Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 12


From Captain to Colonel

THE steamer paused briefly at New Orleans and then headed for Texas. Captain Lee stood by the rail on the upper deck, contentedly surveying the night scene. Below him, on the lower deck, he could hear the stir of the animals. Mules and horses moved restlessly as they settled for the night. He regretted having to sell Gus, but Creole was down there among the others and she was his special favorite and the admiration of his fellow officers. He would have liked to bring his faithful old Gus, too, but space was limited. That had been a good idea, he thought—making slings for the beasts, in case of storms or heavy seas.

A lonesome dog howled from some settler’s cabin on the shore. Overhead the stars glimmered brightly and the moon fingered the lacy edges of the rippling black shawl of the water.

Back toward the stern, a young soldier was singing a melancholy ditty:

Adieu my pretty maiden, I ne’er shall see you more,
But I thank you for your kindness in the cottage by the shore,
Around each social circle I will freely, boldly drain,
A health to my own lovely girl on the lake of Pontchartrain.

Lee sighed as he entered his cabin, lit a candle and, with his portfolio on his knee, began his evening letter: “My dearest Wife, I hope this is the last time I shall be absent from you during my life. That God may preserve and bless you all, is my constant prayer.”

He thought a moment, and then, fearing that she would be depressed by his sadness, he wrote in a more cheerful vein, trying to make her see the trip through his eyes, telling her of the amusing incidents that had occurred and describing the things he had seen during the day—the boys playing about in boats and swimming their ponies, the donkeys with their panniers holding ten-gallon water kegs. How fat they were, he commented, and well cared for. Some of them had been broken to harness and could be driven to wagons. They had seen General Scott’s parade in Tampico, where they had paused for one day—fine oranges and sweet potatoes and delicious chocolate.. . .

The fond husband and father set down every detail he could think of which would interest his wife and children.

How well he could picture the group at Arlington, Robert Lee thought, as he sat there in his small cabin so far from home: the aging grandparents; Mary, delicate but still sweet-looking after fifteen years of marriage; and the children. The whole jolly lot of them. He thought of each one tenderly. Custis, he was a fine, big boy now; Mary, his little brown berry; William Henry Fitzhugh, his beloved “Rooney”; Agnes; Robert, his namesake; Mildred and Anne Carter, whom he had called for his mother.

Perhaps, when they finished reading his letter one and all would glance up at his portrait, hanging there on the wall in the big room at Arlington. It had been painted in Baltimore eight years before, at the house of his sister, Mildred Lee Marshall. William West was the artist and he had considered it a fine likeness. Robert remembered that neither his wife nor his mother-in-law had expressed admiration for the picture at first, but later on they had approved it, praising the dark maroon background which showed off the blue of the full-dress uniform and the gold of the epaulets, collar insignia and buttons.

As he blew out the candle and prepared for bed, he comforted himself with the thought that this portrait, this symbol of himself, was there at home, in Arlington. He enjoyed imagining that he himself was there in spirit behind the painted figure, whispering, “Good night, Mary. Good night, dear children.”

The next day brought; fresh activity; a stop in San Antonio, where preparations for the march were made.

Lee and the other engineers joined a body of nearly two thousand recruits and set out for the Rio Grande. General Taylor had crossed this river some three months before and now occupied Matamoras.

Captain Lee and his companions were placed under General Wool and ordered to push forward to Chihuahua. In eleven days they covered one hundred and sixty-four miles and reached the Rio Grande, where they were met by the wagon trains bearing the pontoons which had been built in San Antonio.

As the days passed, Lee and his companions busied themselves preparing maps. Though they had covered many miles of Mexican ground, they had not yet sighted the enemy.

One day in December General Wool received a report that a large band of Mexicans was approaching the American forces. Lee volunteered for scout duty and set out into the wilderness with only a native guide. Soon they saw tracks in the road which did look as if a troop had gone by, Lee admitted to the Mexican. And beyond them were white specks. Tents, without doubt, the man insisted. Santa Anna’s men!

“They may be,” Lee conceded. “Certainly that is what they look like from here.”

Robert motioned to the man to drop back a little as he rode quietly ahead. In the distance they could see campfires dotting a hillside.

The guide grew frightened and begged Lee to turn back. “Surely we have seen enough, señor,” he whined. The General would believe him without investigation the next time he brought a report, he boasted.

But he had misjudged his present commander, for this particular officer was different from many. He was a thorough man and would never make a report or give an opinion until he had satisfied himself with proof.

“Wait here,” Lee told the native firmly as he pressed forward stealthily, making good use of his field glasses.

The Mexican would have dearly loved to turn tail and run away, but he was afraid. He shut his eyes tight and stood, trembling and breathless, calling on all the saints in heaven to protect him.

After a moment, a shout of laughter came to his astonished ears. Had his capitano gone crazy? he wondered wildly as his eyes flew open.

But the captain was back beside him now. He was laughing harder than ever. He was telling him the joke. The while dots were not tents at all. They were merely sheep. Small, white sheep!

“And the campfires, señor?” the guide queried, chagrined.

“They belong to the herders, my friend. They are peaceable peons, like yourself. Come with me and we will question them.”

When the man hung back and shook his head, Lee went on by himself. His Spanish was halting but he managed to learn that the enemy was on the far side of the mountains.

With this valuable knowledge, he returned the forty miles to camp and made his report. After a short rest and a change of horses, he started off again on a longer reconnaissance, returning at last with exact information as to the whereabouts of the enemy encampment.

When, by the beginning of May, no action had been seen, Lee was transferred to the command of General Winfield Scott. Plans were being made to attack Vera Cruz, and to Robert’s great pleasure, he was able to travel with his old friend and West Point classmate, Joe Johnston, on the steamer Massachusetts.

The landing operation was accomplished without the firing of a single shot and it was not until after the actual siege began that Captain Robert E. Lee, a veteran of twenty-two years of Army service, first came under fire. Close beside him, directing a gun crew on the boat, stood his brother, Smith Lee.

In a letter to his family, Robert Lee wrote, “Oh, I felt awfully, am at a loss to know what I should have done, had he been cut down before me. I thank God that he was saved. . . . My heart bled for the inhabitants of the town. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

After three days of gunfire, the city was taken by the Americans, and Lee, in recognition of his services, was appointed second ranking engineer of the Army.

Not long after this, when he was on a scouting expedition, he paused by a spring. In a moment he heard the sound of voices and hid behind a log. The men were within a foot or two of Robert Lee and he discovered from their talk that this spring was used by the enemy as a water supply. The soldiers came to the spring in a steady procession all through the day and it was nearly midnight when he was able to come out of hiding and steal away.

Soon afterward Lee and another officer mapped the route which was the basis for the battle plan of Cerro-Gordo. For this he was brevetted major, “for gallant and meritorious service.” After further action in which he acquitted himself bravely, he was brevetted lieutenant colonel.

On the expedition to Contreras, Lee carried important messages to headquarters, twice traversing the dangerous petrified lava fields at midnight. General Scott said he considered this achievement “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual during the campaign.”

Next came the attack on Mexico City, when the Americans stormed the heights of Chapultepec. Lee, who had been forty-eight hours without sleep, led a division in the advance. He was slightly wounded but continued his mission, returning to Genera1 Scott and joining him in the assault. The next day the Stars and Stripes flew over the palace.

Hostilities ended in March but it was not until June that Robert Lee was able to sail for home. He took the long journey up the Mississippi for the “accommodation” of his well-loved mare, Grace Darling, for, as he told his brother, he wished to spare her as much annoyance and fatigue as possible, since she had undergone so much suffering in his service. He left her at Wheeling, to be brought along later by his man, Jim, and took the train on to Washington. He missed the carriage which had been sent to meet him and so hired or borrowed a horse to ride to Arlington where, after an absence of nearly two years, he was eagerly awaited.

In the spacious front hall, a great group was gathered to greet the returning hero. In addition to the family, there were visitors, friends and neighbors who had come in a delegation, wanting to be the first to bid Colonel Lee “Welcome home.”

As he dismounted and came through the open doorway, Robert’s smiling eyes greeted Mr. and Mrs. Custis affectionately. In an instant his own dear Mary was in his arms for a fond embrace. Custis stepped forward then and gave his father a manly handclasp.

Rooney, always the mischievous and impulsive one of the family, said, “Did you bring us any presents from Mexico, Father?” and then blushed as his father’s glance reproved him for his greedy question.

Mary and Agnes, Anne and Mildred each in turn held up pretty lips for a kiss.

“And now for my own little namesake, Rob!” Lee said joyously, as he gathered into his arms a five-year-old boy with long, golden curls. “What do you think. I brought you back all the way from Mexico, Son?” he asked happily, as he held the child close against him. “A white pony. A pure white pony, named Santa Anna for the Mexican general. He and my own Grace Darling, who was wounded seven times, will be here soon. Are you pleased? What do you say now? Do I get a big hug and a ‘thank you’? Speak up, lad!”

“Please, sir,” the little boy said, as he tried to wriggle out of Lee’s arms, “I’m not your Rob. I’m a little visitor. My name is Armistead Lippett!”

The fond father joined in the general laughter at his expense, as Mammy Eliza pulled another little golden-curled boy, dressed in a white-figured blue blouse, out from behind her wide skirts, where he had been hiding bashfully.

Return to Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South