Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 1

Robert E. Lee in Texas

“America’s Very Best Soldier”

at the time of his marriage in 1831
Courtesy National Archives

THROUGHOUT the day of April 9, 1856, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Edward Lee’s small train of seven wagons, escorted by a corporal and eight soldiers, had crawled northward, bouncing and jouncing over an uneven Texas frontier road, uphill and downhill, across creeks and ravines, and occasionally through post-oak flats carpeted with green grass and yellow splashes of the spring’s first primroses. Toward the close of day, the tired men crossed a mesquite tableland and approached a steep bluff overlooking the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, thirty-five stiles above its junction with the Brazos. From this vantage point Lee saw before him a wide, level valley, through which flowed the meandering river. Gnarled mesquite trees, dwarfed and drought-blighted, chaparral, stunted hackberry, and prickly pear covered its grassy bottom, except along the river where tall and wide-spreading elm and pecan trees with tender green buds and new leaves furnished a pleasing backdrop. Chrome- and gray-streaked cliffs stood back on either side of the valley like medieval battlemented walls.

Brakes shrieked their protest as the heavily laden wagons slid down the steeply inclined road to the crossing of the clear-running stream. But the drivers urged their teams through the water and up the opposite bank. There ahead, in the upper part of the valley, gleamed white army tents, neatly arranged about a small parade ground.

This was Camp Cooper—named in honor of Adjutant General Samuel Cooper—a military camp, two miles above the agency of the Comanche reservation recently made possible by a Texas legislative grant and surveyed by Captain Randolph B. Marcy and Special Agent Robert S. Neighbors, representing the United States government. Here, at this secluded and remote place, the federal government proposed to teach these nomadic red men the ways of their white neighbors, under the strict watch of the near-by soldiers.

At last Lee had completed his journey from Fort Mason, 165 miles to the south. He had made a radical change inmilitarycommand—from the superintendency of West Point, where he had most recently served with distinction and where, years before, he had received his military education, to the wild Texas frontier. This was the West, stripped of the glamour that it might have had for him when he made his first acquaintance with Texas during the war with Mexico.

Lee’s background was not such as to fit him ideally for border life. A Virginian, son of General Henry (“Light Horse Harry”) Lee and Ann Carter Lee, he had received his early training at Alexandria and had finished second in a class of forty-six at West Point. Then as an officer of the Corps of Engineers he had served with conspicuous success at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River, Georgia; at Fort Monroe, Virginia; at Washington as assistant to the Chief of Engineers, Charles Gratiot; at St. Louis, where he had changed the channel of the Mississippi River; and at Fort Hamilton, New York, where he had been stationed when the Mexican War called him to Texas. His devotion to duty by this time had brought promotion from second lieutenant to captain.

Beyond these military experiences, one other event stands out during these early years as life-shaping for young Lee. On June 30, 1831, he married Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. Mary’s home, stately old Arlington, on Virginia Heights overlooking the broad, placid Potomac and Washington beyond, was aglow the night of the wedding. It had never before been the scene of a happier gathering, its widespread wings serving as open arms to welcome the guests. The massive but simple Doric columns of the broad portico graced the occasion with a classic air. The great halls and chambers, decorated with paintings of patriots and scenes of the Revolution, rang with laughter and music; and history and tradition breathed their legends upon a canvas softer than a dream of peace.

Douglas Southall Freeman says significantly that Lee married Arlington when he married Mary Custis. Indeed, both the young bride and her home helped direct his mental and spiritual growth in later years. Arlington bound his cultural love to the proud Washington heritage; and he shared with Mary the care and rearing of a large family: three sons (George Washington Custis, William Fitzhugh, and Robert Edward) and four daughters (Mary, Annie, Agnes, and Mildred). That he provided cultural and material advantages for them from a slender income proved that his genius did not lie wholly in the military field.

Dull routine plagued ambitious Lee while he was stationed at Fort Hamilton. He fretted, fumed, and fidgeted, hoping for a change and advancement. But occasionally he was in a happier mood. On January 14, 1846, he wrote Mary that he had kept his servants, Jim and “Miss Leary,” constantly moving, cleaning up, and he feared that he would wear them down. “I do not know whether it was your departure or my somber phiz,“ he added, ”which brought Miss Leary out Sunday in a full suit of mourning. A black alpaca trimmed with crepe and a thick row of jet buttons on each sleeve, from the shoulder to the wrist, and three rows on the skirt, diverging from the waist to the hem; it was, however, surmounted by a dashing cap with gay ribbons.”

From Fort Hamilton Lee watched with interest the rising tide of “manifest destiny,” the crest of which was soon to bear him to Texas. He saw the Democrats send the Tennessean, James K. Polk, to the White House in Washington on the militant slogans, “Fifty-four forty or fight” and “Reannexation of Texas.” Then he was stirred by the action of Congress annexing Texas by a joint resolution and by Mexico’s severance of diplomatic relations with the United States. Hastily England now agreed to accept the forty-ninth parallel as her Oregon boundary rather than risk a fight for “Fifty-four forty.” This, too, must have impressed Lee.

War, following a bitter quarrel between Mexico and the United States, brought Lee to Texas the first time. General Zachary Taylor’s army had clashed with Arista’s forces on May 8 and 9, 1846, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, after which the Americans had crossed the Rio Grande and had occupied Matamoros and Monterrey. At the same time Brigadier General John E. Wool, whom Lee had formerly known in Virginia, was busy at San Antonio organizing a second army to aid Taylor. Lee’s fretting and fuming now ended, for he was sent to Texas to assist Wool. On the first available steamer he sailed via New Orleans for Port Lavaca, Texas, and from there rode on to San Antonio on September 21.

This was Lee’s first visit to San Antonio, a town of a few more than 2,000 inhabitants, yet drowsy in spite of its part in creating the lusty young republic. The battle-scarred Alamo, where a decade earlier James Bowie and his brave Texans had been slaughtered by Santa Anna’s storming troops; the century-old San Fernando Church, with four older missions within easy walking distance; the flat-topped adobe shops and business houses and the Governor’s Palace; narrow and crooked streets, littered with refuse; and indolent Mexicans, lounging in doorways of jacales and adobe huts and attired in bell-bottom trousers, tight-fitting jackets, serapes, and sombreros—all Lee saw as an interesting past. Yet he found, too, that this drowsy air had been rudely jolted by the bustle and confusion of war. Smartly-dressed officers rode excitedly here and there, anxious to complete arrangements for the army’s march southward; and Wool’s train of 500 wagons moved to and fro between San Antonio and Lavaca, bringing up supplies.

Wool assigned Lee to an important role. He was to assist Captain William D. Fraser in collecting tools for road- and bridge-building and pontoons to throw across the Rio Grande. Then these engineers were to push on to improve the road over which the army would march to Eagle Pass. This assignment was no mean task, for Wool had assembled for the start an army of 2,829 men, more than 2,000 horses, and 1,112 wagons; and the road to be made ready was between 175 and 185 miles in length. Lee and Fraser, with a work crew, left the Alamo city on September 23 and performed their task so well that on November 9 Wool’s army reached the Rio Grande, about thirty miles south of what is now Eagle Pass. Here the two engineers put up their pontoons and made their bridge ready for the crossing. The Mexican troops guarding the passage retired without firing a shot.

From the river crossing Wool pushed on through mesquite and cactus flats and over rugged terrain, his men suffering from the intense heat and dust. To add to the misery, for a part of the way each man’s ration was limited to nine ears of corn per day. The army passed through Monclova, a town of 10,000 inhabitants, and through Parras, of 5,000, still without meeting an enemy. Lee had worked hard, had solved every construction problem given him, and was tired; but he was given little time to rest. General Worth at Saltillo sent Wool an urgent appeal for help because Santa Anna was reported to be advancing with a large army. Again Lee and Fraser moved out to make ready the uncertain road between Parras and Saltillo, and again they did their work well.

When the travel-worn soldiers reached Agua Nueva, near Saltillo, and made contact with Worth’s army, they found everyone extremely nervous, from Worth down to his buck privates. On one day a cloud of dust raised by an American cavalry patrol had been mistaken for the Mexicans; and on another, Santa Anna had been reported to be near.

Lee went to reconnoiter, when Wool refused to believe this last report. He was to meet his escort beyond the picket line, but when he came to the selected spot at the designated time, his men had not appeared. Impatient, he rode on without them, accompanied only by a Mexican guide whom he had impressed into service by the show of two heavy cavalry pistols. Twenty miles from camp, in late evening, he saw ahead the twinkling lights of what he thought might be Santa Anna’s campfires. His guide thought so, too, and refused to go farther. Stealthily Lee moved on alone and soon found that this was a camp of harmless sheepherders, who told him that Santa Anna was yet far to the south. With this news Lee rode back late that night to Wool’s camp to report to his alarmed chief. He was amused to find that Wool had arrested the guide’s father and had threatened to hang him if Lee did not return unharmed.

Here Lee’s services with Wool’s army ended. He could feel justly proud of his part in making possible the army’s remarkable journey, which Colonel M. L. Crimmins states “for sheer audacity and rigid discipline . . . ranks with the heroic march of Xenophon.” The Americans had traversed a semidesert for almost 700 miles, over hastily-improved roads made ready by Lee and Fraser. Swift rivers had been bridged, hills leveled, and mountains made passable. No wreckage marked the route, not a drop of blood was shed, and not a shot was fired!

On January 16, 1847, Lee rode Creole, his favorite mare, northward to join General Winfield (“Fuss and Feathers”) Scott’s army concentrating at Brazos Santiago, Texas, opposite the mouth of the Rio Grande. From Brazos Santiago, Scott sailed for Vera Cruz, stopping en route only long enough to occupy Tampico. Lee and his friend, Joseph E. Johnston, sailed with the convoy aboard the Massachusetts, their horses following on another ship.

Lee now began a series of brilliant achievements—at Vera Cruz, at Cerro Gordo, at Jalapa, Contreras, San Antonio, and Churubusco𔃊that brought him special mention, again and again, from General Scott. His skill and reckless daring were so conspicuous, according to E. D. Keyes, as to cause Scott to have an “almost idolatrous fancy for Lee, whose military genius he estimated far above that of any other officer of the army” Lee was brevetted a major for gallant and meritorious conduct at Cerro Gordo, a lieutenant colonel for conspicuous heroism at Contreras and Churubusco, and a colonel for his bravery and skill at Chapultepec. And as though this were not enough, Scott shortly proclaimed him “America’s very best soldier.”

Lee took these promotions and plaudits soberly. The horrible realism of war had shocked hum immeasurably. At Vera Cruz he had described the fire power of 32- and 68-pound cannon as “awful!” “It was terrible to think of the women and children,” he wrote Mrs. Lee. Each added experience was much the same—horror, chaos, the stench of death, bloated and disfigured bodies, shrieks of the wounded, moans of the dying, and the weeping of women and children beside the still forms of the dead. As with a branding iron, Lee’s soul was seared. At battle-littered Cerro Gordo he had rescued from under the dead body of a large Mexican soldier a young bugler, who lay suffering with a shattered arm while his little sister stood by weeping. “Her large black eyes were streaming with tears,“ Lee wrote, “her hands crossed over her breast.” After he had sent the lad to a first-aid station and had ridden away, the girl’s plaintive “Mille gracias, Señor” rang in his ears hauntingly. Creole, too, seemed to understand and stepped gingerly over the dead men as if she feared to hurt them. “You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is,” Lee wrote Mary, “with musket balls and grapes in perfect showers whistling overhead on their errands of death.”

But on these battle fields Lee “marched, bivouacked, fought and bled” (for he was wounded) side by side with such men as Joseph E. Johnston, George B. McClellan, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Joseph Hooker, men whom he was to know on Civil War battle fields either as Northern or Southern commanders. No one knows how important this knowledge was to Lee. Certainly, he only heard of, and did not know personally, some of those men he would serve with or meet as foes. It is safe to assume, however, that his plans for the Peninsula campaign and for Chancellorsville, during 1862–63, were at least in part shaped because of his having known McClellan and Hooker.

While Lee awaited the conclusion of peace negotiations following the Mexican War, he could hear in camp the strains of “Home, Sweet Home.” “We feel quite exhiliratcd at the prospect of getting home,” he wrote his brother, Smith. Too much debate in the Mexican Congress irritated him; it was too late to argue about who had begun the war. He believed that American troops had won fairly and had the right to exact concessions. “The treaty gives us all the and we want,” he explained further. “The amount we pay is a trifle, and is the cheapest way of ending the war. How it will all end I cannot say, but will trust to a kind Providence, who will, I believe, order all things for the best.” He little realized that the total direct and indirect war costs would reach 12,000 lives and $100,000,000, and that the region acquired was two and one-half times as large as France.

As Lee watched for a homeward-bound steamer, the American press, led by the Washington Union, pictured the American and Mexican eagles clasping wings and praised the Yankee doughboys for swapping knickknacks with the Mexican rancheros.

Early in June, 1848, Lee boarded the long-awaited steamer at Vera Cruz, and late in the month he completed his journey by riding horseback from Washington to Arlington. His faithful dog, Spec, was the first to see him and to bark a welcome, much to the surprise of his waiting family, who, having sent a carriage to Washington for him, had not expected him to return in this fashion. The Lee children hardly knew the sober, bronzed man who stood before them: war had penciled deep lines of care on his face, and sadness had crept into his eyes. He caught up a small boy and kissed him, only to discover that he was not his own; he had mistaken little Armistead Lippitt for his son, Rob, who was standing by anxiously, clothed in his best for the occasion. But the error was immediately corrected, and soon Lee was happily embracing all and distributing presents he had brought from Mexico. “Here I am once again,” he wrote his brother, Smith, “perfectly surrounded by Mary and her precious children, who seem to devote themselves to staring at the furrows in my face and the white hairs in my head.”

Scott rewarded Lee for his brilliant Mexican War services by an appointment to the superintendency of West Point, where he spent a little more than two busy years (September 1, 1852 to April 12, 1835) in improving the school’s discipline and its course of study and in planning for expansion. These were happy and profitable months that ended all too soon. Not only had they reunited Lee and his family, but he had formed new friendships among his faculty and students that were to last through the years. He knew as students such men as John B. McPherson, William R. Boggs, John B. Hood, “Jeb” Stuart, Archibald Gracie, W. D. Pender, O. O. Howard, and Phil Sheridan. George H. Thomas, an instructor in artillery and cavalry, he would soon meet again on the Texas frontier; and the others, his students, as friends or foes on the Civil War battle fields.

Border events brought a radical change in Lee’s military life and turned his eyes again toward Texas. In the midsummer of 1854, Indians had ambushed Lieutenant John L. Grattan’s patrol near Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Only one man had escaped alive, and even he had died of his wounds a short time later. This massacre added weight to Secretary Davis’s recent request of Congress for two new cavalry regiments. The Secretary had pointed out that the widely distributed army of 11,000 officers and men hardly protected a frontier of 8,000 miles against 40,000 hostile warriors. The Grattan massacre furnished tragic proof of this, and on March 3, 1855, Congress went beyond Davis’s request by authorizing two new regiments of cavalry and two of infantry.

One of these, the Second Cavalry, was to patrol the Texas border. Fortunately Secretary Davis, a West Pointer, selected its officers; and never before in American annals had such talented men been chosen. Albert Sidney Johnston was named colonel; Lee, lieutenant colonel; William J. Hardee and George H. Thomas, majors; and among its captains were Earl Van Dorn, E. Kirby Smith, N. G. Evans, I. N. Palmer, George Stoneman, and R. W. Johnson. Even its lieutenants—John B. Hood, Charles W. Field, William P. Chambliss, Charles W. Phifer, and K. Garrard—rose to high rank during the Civil War, either as Confederate or Union officers. Hardee, Van Dorn, Smith, Evans, Field, Hood, Chambliss and Phifer became well-known Southern generals; and Thomas, Palmer, Stoneman, R. W. Johnson, and Garrard, Northern generals.

Lee frowned on a transfer from staff to line. Border duty meant separation from his family and home, a radical change from a quiet, comfortable station in an eastern city to a crude border post. Still he could not expect promotion with the Corps of Engineers—too many officers outranked him. With the new regiment he had a chance even for a brigadier generalship. In addition, his sense of duty compelled him to accept the appointment. Therefore, on March 23 he turned over his West Point command to Brevet Major Jonathan G. Barnard and left for his home to spend a few days with his family before starting west.

Three weeks later Lee received orders to take command of the Second Cavalry being assembled at Louisville, Kentucky, since Johnston was not ready for duty. A short time afterward he moved the regiment to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, to drill his troopers. His work was discouraging. “Ague, cholera and desertion” demoralized his men. “Yesterday at muster,” he wrote Mrs. Lee, “I found one of the late arrivals in a dirty, tattered shirt and pants, with a white hat and shoes, with other garments to match. I asked him why he did not put on clean clothes. He said he had none. I asked him if he could not wash and mend those. He said he had nothing else to put on. I then told him immediately after muster to go down to the river, wash his clothes, and sit on the bank and watch the passing steamboats till they dried, and then mend them. This morning at inspection he looked as proud as possible, stood in the position of a soldier with his little fingers on the seams of his pants, his beaver cocked back, and his toes sticking through his shoes, but his skin and solitary two garments clean. He grinned very happily at my compliments.”

Dull, dreary court-martial duty broke in on the Jefferson Barracks routine to prevent Lee’s journey southward with his regiment. Such irksome service sometimes made necessary hundreds of miles of riding, living in the open or in a tent, and tedious hours of listening to witnesses and the arguments of advocates. Lee had six such assignments, beginning in September, 1855. Johnston wrote that he, too, was “annoyed” by having to serve at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the September hearing against several officers. Next, Lee moved onto Fort Riley, farther west in the same state, to sit in judgment on an army surgeon who had deserted his post of duty during an epidemic. Then in January, 1856, he journeyed eastward to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania; and from there, to West Point. Fortunately, the last assignment brought Lee near Arlington and permitted him to visit with his family again before he started for Texas.

Meanwhile, in October, 1855, Johnston had marched to Texas at the head of the Second Cavalry. From Jefferson Barracks he and his men rode through the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, by way of Springfield and Neosho, into Indian Territory. Through this territory they traveled via Tahlequah, Fort Gibson, and Fort Washita to Preston on the Red River; from there they moved over the military road to Fort Mason, Texas, passing through Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper.

After they had left Preston for Belknap, they were overtaken by a norther that sent the mercury tumbling and the men shivering. Johnston wrote: “Norther! It makes me cold to write the word. I do not believe that any of the hyperborean explorers felt the cold more intensely than did my regiment. Noble fellows! Officers and men, they will always be found at their post, wherever duty calls them. Think of a northern blast, sixty miles an hour, unceasing, unrelenting (the mercury below zero, ice six inches thick), coming suddenly down on the highest tableland of Texas, 2,000 feet above the sea.” On December 23 the cavalry sought safety behind a “skirt of timber”; but on the following day, when it resumed its march, it was overtaken by hail, snow, and sleet, and both men and animals suffered intensely. A wagon train on its way from the Texas coast to meet them had lost 113 oxen.

Johnston left Major Hardee and two squadrons of troopers at Camp Cooper to assist the new Comanche agent, John R. Baylor; and he and the other companies moved on southward via Fort Chadbourne to Fort Mason, which they reached on January 14, 1856.

Lee had parted from Mary and the children at Arlington on February 12. When he registered at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio twenty-four days later, he had completed a difficult journey from Indianola while the roads were quagmires. When his wagon would hit a bog, he would leap to the ground and trudge through the mud, regardless of the depth, with breeches rolled up to his boot tops.

But as on the occasion of his first visit, Lee did not tarry long. He renewed acquaintance with Colonels Myers and Porter and with officers of lesser rank and was entertained at the Masons’ home. Mrs. Mason’s two daughters, Lee wrote Mary, were skillful and useful. They made their own dresses and baked “the most beautiful bread, rolls, biscuit and cake.”

Although the weather was unfavorable, a few days later Lee began his journey toward Fort Mason with his wagon train. Each afternoon at two o’clock he pitched camp to allow his animals to graze beside the road before nightfall; as a result he did not reach Fort Mason until March 25. There he visited in Colonel and Mrs. Johnston s home. “Mrs. Johnston is a pretty and sweet woman,” Lee informed his wife, “intelligent and well adapted to her position and life. She teaches her own children—two boys and a girl—and occupies herself in painting birds and flowers of the country.”

A few days later Lee resumed his journey to Camp Cooper, to which Johnston had assigned him. Before leaving, he nailed to the end-gate of one of his wagons a coop of seven hens, which furnished him eggs for the trip.

He found Camp Cooper a lonely border post, eighteen hundred miles from Arlington, Mary, and the children! When would he see them again? Did this constitute a detour in his military career? Lee must have turned these thoughts over in his mind during his first night at his new post. And no doubt he gave them more attention than the unusual sounds—the measured tread of the guard, the staccato bark of the coyotes, the hoot of an owl, or the wind sighing through the mesquite flat. He had begun an experience quite unlike any other of his varied career, one that would condition his body, mind, and soul for later years.

Return to Robert E. Lee in Texas