The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


AT this period of his career, when he was approaching his fortieth year, the War with Mexico broke out, precipitated by the independence of Texas, and its subsequent admission as a State of the Union. Besides the local attitude of Texas, matters between Mexico and the United States were complicated by the Washington administration insisting that the Southwestern boundary of Texas should be the Rio Grande. This was in the year 1846, when the War Department of the United States appointed General Winfield Scott to the supreme command of an expedition designed to operate in Mexican territory, and, if deemed expedient, invest and lay siege to Vera Cruz, thus opening the way for an advance upon the city of Mexico. Previous to this. General Zachary Taylor, with an American force, had appeared at Corpus Christi, Texas, and there, having increased his army, he was ordered to advance to the Rio Grande, which he did and erected a fort on the river opposite Matamoros, with his base of supplies twenty-five miles eastward at Point Isabel. Here the Mexican general (Ampudia) ordered Taylor to withdraw beyond the Neuces river, as he and his American troops were then on Mexican territory. This Taylor refused to do, but proceeded with his operations in the region, when the battles of Palo Alta and Resaca de la Palma were fought and won; while, later on, Monterey, after some resistance, capitulated. General S. W. Kearny, meanwhile, at the head of the Army of the West, had advanced from Fort Leavenworth and made conquest of the province of New Mexico, and at Santa Fé, in August, 1846, he established a provisional American government, subsequently proceeding to California. The latter country, by this time, had practically been annexed, partly by means of the exploring expedition of Colonel Frémont, and partly by the joint operations of Commodores Sloat and Stockton. In 1848, peaceful cession of the territory came about, aided by the influx of myriads of gold-seekers, known as the “forty-niners;” and California, in 1850, was lost to Mexico and gained as a State of the American Union.

But let us now return to General Winfield Scott and the chief command that had been given him to conduct an expedition to invade Mexico, by way of the Gulf, effecting a landing at or near Vera Cruz. This inroad directly upon the enemy, with the design of assaulting and capturing the chief Mexican towns, including the capital, was undertaken with the view of bringing Santa Anna’s Administration and the Eepublic of the Mexican States to terms, after precipitating war upon American arms, as it was construed by President Polkas government, though history views the matter more in the light of an unjustifiable aggression upon a weak sister nation of the continent. Be this as it may or may not, General Scott had been given his orders, which were to proceed to Vera Cruz, where with his own forces and part of those under General Kearny he was to invest the town, take it, and proceed to the interior to reduce the Mexicans to submission. Here was now to become the real, as it was to be the chief, seat of war; and for its successful exploitation General Scott had brought with him a strong contingent of engineers and artillery, in addition to his cavalry and foot-soldiers. The divisional commands of the invading army were intrusted, under the Commander-in-chief, to Generals Twiggs, Worth, and Quitman; while several able engineer officers directed the assaulting operations, among whom were Colonel Totten, Lieutenant Beauregard, and our hero, Captain Robert E. Lee, who had the honor of being placed on the Commander-in-chief’s personal staff.

When General Scott had been assigned the task of taking a leading part in the war, and before the landing of his forces, by means of surf boats, a little to the south of Vera Cruz. Captain Lee appears to have been for a time attached to General J. E. Wool’s command, which had penetrated Mexico from San Antonia, across the Rio Grande, as far as Saltillo, to the West of Tampico. This seems to have been the case, for we find him writing to his wife from Rio Grande early in October, 1846, and to two of his boys from Saltillo on the day before Christmas. Presumably, therefore, he was with Wool’s; contingent at the battle of Buena Vista (Feb. 22, 1847) at the critical period in that hot but successful engagement with the Mexicans when Wool was joined by the force under General Zachary Taylor (“Old Eough and Ready” as the latter was familiarly called). Later on we know, however, he was summoned by General Scott to Vera Cruz, where he became one of the Commander in-chief’s war council, and, as we have already related, a member of his personal staff. There, at Vera Cruz, he was joined for a time by his brother, Sydney, a lieutenant in the United States navy, then serving on the “Mississippi,” one of the cruiser convoys of the invading force under Winfield Scott. We know also that this brother was with Captain R. E. Lee, for we find him serving one of the guns directed against the defenses of Vera Cruz from a battery his brother Robert had constructed to play upon the town preparatory to assaulting it. The period was about the 22nd of March, 1847, for on that day the bombardment commenced and continued for five days, when, after a spirited defense, the city and the fortified Castle of San Juan de Ulloa, in the harbor of Vera Cruz, capitulated. Lee rendered admirable service in the investment and assault upon the place, and was specially mentioned for distinguished acts in General Scott’s despatches to Washington recounting the operations and successful issue of the siege.

At this period of American invasion, Mexico, both politically and socially, was in a distracted and unsettled condition. Before and after the era of her independence of Spain, which she secured in 1820, it had been given up, more or less, to chronic revolution. At present, the Creole general, Santa Anna, who had wrecked the military empire of Iturbide, was the dictator of the amalgam of States which now represented the once mighty empire of Montezuma and what remained of the historic Spanish Conquest. The country was in a parlous state, with disorganization and conflict going on in almost every section of the Republic. It had, however, purged itself of the taint of slavery by decrees issued in 1827, and again and finally, in 1837. Against American invasion it was naturally opposed, believing that the United States had no righteous claim to the territory in Texas lying to the south of the Neuces, and therefore it resisted Zachary Taylor’s taking possession of the region for the American Government southward to the Rio Grande. As we have seen, the Mexican troops under Arista were repeatedly defeated in opposing Taylor’s aggression, and had also been worsted on her own unquestioned side of the Rio. The Mexicans had now fallen back successively, but still sought to maintain resistance to American arms. Of General Scott’s campaign, so far as undertaken, we have also seen the result, in the surrender of Vera Cruz, with the capitulation of its defensive force and its seven thousand inhabitants. Now this forward movement was about to be launched, over some two hundred miles of difficult country, to the Mexican capital. It was the middle of April (1847) before the expedition was in shape to proceed, and when it did, it met its first serious obstacle at Cerro Gordo, fifty miles northwest of Vera Cruz. Here Santa Anna and his Mexicans had posted themselves in a strong position on “the heights around a rugged mountain pass, with a battery commanding every turn of the road.”

To the reconnoissance of Captain Lee and Lieutenant Beauregard, both of the Engineers corps, Winfield Scott was indebted for discovering a pathway, which a little engineering effort made practicable, for a flank attack upon the enemy. Over this route light batteries were hauled and placed in position for effective work; while General Twiggs’ division, led by Captain Lee, advanced and opened a fusilade which drove the outposts of the Mexicans from the ravine back upon the hill slopes of Cerro Gordo. This preliminary achievement was effected over night, and in the early morning of the 18th of April the batteries opened a destructive fire, and three columns of American troops gallantly advanced, while the fighting divisions of Generals Twiggs and Worth stormed the heights in front, and, in spite of a stout resistance, finally carried them, though at the cost of much bloodshed. Lee, personally leading a column of men, now stole off to turn the enemy’s left, which he at length succeeded in doing, the Mexicans taking to flight down the Jalapa road, leaving behind them not only their dead, but much of their ammunition, small arms, and cannon. Our troops continued to press the enemy back, to Jalapa, making an ascent above the valley road during the day of over 4,000 feet, meanwhile capturing many of Santa Anna’s men.

For Lee’s share in the successes of the day, General Scott paid suitable and hearty acknowledgment, besides raising him to the brevet rank of major. His skill as an engineer enabled him to be of much and varied service to the Commander-in-chief during the progress of the campaign; while he was also highly useful in experienced scouting work, in which his bravery and venturesomeness at times led him into no little personal peril. This was the case shortly after the victory at Cerro Gordo, when on a reconnoissance in advance of the army he escaped Mexican vigilance only by concealing himself all one afternoon under a fallen tree, until nightfall enabled him to issue from his hiding-place and regain the outposts of the invading force. A like heroism and disregard of himself characterized Major Lee at both Churubusco and Contreras, where, for his distinguished services he received a further step in the line of promotion, this time to the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel. Almost constantly in the saddle, he was not only actively occupied in his own important duties as an engineer officer and counsellor to his Commander-in-chief in the difficulties that lay in the path of the advance, but he was also of much service, when a battle was on, in carrying General Scott’s orders to sections of his command, even at much peril to himself. In the interesting Memoir of Lee by his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, the renowned cavalry commander, Major Lee’s distinguished services in this Mexican campaign are thus attested: “His deeds of personal daring, his scientific counsels, his coup d’œil of the battlefield, his close personal reconnoissances under the scorching rays of a tropical sun, amid the lighting’s flash or thunder’s roar, did much to fashion the key which unlocked the gates of the Golden City. The reports of his commander are filled with commendations of his bravery: ‘That he was as famous for feHcitous execution as for science and daring’; that at ‘Chapultepec Captain Lee was constantly conspicuous, bearing important orders’ from him, ‘till he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights’ sleep at the batteries.’ This veteran general,” Fitzhugh Lee adds, “in referring afterward to this campaign, was heard to say that his ‘success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted courage of Robert E. Lee,’ and that he was ‘the greatest military genius in America, the best soldier that he ever saw in the field, and that, if opportunity offered, he would show himself the foremost captain of his time.’ ”

We are, however, anticipating, for there is considerable yet to be told of the incidents of the campaign ere the Mexican capital was taken and the unhappy war brought to a close. When the Mexicans fell back on Jalapa, Scott’s command followed the enemy up, drove them out of the place, and pushed on and occupied Puebla. Here a halt of two months took place, to enable the American force, exhausted by the rapid advance during the hottest months of the year, to pull itself together, await reinforcements from the coast, drill and make them efficient when they arrived. On August 7th, the forward movement again began, and by the 19th and 20th of the month three stubbornly fought battles took place, parts of one general encounter with the enemy, namely those of Contreras, Churubusco, and San Antonio. The issue of each engagement was the same—the rout of the Mexicans, and their rearward flight even to the gates of the capital. At this juncture, an armistice was mutually agreed upon, to permit the negotiations of the American commissioner, Nicholas P. Trist, who was instructed to offer the Mexicans peace upon certain conditions before further blood was shed in the alternative assault upon the City of Mexico. The armistice, however, came to nought, and tactically was a maladroit proposal: it lasted from August 23rd to September 7th. On the latter day the fighting was resumed, Molino del Rey being then attacked and carried by assault, while Santa Anna and his troops fled from the place. By the 12th of the month, the struggle was renewed by the American batteries opening fire upon the stronghold of Chapultepec, and by an assault upon the place by Scott’s combined force, which met with a desperate and bloody resistance. Finally, the place was stormed by a plucky dash, when the Mexicans became panic-stricken, abandoned their defensive works, and fled in confusion.

It was here, at Chapultepec, that Lee was wounded, though fortunately not very seriously. In the campaign, other of his Southern brother-officers suffered also from casualties in the field among them being Joseph E. Johnston (later on the renowned Confederate commander), Longstreet, Magruder, General Shields, Captain Mason, and others. The Mexican war, indeed, was an excellent active training-school to numbers of men who, in the War of the Rebellion, were to become distinguished under both the Federal and the Confederate flag. Of these, besides Robert E. Lee, the following were among the Mexican campaigners: Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Hooker, Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, George Gordon Meade, George B. McClellan, Irvin McDowell, George H. Thomas, Gideon J. Pillow, Ambrose P. Hill, T. J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson. “Their swords, then drawn for victory against a common foe,” as Fitzhugh Lee admirably puts it, were, fourteen years later, “to be pointed against each other’s breast, and those who slept beneath the same blanket, drank from the same canteen, and formed those ties of steel which are strongest when pledged amid common dangers around a common mess-table, were to be marshalled under the banners of opposing armies.[”]

What the common dangers in the Mexican war then were, Lee himself relates with pathos and fine humane feeling, in letters sent at this time to his home, either to his loved wife or to their little sons, in safe-keeping at Arlington. In these we see something of the man’s tender, yet stout, courageous heart, when thoughts of the dear ones he has left behind him come recurringly to his mind. Of these epistles his relative biographer gives us some touching excerpts from a letter written to his young son, Custis Lee, after the battle of Cerro Gordo: “I thought of you,” writes the father, “on the 18th, in the battle, and wondered, when the musket-balls and grapeshot were whistling over my head in a perfect shower, where I could put you, if with me, to be safe. I was truly thankful that you were at school, I hope learning to be good and wise. You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is.” The writer then describes to him the battle of Cerro Gordo, and tells him about the dead and dying Mexicans; how he had them carried to a house by the roadside, where they were attended by Mexican surgeons; of his finding by the side of a hut a little Mexican boy who had been a bugler or a drummer, with his arm terribly shattered, and how a big Mexican soldier, in the last agonies of death, had fallen on him; how he was attracted to the scene by the grief of a little girl; how he had the dying Mexican taken off the boy, and how grateful the little girl was. “Her large black eyes,” he said, “were streaming with tears, her hands crossed over her breast; her hair in one long plait behind reached her waist, her shoulders and arms bare, and without stockings or shoes. Her plaintive tone of ‘Mille gracias, Signor,’ as I had the dying man lifted off the boy and both carried to the hospital, still lingers in my ear. After I had broken away through the chaparral and turned toward Cerro Gordo I mounted Creole, who stepped over the dead men with such care as if she feared to hurt them; but when I started with the dragoons in the pursuit, she was as fierce as possible, and I could hardly hold her.”

Nor was Robert E. Lee less courageous than tender and humane, as we learn from General Winfield Scott’s own account in his despatches to Washington, or in after-reminiscences of the war by some of his contemporary staff officers in the campaign. One of the latter recounts Lee’s daring in an action preceding the battle of Contreras, “when General Scott’s troops had become separated on the field of Pedrigal, and it was necessary to communicate instructions to those on the other side of the barrier of rocks and lava.” At this crisis, General Scott, as set forth in his report, states that he had sent seven officers after sundown to give them their instructions, but all returned without getting through, save the gallant and indefatigable Captain Lee of the Engineers, who has been constantly with the operating forces. . . . Subsequently Scott (to quote again from his biographer), while giving testimony before a court of inquiry said: “Captain Lee came to me from Contreras with a message from Brigadier-General Smith. I think about the same time (midnight) he, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible to return on foot and alone to St. Augustine in the dark, the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual to my knowledge during the campaign.”

The successful close of the war was hailed by all with feelings of relief: this was especially the case with Colonel Lee, and indeed with the entire command under General Scott and his divisional commanders. After the brilliant assault on Chapultepec and the overpowering of the enemy at the gates of the capital, the City of Mexico was entered and taken possession of. Before its official surrender, Santa Anna and the chief civic authorities had fled from the place; but representatives of the Republic were there, with whom the American Commissioner arranged the terms upon which the war was to close and the country be relieved of its conquering invaders. After some haggling, peace was finally declared, and the American troops, in due course, withdrew, the military power of Mexico having in the war been broken as well as humiliated. By the Peace Treaty, which was negotiated at Guadalupe Hidalgo, Feb. 2, 1848, subsequently ratified by both sides, the United States secured the rights contended for to the southwestern territory of Texas as far as the Rio Grande. The Treaty, moreover, added New Mexico and California to the national domain; though a monetary compensation therefor was to be paid to Mexico, of fifteen million dollars, while the United States assumed the claims of her citizens against the Republic, who had suffered in the war, to the extent of three and a half millions more.

It was toward the end of May (1848) before Colonel Lee was free to leave the City of Mexico to return homeward, though a month later he was rejoiced once more to be at Arlington and in the bosom of his family. Public recognition of his services in Mexico came later, in 1852, when, after the resumption of his professional work on the Government defenses at Baltimore, he was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. General Winfield Scott, the Commander-in-Chief, an attached and admiring friend of Lee, was, on the other hand, somewhat scurvily treated by the War Department. Owing to some difficulty with a subordinate general officer in Mexico, he had to submit to the annoyance of a General Court of Inquiry. Congress, meanwhile, applied a solatium to the wounded feelings of the old veteran by awarding him a gold medal and the thanks of the Legislature. Later, the authorities made amends to the old warrior by raising him to the rank of Lieutenant-General, the first creation of that high titular office in the United States army. General Zachary Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista and of a long list of earlier triumphs, fared better, having on his return from the Valley of the Rio Grande received the thanks of Congress, accompanied by a gold medal; while his popularity in the nation gained him the nomination, on the Whig ticket, of the Presidency. His inauguration to that elevated office took place Mar. 4, 1849, though his death unhappily occurred July 9th in the following year.

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