried, convicted, and executed.

In February, 1860, Lee again returned to Texas as commander of that military department. Here he spent many months trying to capture Cortinas, a famous and very wily Mexican bandit, who had crossed several times into the United States, burning houses and driving off cattle. The situation is best described in this letter from Lee:—

I have but little Rio Grande news. I have descended the left bank of the river from Eagle Pass, and could find no armed parties on either side of the river. Everything was quiet. Robberies will be committed by Indians, Mexicans, and border men when it can be done with impunity and always has been done. The last authentic accounts I could get of Cortinas was that with his wife, children, and two men he was making his way in Mexican ox-carts into the interior and was 135 miles off. The Mexican authorities with whom I am holding a sharp correspondence said they had sent an express to the authorities to arrest him. General Garcia, commanding in Matamoras opposite to me, repeated the assurance. Still I do not expect it to be done and do not like to enter into a blind pursuit after a man so far into the interior, with broken-down horses. It is the want of food for them that stops me more than anything else. I cannot carry it and do not know that I could find it. The delay in finding it would defeat my object. If it was a prairie or grass country in which the horses could live, I would try him.

During all this period Lee's promotion was much talked of. In a letter to his wife in 1856, he said of the talk:—

Do not give yourself any anxiety about the appointment of the brigadier. If it is on my account that you feel any interest in it, I beg you will discard it from your thoughts. You will be sure to be disappointed; nor is it right to indulge improper and useless hopes. It besides looks like presumption to expect it.

In 1860 John B. Floyd, the Secretary of War, appointed his cousin, Joseph E.Johnston, Quartermaster-General, with the rank of brigadier-general, promoting him over Albert Sidney Johnston, Lee, Sumner, and others who outranked him. Lee's comment is characteristic:—

My friend Col. Joe Johnston is a good soldier and a worthy man and deserves all advancement, when it can be done without injustice to others. I think it must be evident to him that it was never the intention of Congress to advance him to the position assigned him by the Secretary. It was not so recognized before, and in proportion to his services he has been advanced beyond any one in the Army, and has thrown more discredit than ever on the system of favoritism and making brevets.

A little later he wrote:—

I rejoice in the good fortune that has come to my old friend Joe Johnston, for while I should not like, of course, that this should be taken as a precedent in the service, yet so far as he is concerned he is in every way worthy of the promotion, and I am glad that he has received it.

In February, 1861, Lee received orders to “report to the commander-in-chief at Washington,” and he reached there the first of March in time to see Lincoln inaugurated. Now for the last time he and his family were together'at Arlington.


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