Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce


The influence of Mrs. Lee, a very intelligent and highly-gifted woman, upon the development of her son’s character was deep and lasting. She taught him to practice constant self-denial, and sowed in his heart the seed of that faith in the beneficence of a Higher Power which afforded him through all the vicissitudes of his career the most unwavering comfort and support. She impressed upon him too the duty of sustaining with an untarnished honor the distinguished name which he had inherited. During her last years, he acted the part of both son and daughter to her: bought all the household supplies; superintended in person the housekeeping; and saw that her horses were not neglected. One who knew him at this period of his life recorded that “discarding schoolboy frolics, he would hurry home from his studies to see that his mother had her daily drive; and might be seen carrying her to her carriage, affectionately arranging her cushions, and earnestly endeavoring to entertain her, and gravely asserting that, unless she was cheerful, she would derive no benefit from her airing. In her last illness, he mixed every dose of medicine she took, and he nursed her night and day. He never left her but for a short time.”

So thoughtful a boy was certain to prove an exemplary student. Mr. Halliwell, one of his earliest instructors in Alexandria, said that Robert Lee “was never behindhand in his studies; never failed in a single recitation; was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in his deportment to teachers and his fellow students,” and that he imparted “a finish and neatness as he proceeded to everything he undertook.” “One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me,” remarks his old instructor, “was conic sections, in which some of the diagrams are very complicated. He drew the diagram on a slate; and although he well knew the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for another, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed.”

These early traits as revealed in his relations with his mother and schoolmaster,—the eager yet patient tenderness toward the one, the almost excessive care in performing the tasks set by the other, “were characteristic of General Lee at every stage of his life. Of no one was it ever truer than of him that “the child is father of the man.” But this sweetness of nature, this disposition to be obedient to just authority, was no indication of feminine weakness and softness, as was proven by the desire which he felt and expressed even in his boyhood to adopt the profession of arms. The selection of this calling was made by himself alone. Having completed his course with Mr. Halliwell, whose proficiency in mathematics had recommended him particularly to a youth aspiring to military honors, Robert Lee was introduced to President Jackson at the White House by Mrs. Lewis, the famous Nellie Custis of Mount Vernon, and the favorite of Washington, who was anxious to assist him in procuring an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point. The old hero, ever responsive to the claims of those whose names were associated with the martial glory of his country, and greatly pleased with the handsome appearance, manly bearing, and modest yet self-possessed manners of the youthful applicant, promptly acceded to the request. To that bent but eagle-eyed old man, the boy was no doubt of extraordinary interest as the son of an officer whose principal fame had been won in scenes closely identified with Jackson’s early life. He himself still bore on his person the scar of the wound inflicted by the sword of a brutal British trooper during that partisan warfare in which “Light-Horse Harry” had taken so bold and active a part Lee’s exploits were still recounted along with Sumter’s and Marion’s at every hearth in that Southern country which Jackson knew so well.

At West Point Academy, which he entered in his eighteenth year, Robert E. Lee was distinguished for the some correct behavior which had marked the whole of his previous life. During his entire course, extending over four years, his record was not blemished by a single demerit, evidence that, during all this time, he was guiltless of a single breach of the regulations, and in not a single instance had been neglectful of duty. That he did not forfeit the good-will of his fellows by his superiority to youth’s usual infirmities was proven by his advancement to the position of corps-adjutant,—an office always filled by a cadet of commanding influence among his associates. His graduation near the head of his class disclosed that his intellectual power was fully in proportion to his moral excellence. He was at once appointed to the engineer corps,—composed of the first honor men of each graduating class, and in time of peace charged with the care of the fortifications erected for coast defense, or of forts to protect strategic points situated in the interior. Members were also frequently detailed to run state boundary lines, or to superintend the clearance of the larger streams when obstructed by shifting sands or the accumulation of débris.

While still a cadet at West Point, Robert Lee became engaged to Miss Custis, whom he had known and loved from boyhood; but their marriage, which was celebrated at “Arlington” with all the festivities of the traditional Virginian wedding, did not take place until the second year after his graduation. At this period, he was the embodiment of masculine vigor and comeliness. One who saw him a few years before the happy event occurred has recorded her impression of his personal appearance: “The first time I remember being struck with his manly beauty and attractiveness of manner was when he returned home after his first two years at West Point. He was dressed in his cadet uniform of West Point gray, with white bullet buttons, and every one was filled with admiration of his fine appearance and lovely manners. I think he was about nineteen. During one of my visits to Arlington after my marriage, we were all seated around the table at night, Robert reading. I looked up, and my eye fell on his face in perfect repose, and the thought at once passed through my mind, ‘You certainly look more like a great man than any one I have ever seen.’ The same idea presented itself to me as I looked at him in Christ Church, Alexandria, during the same visit.”

Lee, after his graduation, was stationed at Fortress Monroe, the oldest of all the national coast defenses. It seems appropriate that his first assignment to active duty should have been in his native state, where his military career was to end. It is also a coincidence that his first year of service in the army of the United States should have been marked indirectly by an extraordinary incident similar in import to the one occurring in his last. It was during his stay at Old Point Comfort that the frightful massacre in Southampton County, near by, took place;—a massacre in which sixty white persons, including infants in arms, perished at the hands of the negro fanatic, Nat Turner, and his fellow conspirators. Lee was not detached to assist Colonel Worth in the suppression of the insurrection, but the terms of the letter which he wrote Mrs. Custis at the time show that its actual horrors, and what it portended, made a profround impression upon his mind. When nearly thirty years later he was ordered by the government to capture John Brown and his band of raiders, he was able, by his personal knowledge of the Turner uprising, to comprehend what the consequences of such an invasion would be, should Brown succeed in arousing the slaves against their masters.

Previous to the outbreak of the war with Mexico, Lee was engaged in performing the various duties incident to his branch of the service. He assisted in surveying and fixing definitely the boundary lines of Michigan and Ohio; in devising and superintending the erection of a system of dykes, by which the Mississippi, diverted from its old bed opposite St. Louis, was thrown back permanently into its original channel; and finally, in strengthening the defenses of Fort Hamilton near New York. These different tasks were useful in perfecting his knowledge of the engineering art, and they also, by widening his information regarding his own country, gave him an opportunity accurately to estimate the comparative military resources of the Northern and Southern states.

But General Lee’s first practical experience of actual fighting was to be acquired in a conflict which, though narrow in its field of operation, and less remarkable for the skill of those participating in it, than the War of Secession, was yet to constitute a most useful school for testing the capacity of officers, and also for increasing their military efficiency. The whole of Lee’s after career was to turn upon the distinguished part which he played in the Mexican War, for it was the reputation won by him there that gave him so commanding a position at the opening of the War of Secession. It is not in place here to dwell upon the causes of the conflict with Mexico. An account of Lee’s share in it is concerned only with its military aspects. After hostilities were declared, a definite plan of attack was concerted. It was really three plans in one: a large force was to be led by way of Matamoras on the Rio Grande into the very heart of Mexico; a second was to invade New Mexico and California; while a third was to descend upon the Northern Provinces. These three expeditions were to be under the command of Generals Taylor, Kearney, and Wool respectively.

Lee was at first assigned to Wool’s army, which, at a later date, was merged into Taylor’s. As a captain of engineers, it was his duty, in coöperation with other members of his corps, to examine the ground on which it was proposed to establish a line of battle; to choose the positions where the artillery could be handled to the greatest advantage; and to make reconnaissances in order to secure accurate information for the guidance of the Commander-in-Chief in advancing or retreating. It was also the duty of the engineer corps to draft maps of the country through which the army was marching; to plan and overlook the erection of bridges for facilitating and hastening the progress of the troops; and to lead the way in the directions previously reconnoitred. Upon the prompt and capable performance of these various tasks depended the success of the larger military operations.

It was admitted at the time that no member of his branch of the service exhibited greater skill, sounder judgment, or more untiring energy in carrying out what was required of his corps than Captain Lee. It was in reconnaissance that he won his highest distinction. An incident which occurred during the time that he was under General Wool illustrates the courage and coolness displayed by him in dangerous situations while thus engaged. News was brought to Wool that Santa Anna, at the head of a force greatly superior to his own, had secretly crossed the mountains, and pitched his camp not more than twenty miles away, with the intention of making a rapid, and it was hoped, unexpected, advance on the American army. It was of the first importance to discover whether the report was correct, and the task of finding this out, being full of risk, could be assigned only to an officer combining in himself great promptness, energy, and prudence.

Captain Lee was chosen and an escort of cavalry was ordered to meet him at a point situated outside of the picket line. Owing to some mistake, the proposed escort failed to appear at the appointed hour, and Lee, wishing to lose no time, accompanied by a single guide—a Mexican whose loyalty was assured only by fear of his companion’s pistol—proceeded upon his hazardous enterprise. At the end of a ride of many miles, he observed a track, deeply indented with mules’ hoof-prints and the ruts of wagon tires, leading straight toward the spot where it had been reported that the Mexican army had posted itself. Thinking that these might be traces of a recent reconnoitring party, Lee determined to push on boldly in the hope of obtaining more definite information. Night soon falling, he
saw through the darkness what looked like a succession of camp-fires burning upon the flank of a low hill. Still unsatisfied, he rode on until he was near enough to detect what he took to be the tents of the enemy gleaming in the half light of the rising moon. Going still nearer to ascertain, if possible, the size of the hostile force, he was much astonished to discover that what he had, in the obscurity, imagined to be tents was a large flock of sheep, and what he had supposed to be an army was a band of vaqueros having in charge a great number of wagons, mules, and cattle. Questioning them, he was told that Santa Anna had not yet crossed the mountains; and with this important information, he at once retraced his steps to the American headquarters. Although he had already ridden without an interval of rest a distance of forty miles, at the end of three hours, he returned with a large force of cavalry, and succeeded in ascertaining the exact position of the Mexican troops.

Amongst the seasoned officers withdrawn by Scott
from Taylor’s army to take part in the expedition against the city of Mexico by way of Vera Cruz was Captain Lee. He was at once assigned to the commanding general’s personal staff. Thus began an association which led Scott to form what, previous to the War of Secession, appeared to be an almost extravagant estimate of Lee’s military talents. The foundation of this exalted opinion was laid by the extraordinary skill and energy which the young Captain of Engineers displayed in the course of the siege of Vera Cruz. That city was protected by the castle of San Juan de Ulloa, after the Heights of Quebec, the strongest fortification then standing on the North American continent, without the reduction of which, no hope of capturing the town could be entertained. This fortress, armed with four hundred guns, was garrisoned by five thousand veterans.

Early in March, 1847, Scott landed an army of twelve thousand men, and in a few days, had succeeded in drawing a cordon around the city. At the end of two weeks, the batteries erected by Captain Lee and the other members of the Engineer Corps were ready to begin the bombardment. When this opened, Smith Lee, an officer in the navy, was serving one of the guns which his brother had put in place, and which was very much exposed to the hostile fire. The whole battery was under the direct command of Captain Lee, and from one of his letters, we obtain a glimpse of what occurred there during the siege, and as to how he felt: “No matter where I turned,” said he, “my eyes rested on Smith, and I stood by his gun when I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh! I felt awfully, and I am at a loss as to what I should have done had he been cut down before me. I thanked God that he was saved. He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire. I had placed three 32- and three 68-pound guns in position. Their fire was terrific and the shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular dischargee, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall. It was awfuL. My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not so much care for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

After the surrender of Vera Cruz, which Scott, in his official report of the operations, attributed largely to the engineering skill of Captain Lee, the American army, making that town their base of communication and supply, began their march upon the City of Mexico. In order to reach the capital, it was found necessary for the troops to cross a high range of mountains having a number of secondary ranges thrown out on both its eastern and western slopes. At Cerro Gordo, the first pass, Santa Anna had posted in what seemed an impregnable position a force of thirteen thousand men and forty-two pieces of artillery. The right of his line, which rested on a great rock rising perpendicularly from the cañon of a deep stream, was unassailable even by means of scaling ladders, while the left, also resting on a precipitous ravine, was equally protected from attack. An eminence towering above the main entrance to the pass was crowned with formidable batteries. The road from the plains reached this entrance by a series of zigzags following the turnings of a great ridge that gradually sank toward the sea until it melted away in the lowlands. Relying upon the extraordinary natural strength of his position, Santa Anna made no attempt to bar the advance of the American army as it slowly ascended this outlying eminence, but wisely reserved his troops for the moment when the assault should begin on the entrenchments in the pass. Before arriving at that point, Scott, recognizing the doubtful issue of a frontal attack, halted his men until reconnoitring parties had been sent to find out whether the position could not be turned by a movement from behind. It was here that Captain Lee showed to an extraordinary degree that capacity for ascertaining with the eye the character of ground which had first been cultivated in him as a boy roaming about Virginian plantations. At the head of a band of pioneers, he, with great difficulty, made his way over the mountains to the enemy’s rear, and then returning, reported the discovery of a line of approach which had escaped the Mexicans’ notice.

That the energy and resourcefulness of Captain Lee had played a most important part in deciding the issue of the battle was fully acknowledged in his commanding officers’ reports. General Twiggs stated that he had adopted all the young engineer’s suggestions as to the advance against the hill in front of Cerro Gordo “with absolute confidence,” and that his “gallantry and good conduct were deserving of the highest praise.” Riley was equally eulogistic of the intrepidity shown by Captain Lee when the brigade, in moving forward under his guidance, was exposed to a heavy Mexican fire in the flank. These encomiums received the warm endorsement of General Scott.

After debouching from the Pass of Cerro Gordo, the American army advanced so slowly toward the City of Mexico that it was not until August when the top of the great chain of the Cordilleras was reached. The approaches to the capital from the east had been so strongly fortified that they were judged to be impregnable. The southern approaches were through a country more open, and more difficult for the enemy to defend; it was, therefore, decided to repeat the manœuvre of Cerro Gordo on a far more imposing scale by an unexpected movement toward the south; and from that point of the compass to make an assault on the city.

The obstructions to be surmounted were found to be greater than had been anticipated. Six miles from the capital, the enemy had planted batteries and stationed a large force at a point known as the Hacienda of San Antonio, which commanded the single road leading to the city from the south. At first, it seemed impracticable to turn this position, as the highway was bounded on one side by Lake Chalco and a deep morass, and, on the other, by the Pedrigal, a wild and abandoned tract covered with what was originally a stream of boiling scoriæ, which, in cooling into volcanic rock, had been compressed and contorted into myriads of rough shapes and sharp points. Apparently, the only way to cross this belt was by leaping from rock to rock, with a constant risk of implement in case of a false step; and yet, unless the distance should be traversed by troops, the Hacienda must remain impregnable. Captain Lee volunteered to explore its intricacies in the hope that a careful survey would reveal the existence of a path. After a fatiguing search, he at last found one barely wide enough to accommodate the passage of a sure-footed mule, which led into the great highway forming the approach to the capital from the southwest. As this highway entered the southern road, it would afford a means of turning the position at San Antonio, if the American troops and guns should be sent through the Pedrigal. Steps were at once taken to widen the mule track. When the task was completed, Pillow’s and Worth’s divisions, with Magruder’s batteries, advanced; but on reaching the southwestern highway, it was found that a force of six thousand Mexicans had taken possession of a hill overlooking the road in order to prevent an invasion from that direction. This position could be attacked only in front over very rough ground. By crossing an angle of the Pedrigal, the Americans succeeded in seizing the village of Contreras, and held it in spite of a succession of assaults by a force of Mexican cavalry and infantry.

When night fell, the situation of the American troops was full of danger. The remainder of the army was still stationed many miles away. Either Pillow and Worth would have to retreat under cover of darkness over the Pedrigal in order to rejoin their comrades, or those comrades would have to march over the Pedrigal by break of day to reinforce the position at Contreras. The retirement from the last-named point meant in all probability the loss of all the guns, as their transportation along that narrow, hazardous and newly-made road, even in the daytime, was full of perplexity. A violent tropical storm now arose, which, by increasing the darkness and flooding the ground, rendered a return of the artillery and a large body of troops impracticable. A council of war was held, and it was decided that an advance should be made before daybreak with the object of turning the flank of the Mexicans posted on the hill and commanding the road to the southwest. This was considered to be the more imperative as news had arrived that large bodies of fresh troops were hurrying up to the enemy’s support in anticipation of a renewal of the battle in the morning. It was of the highest importance, however, that the Commander-in-Chief should be informed of the intended movement, and this could be done only by a message sent over the Pedrigal, which, at this time, was made more difflcult than ever of traversal by the intense darkness, the heavy fall of rain, and the slipperiness of the rocky path.

Captain Lee, who had advised the flank movement, volunteered to carry the message. It was necessary that he should start upon his perilous journey at once, as he must return by the same path before morning in order to report to Worth and Pillow Scott’s plan of coöperation. When Lee set out, the rain was still falling in torrents, and the black pall of enveloping darkness was relieved only by the flashes of the tropical lightning. These flashes, and the high wind and flood of rain dashing against his face, were his sole guides. Unaccompanied by an escort, and unattended by even an orderly, he made his way across that intricate and desolate track of volcanic rock. In addition to the natural obstructions in his path, there was great danger that he might, at any moment, fall into the hands of the roving Mexican bands observed at a distance in the fastnesses of the rock when the American troops had passed over. From this peril, he was saved probably only by the night’s wildness discouraging all communication between the two wings of the enemy’s army. Reaching Scott’s headquarters in safety, after traversing a distance of five miles, Captain Lee delivered his message, and with a report of the Commander’s plan, he returned to Contreras. Scott afterward pronounced this double passage of the Pedrigal “to be the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge pending the campaign.”

As soon as Lee arrived at Contreras, the troops under the guidance of the engineers advanced, and before daybreak, had established themselves at a spot five hundred yards in the rear of the Mexican entrenchments. At dawn, these entrenchments were carried at the point of the bayonet; the enemy fell back in confusion to Churubusco, which forced their comrades stationed at the Hacienda on the southern road to evacuate that position, as they were now threatened with an attack from behind.

At the battle of Churubusco, soon following, Lee rendered valuable services of several kinds. A central object of attack in this engagement was a fortified convent, which it was of the first importance to reduce. A simultaneous assault on the rear, right, and front of the position was concerted, and with that purpose in view, Pierce’s brigade, under the leadership of Lee, who, a short while before, had been employed with Kearney’s troop in reconnoitring the neighboring entrenchments at Coyoncan, was now ordered to advance. Shields soon followed, and a sharp contest began. Being hard pressed, Shields dispatched Lee to Scott for reinforcements, and with the two fresh troops of Dragoons and the Rifles which he soon brought up, the fortunes of the day were restored, the Mexicans being once more compelled to retreat to a fortifled position nearer the capital.

The commendation of Lee by his superior officers, after this battle, was as warm as it had been after Cerro Gordo and Contreras. General Percifer Smith reported that the young engineer’s reconnaissances, although pushed far beyond the bounds of personal prudence, were yet conducted with so much skill that their fruits were invaluable; and that in all these operations, the soundness of his conclusions was as conspicuous as his personal daring. General Shields, after generously declaring that the position taken by him in the battle, which had assured the victory, had been assumed on the recommendation of Lee, expressed “the utmost confidence in his skill and judgment.” Churubusco was followed by Molino Del Rey (September 8), and Molino Del Rey by the assault upon the heights of Chapultepec. Here Lee was wounded, and though eager to advance, was compelled by loss of blood to abandon all further participation in the attack. For two nights, he had been so closely occupied at the batteries that he had been unable to obtain any sleep.

With Chapultepec, hostilities virtually ceased. During the war, Lee had steadily advanced in rank. For his services at Cerro Gordo, he had been rewarded with the brevet of Major, while for his services at Contreras and Churubusco, he was promoted to a Lieutenant-Colonelcy. Finally, he was gazetted as Colonel for his services at Chapultepec. He came out of the war with the reputation of being one of the ablest as well as one of the most gallant of his country’s soldiers. Although he had not yet reached the grade of a general officer, the distinction won by him was so great that, when the Cuban revolutionary junta was seeking a leader, they made overtures to Colonel Lee as the man best suited for the position. No one was more deeply impressed by his meritorious conduct during the whole progress of the Mexican War than the veteran Commander-in-Chief, General Scott, a man fully capable of estimating military capacity. Reverdy Johnson, the distinguished lawyer, has recorded that, on more than one occasion, Scott, in his hearing, had declared emphatically, “that his success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee.” And to General William Preston, of Kentucky, he said that, “if he were on his death-bed, and the President of the United States should tell him that a great battle was to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and ask him as to the Commander, he would say, with his dying breath, ‘Let it be Robert E. Lee.’ ”

The high estimate of Lee’s military abilities formed by all associated with him in the Mexican War was not based upon mere partiality for the man because of his winning personal qualities. His services at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and Contreras especially, were marked by all those striking characteristics which won for him so much celebrity in the War of Secession; namely, quick perception, fertility in expedients, sound judgment, energy, audacity, and perfect intrepidity. The practical experience acquired in the Mexican campaign was of extraordinary advantage to him at a later period; and no less useful was the personal knowledge, which, by his participation in that campaign, he obtained of the capacity and disposition of the men whom he was afterward to confront in a far more momentous conflict. McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, and Grant were officers in the armies that invaded Mexico; the reputation of each was well known to him; and with several, he was on a footing of friendly acquaintance, if not of intimacy. His perfect familiarity with McClellan’s characteristics especially proved to be a factor of controlling importance in his subsequent manœuvres against that antagonist.

Had the War of Secession broken out in 1851 instead of in 1861, Lee would probably have played an even more successful part in it; as he was, in the former year, ten years younger, in the fall flush of mental and physical vigor, and perfectly fresh in his experience of active operations in the field. Had the campaign in western Virginia occurred then, instead of sensibly diminishing his distinction, it would perhaps have greatly advanced his reputation; as the obstructions to be surmounted resembled so closely those which he had overcome, with such conspicuous ability and energy, at Cerro Gordo and Contreras.

No soldier loaded with honors justly conferred on him ever received the tributes to his skill and valor more modestly than Colonel Lee. As far back in the course of the war as the close of the siege of Vera Cruz, in which he had taken so distinguished a part, he wrote to Mr. Custis, his father-in-law:—“I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance on my account, or any concern about the distribution of favors. I know how these things are awarded, and how the President will be besieged by clamorous claimants. I do not wish to be numbered among them. Such as he can conscientiously bestow, I will gladly receive, and have no doubt that these will exceed my desert.”

Colonel Lee did not allow the close of hostilities to relax his interest in his profession, although an excuse for doing so might have been found in the general ease in which the American army indulged after its arduous campaign, while occupying the City of Mexico before the conclusion of the treaty. It is related that, on one occasion during this interval, a brilliant assembly of officers, as the wine cup passed around, were discussing the different events of the march from Vera Cruz to the capital. One of the company, stirred by the story of that great achievement, arose and proposed the health of the engineer, to whose unerring eye in reconnaissance so much of the succees was due. Then, for the first time, it was observed that Colonel Lee was not present, and an officer was at once dispatched to find him in order that he might come and reply to the complimentary toast. After a long search, he was discovered in a remote apartment of the palace which served as the headquarters, deeply absorbed in drawing a map. The officer reproached him for his absence. “The earnest worker,” so the account concludes, “looked up from his labors with a calm, mild gaze, which we all remember, and pointing to his instruments, shook his head. ‘But,’ said the officer impetuously, ‘this is mere drudgery. Make some one else do it.’ ‘No,’ was the reply, ‘I am but doing my duty.’ ”

After the American army’s return to the United States, the military duties performed by Colonel Lee, though not directly such as to prepare him for his career as a commanding general in the War of Secession, were yet not without influence on the part he then played. During the first three years following 1849, he was employed in strengthening the defenses of Baltimore against a marine attack, the third task of that nature which he had undertaken since his graduation at West Point. The first had been at Fortress Monroe, and the second at Fort Hamilton. The experience thus acquired was to become highly useful to the Confederacy when he was appointed to erect a fortified line along the seaboard of Georgia and the Carolinas, as a bulwark against Federal invasion from the sea. His selection by the national government for work so important is a proof of his high reputation in the Engineer Corps of the army. It was said of him at this time by one fully competent to estimate his abilities in this branch of service, “that no officer of that corps had a quicker eye to grasp the military requisites of a situation, and to make the best possible provision for its defense.” After leaving Baltimore, Colonel Lee, during three years, was superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, a position which he filled with perfect satisfaction to the War Department, and to the marked advantage of the institution itself.

By the treaty with Mexico after the conclusion of hostilities, the vast region of country now embraced in the states or territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, was added to the Union. As nearly the whole of this district was inhabited by fierce and marauding tribes of Indians, it became necessary to increase the size of the standing army, especially in the cavalry branch, as promising the greater usefulness on the plains. An act of Congress, passed in 1855, authorized the addition of two regiments of horse. Jefferson Davis, at that time Secretary of War, in whose hands lay the appointment of officers for these two regiments, chose Colonel E. V. Sumner as commander of the first, and Colond Albert Sidney Johnston as commander of the second; subordinate to Colonel Sumner was Brevet-Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, and to Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, Brevet-Colonel Robert E. Lee. The whole of Colonel Lee’s previous military career had been confined to the Engineer Corps, but he was also fully competent for service in the cavalry arm; indeed, this entire arm did not contain a more graceful or accomplished rider, or one with a keener love for or more thorough knowledge of, a horse.

The second regiment was soon ordered to western Texas as the region most harried by Indian incursions. The tribes there consisted of Apaches and Comanches, names still synonyms of relentless cruelty and ferocity. The country to be patroled extended from the Arkansas River to the Rio Grande, and as far west as the boundaries of New Mexico, within which area the Comanches especially had been engaged, for generations, in pillaging the settlers; and hitherto it had been found impracticable to restrain their sanguinary and thievish instincts. A chain of forts occupied by infantry had proven quite ineffective, since the Indians, mounted on their fleet horses, and moving only under cover of darkness, had been able to slip through without difficulty, and repeat their depredations at will. It was thought that these outrages could be stopped by cavalry operating in the gaps between the forts.

Colonel Lee’s services on the Texan border began in April, 1856, in which year he was stationed at Camp Cooper, on the Brazos River, in command of the first and fifth squadrons. His duties were not congenial to his tastes, though performed by him with his usual conscientiousness. In the first place, the whole country was a dreary and practically uninhabited prairie, without a line of railway or telegraph. The only means of obtaining the mails was by armed soldiers riding on mules at a gallop; and several weeks always passed before a letter could reach family or friends in the East, and a reply be received. It required several days even to communicate with the military headquarters at San Antonio. When the officers traveled from post to post, they were conveyed in ambulances accompanied by a strong escort. The social life of these posts was necessarily uneventful and bare of interest, as at each the force was composed of only one or two companies of common soldiers, with a few officers.

The chief military duty consisted of scouting, which was performed generally by detachments of about twenty men under the command of subalterns. It was during only a part of the year that this operation was enlivened by danger; in winter, the Indians rarely left their reservations, but as soon as antelope and bison began to grow fat on the new prairie grass in the spring, they deserted their wigwams and spread over the country, ready to shoot from some secret ambush the first settler or soldier who approached their hiding place unawares. They were very skilful with their weapons, and very daring riders, but thievish and murderous. “The poor creatures,” Colonel Lee is reported as saying, “are not worth the trouble they give to man and horse.” Notwithstanding his distaste for the task of restraining the savages, he was absent from his post, during this part of his career, on but one occasion. When Mr. Custis died, having been named as his executor, he returned to “Arlington” on furlough; but before many weeks had passed, he had resumed his duties in Texas, to the command of which Department he had been promoted in succession to Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, now engaged in the Mormon campaign in Utah.

Return to Robert E. Lee