Washington and Lee University

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


THE time had now come for Captain Lee to change the quiet of garrison life for the stirring scenes of war. Hostilities now commenced with Mexico. General Scott began early in 1847 to collect troops on the island of Lobos, for an expedition against Vera Cruz. Captain Lee had been assigned to the central army of Mexico, and was now Chief Engineer under General Wool.

The following letter to his sons, Custis and W. H. F. Lee, was written about this time.

Feb. 27th, 1847.

MY DEAR BOYS:—I received your letters with the greatest pleasure, and, as I always like to talk to you both together, I will not separate you in my letters, but write one to both. I was much gratified to hear of your progress at school, and hope you will continue to advance, and that I shall have the happiness of finding you much improved in your studies, on my return. I shall not feel my long separation from you, if I find that my absence has been of no injury to you, and that you have both grown in goodness and knowledge as well as in stature. But ah, how much I will suffer on my return, if I find the reverse has occurred! You enter into all my thoughts, in all my prayers; and on you, in part, will depend whether I shall be happy or miserable, as you know how much I love you. You must do all in your power to save me pain. You will learn, by my letter to your grandmother, that I have been to Tampico. I saw many things to remind me of you, though that was not necessary to make me wish that you were with me. The river was so calm and beautiful, and the boys were playing about in boats, and swimming their ponies. Then there were troops of donkeys carrying water through the streets. They had a kind of saddle, something like a cart-saddle, though larger, that carried two ten-gallon kegs on each side, which was a load for a donkey. They had no bridles on, but would come along in strings to the river, and, as soon as their kegs were filled, start off again. They were fatter and sleeker than any donkeys I had ever seen before, and seemed to be better cared for. I saw a great many ponies, too. They were larger than those in the upper country, but did not seem so enduring. I got one to ride around the fortifications. He had a Mexican bit and saddle on, and paced delightfully, but every time my sword struck him on the flanks, he would jump, and try to run off. Several of them had been broken to harness by the Americans, and I saw some teams ill wagons, driven four-in-hand, well matched, and trotting well. We had a grand parade on General Scott's arrival. The troops were all drawn up on the bank of the river, and fired a salute as he passed them. He landed at the market, where lines of sentinels were placed to keep off the crowd. In front of the landing the artillery was drawn up, which received him in the centre of the column and escorted him through the streets to his lodgings. They had provided a handsome gray horse, richly caparisoned for him to ride, but he preferred to walk with his staff around him, and a dragoon led the horse behind us. The windows along the streets we passed were crowded with people, and the boys and girls were in great glee. The Governor's Island band played all the time.

There were six thousand soldiers in Tampico. Mr. Barry was the Adjutant of the escort. I think you would have enjoyed with me the oranges and sweet potatoes. Major Smith became so fond of the coffee, that I could hardly get him away from the house. We only remained there one day. I have a nice state-room on board this ship. Joe Johnston and myself occupy it, but my poor Joe is so sick all the time, I can do nothing with him. I left Jem to come on with the horses, as I was afraid they would not be properly cared for. Vessels were expressly fitted up for the horses, and parties of dragoons detailed to take care of them. I had hoped they would reach here by this time, as I wanted to see how they were fixed. I took every precaution for their comfort, provided them with bran, oats, etc., and had slings made to pass under them and attach the coverings above, so that, if in the heavy sea they should slip, or be thrown off their feet, they should not fall. I had to sell my good old horse “Jem,” as I could not find room for him, or, rather, I did not want to crowd the others. I know I shall want him when I land. Creole was the admiration of every one at Brazos, and they could hardly believe she had carried me so far and looked so well. Jem says there is nothing like her in all the country, and I believe he likes her better than Tom or Jerry. The sorrel mare did not appear to be so well after I got to the Brazos. I had put one of the men on her whose horse had given out, and the saddle hurt her back. She had gotten well, however, before I left, and I told Jem to ride her every day. I hope they may both reach the shore in safety, but I fear they will have a hard time. They will have to be put on board a steamboat and carried to the ship that lies about two miles out at sea, then hoisted in, and hew we shall get them on shore again I do not know. Probably throw them overboard, and let them swim there. I do not think we shall remain here more than one day longer. General Worth's and General Twiggs's divisions have arrived, which include the regulars, and I suppose the volunteers will be coming on every day. . . .

. . . Tell Rob he must think of me very often, be a good boy, and always love his papa. Take care of Speck* and the colts. Mr. Sedgwick and all the officers send their love to you. The ship rolls so that I can scarcely write. You must write to me very often. I am always glad to hear from you. Be sure that I am thinking of you, and that you have the prayers of

Your affectionate father,
R. E. LEE.

The skill of Captain Lee as an engineer had impressed the military authorities most favorably, and particularly General Winfield Scott; and during the Mexican war he was entrusted with the most difficult enterprises. At the siege of Vera Cruz he rendered important services, and General Scott appointed him to a position on his personal staff, and always asked and attached great importance to his opinion in council. “I am compelled,” says General Scott, in his Autobiography, “to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee, Engineer. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz.” Indeed, his whole career in Mexico was most distinguished; and his veteran commander mentioned him honorably in almost every dispatch. In making a reconnoissance from Cerro Gordo, Captain Lee ventured so far from his column, that he found himself in the midst of the enemy. He concealed himself under a fallen tree, near a spring where the Mexicans obtained water. The Mexicans passed and repassed over the tree, and even sat upon it, without discovering him. He remained there until night enabled him to make his escape. On one occasion, u hen the two advanced divisions of the Mexican army lay in the valley of the Plan-de-Rio, and the body of the army, about three miles off, on the heights of Cerro Gordo, it became necessary, to success, that a road should be opened for batteries on the mountains in the rear of the enemy: the difficult task was allotted to Captain Lee, at the head of a body of pioneers. At the end of three days the way was opened, and a light battery put in position, to the dismay of the Mexican General Santa Anna, who said that he had not believed that a goat could approach him in that direction. Hence the surprise to the Mexicans, and great results.

General William Preston, who knew him first in Mexico, said of him, “He was a man of great personal beauty and grace of body. . . . . There were discerning minds that appreciated his genius, and saw in him the coming Captain of America. He belonged to a club which was then organized, together with General McClellan, General Albert Sydney Johnston, General Beauregard, and a host of others, who recognized Lee as a master-spirit. He never swore an oath; he never drank; he was never violent; he never wrangled. He was averse to quarrelling, and not a single difficulty marked his career; but all acknowledged his justness and wonderful evenness of mind. Rare intelligence, combined with these qualities, served to make him a fit representative of his great prototype—General Washington.” “He came from Mexico,” says President Davis, in his address delivered at Richmond, Va., after the death of General Lee, “crowned with honors, covered by brevets, and recognized, young as he was, as one of the ablest of his country's soldiers. And to prove that he was estimated then as such, let me tell you that when Lee was a captain of engineers, stationed in Baltimore, the Cuban Junta in New York selected him to be their leader in the struggle for the independence of their native country. They were anxious to secure his services, and offered him every temptation that ambition could desire. He thought the matter over, and, I remember, came to Washington to consult me as to what he should do; and when I began to discuss the complications which might arise from his acceptance of the trust, he gently rebuked me, saying that this was not the line upon which he wished my advice: the simple was, ‘Whether it was right or not?’” Such was his determination to do right, that the most tempting offers of ambition or wealth could not make him diverge one iota from the path of duty. After lauding his military genius, Mr. Davis says: “His moral qualities rose to the height of his genius. Self-denying; always intent upon the one idea of duty; self-controlled to an extent that many thought him cold. His feelings were really warm, and his heart melted freely at the sight of a wounded soldier, or the story of the sufferings of the widow and orphan.”


* A little dog.

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