On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 7

On the Fringe of Fame


St. Louis and the Mexican War

AS CAPTAIN STAFF-COMMISSARIAT of Subsistence (what redundant orders title), Richard received orders to report in October 1838 to St. Louis, which would remain his headquarters for the next eleven years (except for a tour of duty at Fort Hanson in Florida in 1840, and a few months at Fort Poinsett, Cedar Keys, Florida, in 1841–42).

Richard found that he was no longer the hardy traveler who had once, blithely, set off for Santa Fe. Now, even a stage-coach ride was to be dreaded, as we see in a letter, written in the fall of 1841. “For expedition, comfort and the safety of my vouchers and papers I request that I may be ordered to take the Steam Boat route via Wheeling, Va. [to St. Louis]. This is particularly desirable as my wound in the spine is materially affected by stage riding.”1 Assuming that the request would be granted, Richard relaxed in the red-plush luxury of the steamboat, gliding down the Ohio to Cairo and up the wide Mississippi to St. Louis, only to have the extra cost of this longer route billed against him four years later.

Upon arriving in St Louis in 1838, Richard found his cousin, Robert E. Lee, superintending the engineering of the St. Louis harbor and upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The Mississippi had changed its course, in its fickle, sinuous fashion, and the city had been threatened with dry isolation. Fortunately, Robert Lee’s dams and dredging saved the city, and when he departed from St. Louis in October 1841, it was as the savior of that great river port.

St. Louis was a boom town, already shrugging off the effects of the great depression of 1837. Richard noticed many changes in the six years he had been away. The St. Louis Theatre and the New Planters House had been completed the previous year, and, according to the Missouri Gazette, the population had grown to 20,000.

In April 1839, Richard hastened east to escort his family to St. Louis, where Julia found the social life slow at first. At the end of eight dreary months, she wrote that Mary and Julia had been invited to parties, but added, “I have not been invited to a private party yet and I don’t care if I never am.” Julia was pregnant again, although her child Anna Cornelia, born in Washington, was only a year old, and as usual, pregnancy made her feel far from festive. Julian Prosser arrived February 1840, followed by Myra Gaines the next year, but these confinements did not impede her social life long, and soon her letters east were full of descriptions of “costly and elegant dinners” and complaints that “Company had been coming all day.”2

The hospitality and gaiety of St. Louis were indeed overpowering: sleighing parties in the winter; assemblies at the Planters House where the weary dancers were refreshed with currant wine, cherry bounce, and croquegnoles; delightful dinner parties, with tables groaning under gumbo, jambalaya, okra, corn, lima beans, and crisp salads with a dressing of bear’s oil, clarified with slippery elm bark. At laughing-gas parties, the ladies and gentlemen would inhale the ether-like substance and entertain each other with their semiconscious antics. (A similar party in Florida would guide the way to the use of anesthesia for surgery in 1846.) Oyster suppers, skating, and canoeing parties and “grand illuminations” at Chouteau’s Lake, where one watched the Indians show off their marksmanship, brought the residents and visitors together frequently.

Famous visitors kept appearing. In 1842 Captain Stewart was again in St. Louis for a reunion with his old friends the fur trappers, and in 1843 the town was agog over the paraphernalia, the gourmet delicacies and great entourage Stewart was taking on his tourist hunting jaunt into the Rockies. Matt Field’s series of delightful articles describing this expedition ran in the St. Louis Weekly Reveille during 1844.

In 1842 Charles Dickens was lionized by an admiring public until he castigated St. Louis society as “tobacco spitting, slave holding and vulgar.” More popular was white-haired Audubon, who appeared periodically in 1842–43.

Ulysses S. Grant, twenty-one years old and a graduated West Point, arrived at Jefferson Barracks in September 1843. Two other officers in their early twenties were James Longstreet and Don Carlos Buell. Arraying themselves in dress uniforms on September 22,1843, they all called on one of Napoleon’s generals, Bertrand, who was visiting Jefferson Barracks.

Stephen Watts Kearny was in command of the Third Military Department at this time, with headquarters in Jefferson Barracks, then after November 1843–45, in St. Louis. Colonel Kearny was no stranger to St. Louis or the Lees, as he had been in charge of the construction of Jefferson Barracks in 1826. In 1845 Kearny went off on a “peaceful” expedition into the Rockies, and upon his return, reprovisioned his men at Bent’s Fort. Fremont also departed to survey the Rockies and California, baying at Bent’s Fort the beef and cattle for his venture. It would seem probable that the Department of Subsistence, and Richard, would have planned this. So, once again Richard’s life was indirectly in contact with the Bents.

The years 1841&38211;43 found the family circle incomplete: Mary, the eldest child, had been sent East to finish her education. Even though she stayed with her grandmother, Elizabeth Collins Lee, and her aunt and uncle, Ann Matilda Lee and Fleet Surgeon Bailey Washington III, Mary’s Eastern education seemed a heavy expense, and Julia had to refuse Mary’s request for guitar lessons, writing, “At the end of this summer (1843) her education will have cost us two thousand dollars since she left us— with several children that is a large sum to spend on one.” Julia was also worried because Mary wore out her shoes at the rate of a pair a week: “I do hope she is graceful, the greatest horror I have is of bringing out an awkward girl.” The other children were also eroding shoe leather at dancing school, parties and candy pullings three times a week in St. Louis.3

The winter of 1843 was a. hard one for the poor. Julia described it as, “A dismal winter, those have plenty do very well, but the poor are coming four and five times a day to try and get work. Beggars are very few but the lower class of people are in great ditress.”4

Julia’s compassion was shown in acts as well as words. “One of the little servants, a child about ten years old, was brought home sick and I have had her in my room, the poor child died last night. I find I have not the constitution I once had, every thing makes me sick. I can scarcely sit up today.”5

Julia’s illness was caused by another pregnancy. In July another boy, John Tabb, arrived, to live for only seven months. In addition to the grief felt upon losing baby John, in February 1844 Julia suffered from a “protracted and alarming illness” that lasted until February of the following year, when she wrote that she was still in “very feeble health,” adding “I can now only sit up a few hours in the day.”6

The inauguration of President Polk in 1845 mean new china for Julia.She had been hoarding her gold to send to Ann Matilda in Washington, so that Ann Matilda could make the purchase of some beautiful second-hand dinner china, “thinking the new President would follow the example of his predecessors and turn out all in office and they would sell out.”

Mary was home again, and her mother wrote that Mary was having “a very gay time. She has been to innumerable parties, balls, etc. Two nights since she was at a masquerade ball—she wore a black domino and mask, very few found out who she was till very late in the evening she took off her mask.”7

One of Julia’s letters shows that Mary’s time was not spent entirely on frivolities. A friend’s child

. . . was very ill with typhus fever for three weeks. Mary and I were with her night and day. She suffered more than anyone I ever saw and on the 21 day she died. Mary helped to shroud her and put her in the coffin. She has more nerve than I have. After she died I could not prevail myself to look at her. Mary is considered an excellent nurse. She has won all the hearts of all who see her.8

Their garden and greenhouse were a constant source of pleasure. Julia wrote to her sister-in-law, “Our greenhouse is looking beautiful, all the flowers are in bloom . . . I wish you would get me some of the seeds of the monkey flower . . . Mr. Lee takes a great interest in the garden. Most of his fine fruit trees were killed this winter.”9 Julia also wrote about how much they enjoyed eating peaches and cantaloupes from their own garden.

The year 1846 brought another baby to the family, William Augustus, nicknamed Gus. This year it was young Julia’s turn to visit relatives in the East for the final polishing. Her grandmother Elizabeth took her to Warrenton Springs, where, according to her grandmother, she was the belle of the ball, out-waltzing everyone.10

Richard was an enthusiastic hunter, and often Julia’s letters were tinged with the sighs of a hunter’s wife. “Mr. Lee has not yet returned from his wild grouse chase, nor would I be the least surprised if he did not come for a month.” “Mr. Lee has gone out grouse hunting .”.”. he goes very often and we live on birds of various kinds.” “Mr. Lee has killed 116 grouse and 100 partridges besides other birds.”11 “Mr. Lee, has gone with Dick and Julian 35 miles shooting he will be absent 4 days.” 12

There were the usual worries about education and religion:

Nets and Taddy [Anna Cornelia and Evelina] go to school at the convent next door. I like the school, but they are always endeavouring to explain their religion to the protestant scholars, they gave mine prayers to learn. I did not let them get them. As soon as I am well enough I am going to tell them I would prefer their not saying anything to my children on religion.13

The year 1847 had started out inauspiciously. “The weather has been worse than ever I knew—the roads were impassable—marketing very scarce and high—our wood and coal for this month, (March) has cost $60 and generally it costs less than $25.” As contrast to the terrible weather was the exciting event of Mary’s engagement to Robert F. Fleming, a doctor from Charleston, South Carolina, who was in St. Louis to look after his family’s lead mines. Richard described his new son-in-law as, “A noble general hearted man, liberal without ostentation, and a perfect gentleman of easy and amiable manners.”14

As almost minor news was the announcement of another baby born early in March, Lucian Simon, named for his cousin who was the son of Adjutant General Jones. A few weeks later Julia incurred the disapproval of her husband by feminine caprice, writing about it to her sister-in-law, Matilda:

You know I write whenever the spirit moves me. I must candidly confess I am not moved today by any spirit unless it is the evil one. Yesterday much against the Major’s wishes I determined to go out riding—After I left home I changed my mind and determined to go shopping (the baby only three weeks old). Accordingly Frederick was ordered to drive to the stores—three long hours I staid [sic] and when I got home, who should I see but your Brother with a cross face—he was too civil to say anything and I did not appear to notice his not being pleased. You will laugh when I tell you I have been so tired ever since I can scarcely see or move. My reason for being guilty of such folly was I expect to start for New Orleans in a few days, therefore thought it best to take the air and see if I could undertake the trip. My health is very feeble and everyone says if I go south for a short time it will benefit me. I intend to luxuriate on crabs, pecans and strawberries. . . . The two youngest children and Eliza go with me, Mr. Lee, Mary and Julia are to take charge of the others. Don’t envy me my house full of children. Such a noise as they keep, I often feel as if I should go crazy. . . . You must not think me selfish. I have been here nearly eight years and I have only been as far as Jefferson Barracks three times, it is only ten miles.15

Another reason far the trip was that Julia would be able to purchase some bargains for Mary. Mary and Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming were married on June 2, 1847, and left for the East, where they spent their honeymoon visiting relatives. Julia felt great anxiety through the humid summer months because the baby, Lucian, was not well. Fortunately, there were no widespread epidemics that summer. Julia wrote that there was “no sickness except among the lower class—great many of the emigrants have died.”16

The year 1848 had brought their first grandchild, named, of course, for Richard. Consequently when Julia’s twelfth child arrived the following year, they returned the compliment and named the infant for their son-in-law, Robert Fleming. So February 1849 found Julia with ten living children, the youngest of whom was a year younger than her grandson. The Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 would have been as remote to Julia as the Milky Way.

In 1842 the Army had been reduced drastically from 12,539 men to 8,316, and future advancements seemed remote and hopeless, forcing many officers to resign. Fortunately, Richard had just been made a major, and since his real rank had caught up to his brevet rank, he enjoyed commensurate increase in pay.

This problem of rank and pay was a constant irritant, and 1843–44 found Richard embroiled in another dispute with the War Department. The unsatisfactory system of brevet rank had caused unhappiness and frustration in the Army for years. The Army’s policy stated that if an officer’s command was equal to his brevet rank, the brevet rank became real. At the time Richard was wounded in Florida, June 9, 1836, his rank had been that of First Lieutenant, his brevet rank a Captain’s, his command, he stated “that of a Major’s.” After he had been wounded, he remained in command until August 25th, although the duties had been performed by his subordinate officers. The question he now asked the War Department to clarify was: did he “exercise his highest or his lowest rank. He was on duty though not for duty at the post.”17 The matter was complicated further by the fact that Lee had been promoted to Captain in August and breveted a Major in October 1836, the promotion to take effect from the preceding June 9th. The War Department’s reply was not pleasing.

It does not appear that the facts in Major Lee’s case are correctly stated. . . . From the 9th of June till the period of being brevetted he was not in any command, but either sick, relieved from command, absent with leave or absent with leave from wounds, and the most of the time in the City of Washington and when on duty went to select a site for an arsenal at Little Rock, which was not greater than a Captain’s command.18

This statement roused Richard to write:

The decision of the War Department (February 8, 1844) charges me with having mis-stated the facts of the case, and the records of the Department are cited as proof. Most respectfully, but most positively, I deny the charge. The statement as given by me is in every particular correct, true to the letter, except perhaps the date of my being relieved from command (Aug. 25th) which was about the time stated. The precise day is not recollected. On the other hand, the data from the records of the War Department are erroneous in every material particular.19

Richard asserted that he had not been relieved from command-before August 25th and enclosed his orders from General Call as proof:

Although disabled from wounds received in battle and reported sick . . . I was present and my Subordinate Officers, upon several of whom the command temporarily devolved, were subject to my orders. I was therefore in command. . . . In fact, I was not absent with leave at all.

Richard noted that the War Department had given the wrong month for his brevet; dating it after his orders to Little Rock, which would invalidate his claim for brevet pay while on this Ordnance service and he angrily commented on this.

This remarkable error in the records of the War Department [is] in its character
as infamous as it is unfounded in fact. . . . The bearing of this error upon
my character as upon the merits of my claim, is obvious.

Charged as I have been and those charges having become a part of the records of the War Department, I consider it necessary to my reputation, and to the character of the Army, that this matter should be thoroughly investigated.

I therefore Sir, most confidently and earnestly appeal to you for an opportunity of vindicating myself before a military tribunal or in such other manner as you may deem proper.

What had started out as a simple request for clarification of his rank had ended in hotheaded anger and injured pride. Again, the supersensitive Virginian felt that his honor had been smeared; an error in the records of the War Department was viewed as a personal insult.

Richard also was anxious to have his letters and General Call’s orders laid before his friend and fellow Virginian, President Tyler, saying, “I particularly value his good opinion and personal regard.”20

The rather incomplete Army records leave the results of this skirmish shrouded in mystery. However, knowing Richard’s determination and love of battle, and the lack of further correspondence, one can assume a victory.

The Army’s only activity, at this time, seemed to be exploring the wilderness and the joyless duty of keeping the recalcitrant Indians under control. Richard had to supply various forts and expeditions in the Western Division and, apparently, had his bad moments. In June 1845, we find a Dragoon Captain on an expedition to “Traverse des Sioux,” in the Territory of Iowa, writing a letter of complaint, because Richard had sent only seventeen barrels of flour instead of the thirty-one barrels ordered by Colonel Kearny.21

The years in St. Louis seemed to hurry by and few were dull. Later on, as the Lees looked back, they realized that time had marched with an aggressive stride through perils and challenging trials. In 1844 St. Louis had been inundated by a great flood, and the electric telegraph had clicked its first message, shrinking the world. The following year, Florida, the wilderness haunt of Oseola, had become a State. Texas had been annexed, and President Polk’s eyes had turned covetously towards New Mexico and California. Then, with a bit of flagrant chicanery, an incident had been neatly contrived, and the War with Mexico triggered in 1846.

Richard immediately volunteered for combat, but was turned down flatly. He attributed this refusal to his feud with Fremont’s father-in-law, the powerful Missouri Senator Benton.

During the progress of that war I was notified by Adjutant General Jones that it had been determined to occupy New Mexico—that I would probably be assigned to the command, and that the Secretary of War desired me to submit a plan of organization and operation, which I did, and which met with his approval, and of Military Officers to whom it was submitted. By the political influence of Col. Brown, to whom I had always been opposed upon the question of State Rights, I was disappointed in receiving the command of the New Mexican Expedition, which was given to Col. Kearney [sic].22

Stephen Watts Kearny was a better choice than Lee, Benton or no Benton. Kearny was older than Lee; his army service dated back to 1812. He was no dude, having been on Army expeditions to the Yellowstone from 1819 to 1825, and having commanded various frontier posts after 1828. His knowledge of the West was up to date after his 2,200-mile horseback trip into the Rockies in 1845. Although his knowledge was not so recent as Kearny’s, Richard did not hesitate to write suggestions to the War Department for the occupation of New Mexico.

[I] entered into some details founded upon personal explorations and my knowledge of the country, its resources and its people—limited the report to the occupancy of New Mexico and to what I considered an important measure, the establishment of friendly relations with the numerous tribes of Indians occupying that region.23

The importanc[e] of establishing friendly relations with the Indians was demonstrated, in a tragic fashion, at Taos. Kearny, having again selected Bent’s Fort as the depot for his supplies, had marched West, taking Santa Fe without a shot and on an empty stomach, too. Because supply wagons had gone astray, the Army found itself without sugar or coffee towards the end of September, and the last day’s march into Santa Fe had been made without food, the soldiers begging from door to door for handouts.

After Kearny had appointed Charles Bent Provisional Governor of New Mexico and had provisioned the troops from the larders of Santa Fe, the ragged Army of the West departed for California, Kearny taking Richard’s old acquaintances Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick along as guides. Trouble, however, was simmering under the apparently serene exterior in New Mexico: the Indians of Taos were brewing an evil plot which erupted in the brutal massacre of all the American men in Taos and the butchering and scalping of Charles Bent on January 19, 1847. Richard lamented the loss of this great man, for he well remembered the qualities of leadership, judgment and courage shown by Bent on their trip to Santa Fe in 1833. This was a loss to be mourned throughout the West.

Richard also advocated an invasion of Mexico from New Mexico, writing in December 1846, “The results of the recent campaign of the Army of the North confirms my opinion and I think shows that under so able and accomplished a commander as General Kearny the objects of the expedition would have been fully attained and at an expense of money comparatively inconsiderable.”

He then outlined a plan for the organization of a partisan corps, one battalion to be armed with lances and “straight light swords, resembling the old Lafayette swords, but heavier and longer in the blade,” the other battalion bearing rifles, bayonets and similar swords in order to “embody the elements of infantry, cavalry and riflement.” The munitions were to be packed, always ready for action, for this was to be a mobile, fast-moving unit, “an advanced corps to the invading Army of Mexico.” Then hopefully he asked again “to tender his services should he be considered competent and worthy of so important a command.24

Once again Richard was disappointed. Instead of riding with battalions of lances and rifles, he had to struggle behind the battle lines with the hectic problems connected with supplying the scattered forces in New Mexico. The fact that Santa Fe wagon trains had no military guard resulted in frequent loss of provisions along the way. There were Indian attacks, and during 1847, 47 Americans were killed, 330 wagons destroyed and 6,500 head of stock stolen. During the winter of 1846–47, the Santa Fe Trail was covered with heavy snow that caused the deaths of fifty government employees. Richard realized that this route had not grown substantially safer during the thirteen years since he had traveled on it.

Richard’s knowledge at die Mexican War was gleaned also from the newspapers. It was the same story of confusion and general unpreparedness that hard dogged all the American wars. The President, who had never seen arid Northern Mexico, had assumed that the army could live off the land, but Richard’s cousin, Zachary Taylor, refused to march to Mexico without supp1ies. After this initial stalemate, the army was supplied, and Taylor achieved his great victory at Monterey in September 1846. Then jealous Polk, fearing to lose the presidency to this popular hero, sent Major General Winfield Scott to invade Mexico, via Vera Cruz. Poor Scott suffered from the inexperience of volunteer officers who had been appointed for political reasons, and lacking sufficient supplies, often was forced to live off the meager country. In spite of these handicaps, however, he won his first victory at Cerro Gordo, largely because of the capable strategy of Captain Robert E. Lee, assisted by Captain George B. McClellan and Lieutenant U. S. Grant.

The war had been nearly lost because of the failure of Congress and to fix the term of enlistment. These dark days passed, however, and soon the names of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Buena Vista, Contreras, Cherubisco, El Molino del Rey, Chapultapec and Mexico City sounded in down-East twang and Southern drawl. In the West, Kearny had completed the gruelling march to California, and the Mormon Battalion had earned respect and admiration for that feared and misunderstood religious sect. Fremont and Commodore John Sloat had jumped the gun, raising the American flag prematurely in California July 7, 1846, on the Customs House in Monterey. The American settlers, who were equal in numbers, but more aggressive than the Mexican rangers, had taken over. The die was cast.

Just before the termination of the war, Richard agitated again for an expedition into Chihuahua, along the border of Sonora “to Durango in the direction of Zacateras and San Luis Potosi.”

“At your request,” he wrote to General Jones, “I present some views on the subject.” He suggested striking at the heart of the country and occupying Chihuahua and Durango in order to cut off the Mexican supply of cattle and minerals. Referring to the great handbook of the fur trade, he added, “The importance of this section of country is set down by Mr. Gregg in his work on the Prairies at $4,000,000 per annum.”

Richard showed his fur trader training as he urged, “All military expeditions should be so conducted as to afford adequate security to prosperity—to inspire the people with confidence in us and by these means to develop the resources of the country.” Furthermore, Lee was convinced that this would not cost the government a penny, as “a moderate duty on the export and import trade” would raise a sufficient revenue and defray all the expenses of the expedition.

Richard deplored the “distrust and hatred which the unbridled license of some of our troops have occasioned,” and urged that the Army should try to “secure the good will and confidence of the Mexicans residing in that section of the country, now under our control, by restraining the excesses committed by some of our volunteer troops, which unfortunately have been of frequent and disgraceful occurrence.” In order to accomplish this, he suggested withdrawing the troops from the villages and restricting them to the discipline of camps.

We see the influence of Richard’s winter and spring with the Indians in 1833–34, as once again he advocated establishing friendly relations with all the Indians in New Mexico by granting a “general amnesty for all the past depredations committed by the Indians.” In addition, he urged the Army to use companies of Indians,” as scouts and as a medium of communication with the distant lands,” and to employ “some of their principal chiefs, subjecting them to military discipline and affording at the same time secure places of protection for their wives and children.” This last measure had a dual purpose: “The places for the protection of Indian women would be gratifying to them and would make them in fact hostages in our possession as security for the good behavior of their warriors.”

The personnel and arming of the expedition were carefully outlined. The report was endorsed by General Jones, who commented on January 10, 1848:

Major Lee is acquainted with New Mexico—having visited that country—he is an officer of sound judgment, great experience and of tried gallantry—His views and suggestions are entitled to big consideration and are respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War.25

It was too late; the war came to an end in less than a month, without assistance from this plan. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, on February 3, 1848, ceded the enormous territory of New Mexico and California to the United States. This was just in the nick of time, for gold had been discovered on January 24th, and the news of this would soon lead to a mass invasion of California. The peaceful, rural life of the great California ranches could not have stemmed this human avalanche, war or no war.

Lee’s responsibilities radiated to the far points of the compass. While serving on a Court of Inquiry in New Orleans during February and March 1848, he was responsible “for supplying the army on service in New Mexico, the troops on the Oregon and Santa Fe routes” from St. Louis. Fortunately, there was a new invention to speed things up, and in March 1848, we find Richard using the new means of communication, sending an urgent request for an additional 50,000 for the Army of the West via the New York and Washington telegraph. Then in August, he wired for permission to visit the Winnebago Country;26 again he was suffering from wanderlust.

The immediate reduction of the Army from 90,890 to 10,317 in 1848 did not make the task of the Commissary Department appreciably easier. The newly acquired territory of 960,000 square miles had to be patrolled by 875 troops in seven posts in New Mexico, with Santa Fe designated as Army depot for government wagons and supplies. The distant forts and troops in California had to be supplied, and the Oregon territory, whose northern boundary had been finally fixed in 1846, safeguarded. As the Pacific fortifications could not be supplied easily from St. Louis or Santa Fe, Richard received orders in April 1849 to proceed West, this time to the Pacific Coast, “to inspect the facilities in California and Oregon and to provide for the six to eight companies of Rifles ordered from New York.”27

The spring of 1849 was an ominous time of catastrophes, reminiscent of the year 1833 when Richard had left for Santa Fe. First came the news of Fremont’s disaster in the Rockies. The previous fall had found Fremont licking the smarts of his recent court-martial for insubordination to Kearny in California, but determined to undertake a mid-winter exploration of the Rockies. Financing this venture to find railroad passes through the Rockies with his own funds and those provided by his father-in-law, he had found it difficult to procure a guide, Kit Carson having turned him down flat. When his ill-starred expedition became a disaster, eleven out of 33 dying in the heavy snow, he had blamed his guide, Bill Williams, although most of the mountain men felt that the blame should be pinned on Freemont alone. Richard, hearing about this tragedy, would have remembered the blizzards at Fort Wintery, and the slim rations of dog and #&8220;worn-out horse.”

Just before Richard’s departure, St. Louis was stricken with panic. On May 19 the river steamer The White Cloud caught fire at its wharf, and soon the flames had spread to other wharves and adjacent shops and warehouses. It seemed as if he whole city would be consumed in the conflagration.

Then, two days later, Julia and Richard listened to Bishop Hauk’s voice intone the words: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Only a year before, the Episcopal Bishop had held Lucian in his arms at the baptismal font. Twice before they had endured the agony of losing a child. How hard it was to bless
the name of the Lord, as the mud clods thudded on the tiny coffin. 28

Richard, therefore, left his family with sorrow and apprehension. The peril was not over. The terrible holocaust was followed by a devastating epidemic of cholera which killed 4,060 out of a population of 64,000. For a while, 60 to 80 were dying each day, and the streets were muted by the endless funeral corteges. Julia fled to the comparative safety of the Fleming lead mines, where she watched fearfully over his children.

Richard spent an anxious and lonely week in Mobile as he waited for a steamer. The day before he embarked he wrote to his mother:

You will justly appreciate the sad feelings under which I left home after having my faithful old nurse and my promising little Lou and the heavy fears and apprehension which accompanied me for those left behind.

On my arrival I found a letter from Doctor Fleming assuring me that all were well on the 26th ultimo and since a similar assurance by telegraph from Julia dated the 30th. These are the last communications from home that I can expect to receive for a long time and although I look forward with hopes for the best I cannot divest myself of many painful fears and anticipations.29



1. Lee, R. B. Letter to Brigadier General Gibson, September 1841. Although this request to travel by steamer had been granted, Lee was asked to reimburse the Army four years later, Jessup claiming that the longer route was not of “public necessity” but more convenient. Lee, R. B. Letter to Secretary of War, January 19,1846, National Archives.

2. Lee, Julia to Ann Matilda Washington, June 18, 1841, February 18, 1843. According to information in St. Louis city directories Major R. B. Lee, USA, lived on the corner of 4th and Locust in 1842, on the east side 6th and N. Pine in 1845, and 41 North 6th in 1847–48.

3. Lee, Mary Elizabeth, Letter to Julia Lee, February 25, 1841, Lee, Julia, Letter to Ann Matilda Washington, February 18, 1843 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

4. Lee, Julia, Letter to Elizabeth Dabney (R.B.L.F. Collection).

5. Lee, Julia, Letter to Ann Matilda Washington, February 18, 1843 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

6. Ibid., February 31, 1845.

7. Ibid.,

8. Ibid., March 29, probably 1845.

9. Ibid.

10. Lee, Elizabeth Collins, Letter to R. B. Lee, August 8, 1846 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

11. Lee, Julia, Letter to Ann Matilda Washington, August 21, 1847 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

12. Lee, Julia, Letter to Ann Matilda Washington, February 21, 1845 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

13. Ibid., August 21,1847.

14. Lee, R. B. Letter to Elizabeth Collins Lee, June 27, 1847 (Mrs. John Yost Collection).

15. Lee, Julia. Letter to Ann Matilda Washington, March 28, 1847 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

16. Ibid., August 21, 1847.

17. Lee, R. B. Letter to the Secretary of War, Washington, December 23, 1843, National Archives, op. cit.

18. Report of J. M. Porter, War Department, February 8,1844, National Archives, op. cit.

19. Lee, R. B. Letter to William Wilkins, Secretary of War, St. Louis, February 26, 1844, National Archives, op. cit.

20. Ibid.

21. Captain Edwin V. Sumners Dragoon Expedition in the Territory of Iowa in the summer of 1845. The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Iowa City, 1913, p. 260. Lee, R. B. Letter to General Gibson, National Archives, December 15, 1845. Richard explained that the “missing flour was to have been requisitioned from Fort Snelling, which had an ample supply, and that the absence of the Lieutenant who understood this, and the fact that the boats had been too small to take it all in one trip, had resulted in this error.”

22. Autobiographical Sketch, op. cit.

23. Lee, R. B. Letter to Jones, December 4, 1846, National Archives.

24. Ibid.

25. Lee, R. B. Letter to Jones, January 8, 1848. Endorsement by Jones on letter, National Archives.

26. Telegrams: Lee, R. B. to General Gibson, March 16, 1848; August 12, 1848. National Archives.

27. Lee, R. B. Orders, April 9, 1849. National Archives.

28. Records and registers of Christ Church and St. Paul’s Church, St. Louis, Mo.

29. Lee, R. B. Letter to Elizabeth Collins Lee, Mobile, June 8,1849 (Yost Collection).

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