Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 2

Robert E. Lee in Texas

Lee’s “Texas Home”

Courtesy National Archives

THIS was Lee’s first field command—four companies of the Second Cavalry! He was on a raw frontier amid homespun men. His situation gave him anxious concern. Army officers on the border, far away from the amenities of civilization, were inclined to be a rough lot; drinking, gambling, and carousing were common, in the absence of other forms of social activities and entertainment. But Lee was known as the “gentleman soldier,” the “best-read man in the army,” a “puritan,” and he was as much at home in the drawing room as on the drill field. Could he, with this background, hold the respect of his brother officers, of his enlisted men? Certainly his splendid Mexican War record and his West Point superintendency were to his advantage.

He spent the morning following his arrival at Camp Cooper in conferring with Hardee and other officers of the post, most of whom he had known at Jefferson Barracks or elsewhere. Then Katumse came, greasy and filthy, undoubtedly embracing Lee, as was his custom. Agent John R. Baylor had probably sent him. Lee received him unceremoniously. Katumse assured him “volubly and tediously” that the Comanches were the white men’s friends and had accepted their customs, But Lee, “very sententious, retorted that he would regard him as such only as long as he deserved his friendship, and that he would meet him “as an enemy the first moment he failed to keep his word.” This warning was not what Katumse had expected to hear, and he went away perplexed.

The next day Lee returned Katumse’s call, and what he saw and heard must have given him, for the first time, a realistic conception of his new task. In the past his engineering problems had been concrete and physical and had required the application of well-known mathematical formulas and rules; but here must be solved human equations, involving intangible cultural factors, for which there were no known rules.

Katumse’s village was typically Comanche. Wolflike dogs, lean and snarling, snapped at the visitor’s heels; and the air was filled with a bedlam of noises. The village, comprising about one hundred lodges, whose irregular spacing was wholly unlike that of the tents in Lee’s army camp, sprawled for a great distance along the river. Only Katumse’s teepee, standing conspicuously apart and decorated with red and yellow pictographs, differed from the others. The whole scene bespoke primitiveness and poverty. That these were buffalo Indians was indicated by their skin lodges, meagerly furnished—a skin mat on the dirt floor, robes for bedding piled in one corner, parfleche bags, thongs, ropes, and other belongings. In front of each family lodge or in an adjacent, smaller lodge was a smoke-blackened meat pot suspended from a tripod over a fire, and near by thin strips of buffalo or deer meat hung from a scaffold, drying in the sun. Lee found a total lack of order—bones carelessly strewn, camp refuse, and swarms of flies.

Unkempt children, evidencing malnutrition, quite unlike the Virginia children Lee knew, peered from lodges or played near the village. Indian men and women, stolid and indifferent, were engaged with domestic tasks or lounged about, watching him curiously. His visit was short and unpromising. Katumse greeted him as before and expected Lee to observe a ceremonial rite of disrobing, but he removed only his necktie.

Katumse had six wives, some of whom were riding in and out of camp. They did not impress the visitor favorably. He wrote Mary that their paint and ornaments “rendered them more hideous than nature made them.” Indeed, he found the whole tribe “extremely uninteresting,” far more so than he had ever conceived, and returned to his camp with a feeling that the government’s experiment was ill advised.

On the morning of April 13 Lee assisted Major Hardee in checking out prior to his departure for Fort Mason on the following Monday. Many other duties awaited him, the most immediate of which was inspection. Before the morning was far gone, therefore, he stepped from his tent to meet the two squadrons of the Second Cavalry (12 commissioned officers and 226 enlisted men) drawn up on the small parade ground. For Lee this was an important occasion, and he was meticulously and correctly groomed. His soldiers would be as interested in the man who was to lead them through fair and foul weather and stress and strife, as he was in studying their qualities.

It is reasonable to suppose that he did not disappoint them, for he was a man of striking military bearing. He was five feet, eleven inches tall and weighed 175 pounds. His brown eyes, set in a broadly rounded face, with prominent brows and wide temples, normally beamed with gentleness and benevolence. He had black hair streaked with gray, and he was clean shaven except for a black mustache which covered his thin upper lip and extended half an inch beyond the corners of his mouth. He had fine teeth, vision, and hearing, and a voice of lower middle register, rich and resonant. His massive torso rose from narrow hips; his hands were large, but his feet were unusually small; and his legs were flat—well suited for a cavalryman. His hair was parted low on the right side and fluffed above the right ear, and from the part it swept to the left across his forehead and turned up, curling above his left ear.

This morning’s inspection was more than routine, and Lee went about it carefully and appraisingly. As he looked at the bronzed, border-seasoned men before him, he was pleased. Amidst a primitive wildness, here was military pageantry unsurpassed, and he must have gazed on it pridefully. Other than their shoes, his troopers’ attire was as showy as the dragoons’, the only difference being trimmings of yellow instead of orange. Even the cavalry horses, no one of which had cost less than $150, fitted into this colorful setting. Those ridden by troopers of Company A were grays; those of E, sorrels; those of F, bays; and those of K, roans—all well curried and in good fettle.

Lee next inspected his men and their equipment. His four company captains were all distinguished soldiers. Three—Earl Van Dorn, George Stoneman, and Charles J. Whiting—were West Pointers. Van Dorn had been cited for valor in four Mexican War battles and had been secretary of the Louisiana Pascagoula Military Academy when he was called to the Second Cavalry. Whiting had served in the Florida Seminole War and as an assistant engineer on the American-Mexican boundary survey of 1849. Stoneman was also a Mexican War veteran, having marched with the Mormon Battalion to California and later having acted as aide-de-camp to Wool. Theodore O’Hara had not attended West Point, but he was a ripe scholar, a modest gentleman, a Mexican War veteran, and author of “The Bivouac of the Dead” and other poems. Assisting each of these were competent junior officers.

The enlisted personnel came from several states and sections of the country, some even from Mexican battle fields. For the most part, those of Company A were recruited in Alabama (“Alabama Grays”); those of Company E, in Missouri; of Company F, in Kentucky; and of Company K, in Ohio. Already they had become acquainted with routine duties—guarding supply and emigrant trains and mail coaches and scouting. Each man was furnished a brass-mounted Campbell saddle with wooden stirrups, or Grimbsby equipment; a spring, movable stock, or Perry carbine; a Colt navy revolver and dragoon saber, carried by saber belt and carbine sling; a gutta-percha cartridge box; and a cape or talma, with loose sleeves extending to the knees. He wore pale blue trousers, a close-fitting dark blue jacket trimmed with yellow braid, a silken sash, a black hat with looped “eagle at the right side” with trailing ostrich plumes on the left. On his shoulders he had brass scales to turn saber strokes of the enemy. He wore no boots or gauntlets.

Lee must have been pleased by his inspection. And after he had completed it, he could then turn with confidence to other daily tasks.

Before joining with other border commanders in patrol work, Lee set to work to study the defense system of Texas. The immense task of the Second Cavalry in helping to defend the frontier appalled him. The state had an area of 237,000 square miles, or about 150,000,000 acres. Across it, from the Red River to the Rio Grande, stretched an irregular border line of settlements, with arms of occupation here and there reaching up fertile river valleys still farther west. Well in front of the border stood isolated army posts, like lonely sentinels. The map showed why it was possible for Comanche and Kiowa marauders to slip past cavalry patrols undetected. At points, the distance from one post to another was two hundred miles; and numerous hills, canyons, waterless badlands, and dense forests afforded the Indians many approaches.

Lee found three systems of Texas forts. The federal government had established the first system to keep its annexation promise to Texas. These posts—Mason, Croghan, Graham, Worth, and Gates—stood now well among the westernmost settlements, so rapid had been the occupation of the state’s domain. But west of these, and beyond the frontier, were newer posts—Belknap, Camp Cooper, Phantom Hill, Chadbourne, Camp Colorado, and McKavett. Farther south, to guard the Rio Grande frontier from Brownsville to El Paso, were Forts Brown, Ringgold Barracks, McIntosh, Davis, and others.

It was apparent now why he, the regiment’s second-ranking officer, had been sent to Camp Cooper. Cavalry units here not only shared in reconnaissances and patrol work but also saw that the government’s “humanizing” experiment with the wild Comanches was given a fair trial. No doubt General Scott had ordered this.

At Camp Cooper, Lee must so lose himself in his work that his sense of loneliness would be smothered. His deep love for his family, his longing for Virginia and army friends, and his great interest in national affairs, all caused him to feel his border isolation most keenly. But at least he could be with this family in spirit and could glean from the Alexandria Gazette the trend of state and national events. He would hide occasional heartache and loneliness in letter writing.

Lee’s task was understandable to him only in terms of the federal government’s attempts to solve the long-standing Comanche raiding problem, including Captain R. B. Marcy’s and Supervising Agent R. S. Neighbors’s work in locating the Comanche reservation on the Clear Fork.

He could well appreciate why Comanche hostility had risen in proportion to the westward advance of the settlements, for that advance had been at Indian expense. Surveyors had claimed the Comanches’ choicest hunting grounds for future homesites, and white hunters had killed their game. Lee learned, too, why the Comanches were gravely alarmed because of the disappearance of wild game: their families were entirely dependent on the buffalo, elk, and deer.

For example, as early as 1852, Horace Capron had come to Katumse’s and Sanaco’s Penateka (Southern Comanche) village near Camp Johnson on the Concho River and had found the Indians starving. The chiefs had complained to him bitterly. “What encouragement have we,” one had asked, “to attempt the cultivation of the soil, or raising of cattle, so long as we have no permanent home? In every attempt we have ever made to raise crops, we have been driven from them by the encroachment of the white man before they could mature.

“Over this vast country, where for centuries our ancestors roamed in undisputed possession, free and happy, what have we left? The game, our main dependence is killed and driven off, and we are forced into the most sterile and barren portions of it to starve. We see nothing but extermination left for us, and we await the result with stolid indifference. Give us a country we can call our own, where we may bury our people in quiet.”

Undoubtedly this had a touching appeal to the Texans of that time, as it had later for Lee. The Indians had been the victims of the white man’s land hunger. But the federal government could not step in to help the Indians, for upon entering the Union in 1845 Texas had reserved all its public land. More than once Indian officials had asked the Texans to relieve the federal government’s embarrassment by appropriating land for reservations; and at last on February 6, 1854, the state legislature had set aside for this purpose twelve leagues, to be located in not more than three tracts.

When Marcy and Neighbors, preparing to survey the reservation sites, procured a map from the Texas Land Office, they were surprised to find that much of the region they had expected to explore had already been claimed by land companies and individuals.

This was discouraging, but they proceeded with their work. They examined the sterile badlands and waterless region of the upper Colorado, Brazos, and Wichita rivers but found no sites suitable for their purpose. Next they turned to the valley of the Clear Fork, where finally they decided upon a tract of four Spanish leagues (17,712 acres), in the Camp Cooper country, for the Comanches. Then, near the junction of the Clear Fork and the Brazos, below Fort Belknap, they established another tract for the small bands of Caddoes, Anadarkos, Wacos, Tawakonies, and Tonkawas.

W. B. Parker, who accompanied Marcy and Neighbors on their journey, wrote a graphic narrative of their experiences in his Unexplored Texas, published about the time Lee came to Texas. He stated that on August 10, 1854, while the two dispirited men were returning to Fort Belknap, they were overtaken on the Clear Fork by Katumse, the Penateka chief, and two of his six wives.

Katumse was every inch an Indian leader, about fifty years old, six feet in height, with a dark red-bronze complexion. His striking physique, however, was offset by his ludicrous attire. He wore corduroy leggings and buck-skin moccasins, an old, torn. greasy, checkered-cotton coat, and a “six-penny straw hat,” while his horse’s bridle “was ornamented with perhaps fifty dollars worth of silver.”

Parker described his wives as being hardly more than immature girls, one about eighteen and the other sixteen years old. The younger was chubby and dark; the older was lean, tall, and as fair as a quadroon. Their attire also bore the marks of long use. Both were dressed in dark calico shirts, with leggings and moccasins in one piece, like a boot. Their garments were dirty and common, and their heads were bare; their hair was short, thick, and uncombed. Parker thought that the younger was Katumse’s favorite, for she had about her waist a wide belt studded with silver brooches, very heavy, showy, and costly.

Marcy entertained his red visitors at dinner. While they were eating, Sanaco’s two subchiefs rode into camp, wearing umbrellas over their heads, much to the merriment of Marcy’s party. The two Indians glared at the smirking Katumse and turned his self-satisfaction into furious anger when they denounced him to Marcy as a liar and scoundrel, with no authority to speak for the Penatekas. Only Sanaco had this right, they said. To prove this statement, they departed in search of him; and a few hours later they brought him in.

This rivalry for leadership of the tribe was of long standing. On August 21, 1853, Sanaco had addressed a lugubrious appeal to T. Howard and “to whom it may concern,” asking for the censure of Katumse. He charged that his rival had urged the “commanding officer on the San Saba” to round up Sanaco and his band, and, if he would not mend his ways, to “fight me and kill me off.”

While the subchiefs were away in search of Sanaco, at sundown Katumse visited Marcy’s tent, holding in his hand a bundle of short stalks of grass. Seating himself before his host in dignified silence, he smoked his pipe for a few moments. Then he handed the stalks of grass, one by one, to Marcy, naming each as a chief or war captain of the Penatekas, and giving each one’s attitude toward the whites. “After remarking upon four of high standing and three of mediocrity,” Parker wrote, “he bundled the balance, eight in number, in a bundle, and handed them together, with a grunt and remark, ‘No count!’” He affirmed solemnly that he alone could speak for the Penatekas and that he would accept in the name of his band whatever the Great Father in Washington had to offer.

The following morning Marcy’s camp was pitched on the future site of Camp Cooper, near a spring and in a valley shaded by great elm and pecan trees, under which the Delaware scouts erected their lodges. Marcy arranged his wagons in a large semicircle, frontier fashion. Presently Sanaco led other bands to the valley, so that finally several hundred Indians had camped along the river.

Here, on August 20, Marcy opened his grand council with the Comanche chiefs and warriors. He told them that the Great Father at Washington had sent him to select a reservation for his red children, that they might have homes and learn to cultivate the soil and no longer pursue nomadic ways; for the buffalo and other game were fast disappearing, and shortly they and their people must resort to some means other than the chase for a living. Next, he warned the Indians bluntly that they must cease their depredations; if they did not, they would be hunted down and destroyed. The Great Father would not let them starve; he would send them agricultural implements and seeds and men to teach them how to farm; and he would give them food and clothing until they had grown their first crops. Marcy assured them that he knew of other Indians who had taken his advice and who now had plenty, If they did so, too, they would soon be free from want.

At this point in his narrative Parker had interwoven comedy with pathos. Katumse sat attentively as Marcy spoke, expecting to be called upon for a response. But without invitation Sanaco arose, ignoring the glowering displeasure of his rival.

“What I am about to say,” he began, “will be straight-forward and the truth, and the sentiment of all my people. We remember what our former chief, Mo-ko-cho-pe, told us before he died, and we endeavor to carry out his wishes after he is gone. He visited our Great Father in Washington and brought us a talk from him. He told us to take the advice and example of the whites, and it would make us happy and benefit us.

“We are glad to hear the talk which has been sent us at this time; it makes our hearts warm, and we feel happy in knowing that our Great Father remembers his poor red children on the prairies.

We accept this talk, and will endeavor to accede to all our Great Father requires of us.” He then took his seat while his subchiefs nodded approval.

Katumse, frowning darkly, stalked away in silence when Marcy did not ask him to speak, too. But he was not too angry to rejoin his fellows a few moments later and accept some of the gifts which Marcy distributed. Eagerly men, women, and children crowded near. Printed cottons, handkerchiefs, blankets, knives, strouding for leggings, armlets of silver, and long wampum beads—all these were fabulous gifts beyond their wildest dreams. Then the council closed with another smoke, and Marcy invited the chiefs to dine with him.

At noon, under the great trees, the table was spread, and about it sat the expectant chiefs, who eyed hungrily the generous platters of bread, meat, and other good things until they were served. Yet they behaved “with great decorum,” thought Parker, “using knives and forks, but wild Indian-like, never stopping until everything edible was consumed.” Moreover, they returned for the next meal, and the next, until Marcy hinted broadly to them that his hospitality was exhausted.

Even then Katumse lingered, apparently still believing that Marcy would favor him over the other chiefs. But not so. Several hours later he came to the mess tent and asked the sergeant for corn and meat, only to be met by a rebuff. Then he and his wives mounted their horses and rode away, never once turning their heads to the right or the left or thanking their generous host for his hospitality.

While the chiefs were dining at Marcy’s mess, beeves were slaughtered for the other Indians present. Marcy had also bought coffee, sugar, and corn for them at a near-by ranch. As soon as the beeves were killed, the Indian women began preparing them for immediate and future use. They consumed every extra edible part. Even the entrails, after they were slightly heated over the fire, were devoured while they were reeking with excrement.

They boned the flesh and then carved it into long slices, throwing them over poles to dry in the sun. “The caul, suet, and other inside fat, were dried whole, and the cannon hones and hoofs were first scorched before the fire and then hung up in the sun.”

Those portions of meat intended for immediate consumption they placed upon a rude scaffold over a slow fire. This seared the meat, without depriving it of its juices, and prevented decomposition.

While the women were thus engaged, the warriors spent the day in gambling, in painting themselves and lounging about, or in wandering listlessly from lodge to lodge, expressing either surprise or pleasure by a grunt or a grin. They combed their hair in the middle, plaiting it in long queues and accentuating the divide across the head by a streak of yellow, white, or red clay. “A fat, chubby faced warrior,” humorously wrote Parker, “painted a facsimile of a saw around his jaws in black, his cheeks red, his eye-lids white, and his forehead and divide of his hair yellow, smearing his body also with yellow.” Another painted his face red, his eyelids white, and streaked his face with black, like a ribbed-nose babboon.

Katumse and Sanaco could not forget Marcy’s food and gifts. He had promised other good things if they would accept Neighbors’s reservation and raise corn, beans, and squash, like the Wichitas. Why should they not do this, they had asked themselves. Game had been driven away from its usual haunts and was increasingly hard to find. Every lodge was impoverished because of this scarcity—no skins for teepee covering and clothing and no food. If they returned to the Clear Fork, at least they would have temporary relief for their women and children. Hardly had the first frost of fall whitened the grass about their High Plains lodges before they broke camp, band after band, and started eastward.

When Neighbors rode up from San Antonio to the Clear Fork in November, 1854, he was surprised to find about 1,000 Penatekas—Katumse’s, Sanaco’s, and Buffalo Hump’s—camped along the river above Fort Belknap. And hardly had he arrived before the chiefs came to him for a “talk.” They urged him to hasten reservation arrangements, for their women and children needed food and a safe place to camp. Neighbors reassured them, stating that soon he would give them supplies and allow them to occupy the site Marcy and he had surveyed.

But presently the reservation plan met with near disaster. During the preceding spring, while Marcy was yet in the Indian Territory, he had employed a Choctaw teamster, who joined the survey party in order to have the privilege of trading with the Indians. He had loaded his wagon with tobacco, knives, beads, calico, and wampum; but he found the Indians too poor for profitable trading. He learned, however, that other traders who had met with failure had found a way out. When the Comanches could offer nothing in exchange for their goods, they would wait until the Indians could procure horses and other plunder by raiding the border settlements. While this practice had kept the settlements in a ferment of excitement, nevertheless the stolen horses had enabled the Comanches to deal with the traders. In fact, while Neighbors was at Fort Belknap, angry settlers came to ask Major E. Steen, post commandant, to aid them in recovering some stolen horses. When Katumse and Sanaco learned of their mission, they volunteered to accompany Steen to Comanche villages between Fort Belknap and Fort Chadbourne on the Concho to assist in recovering the lost animals.

By the time that Teen and the two chiefs had arrived near Fort Chadbourne, however, one of Sanaco’s warriors overtook them, bringing a German trader’s warning to Sanaco. He was urged not to eat, sleep, or rest until he had broken camp and had taken his people out of danger of white soldiers, who were moving northward to destroy them. Katumse discredited the report, but Sanaco hastened back to his village and sent runners with the alarming news to other near-by bands, and within a day’s time nearly all of them had scattered over the plains, going as far west as New Mexico and as far north as the Arkansas. Only 180 of Katumse’s followers had remained to begin the reservation experiment.

Neighbors and Acting Agent Hill censured Washington army officials for ordering out the expedition that had caused the Indians so much alarm. Captain P. Calhoun had been sent out from Fort Chadbourne with a body of cavalry to hunt down raiding bands of Tanima and Nakoni Comanches, and was told to attack any band found near the border.[note 1] Calhoun’s blunder had sadly imperiled the government’s reservation program. “Half a million dollars,” Hill wrote on February 11, 1855, “will not produce the same quiet and calm condition of the Indian mind that existed on this frontier forty days ago.”

But, unfortunately, censure could not repair the damage done. Neither Buffalo Hump nor Sanaco would ever again risk bringing their bands to Camp Cooper. In the end this was fatal. With only a part of the Penatekas on the reservation, the government’s policy could not succeed. Neighbors and his agents could not keep the wild Indians from using the reservation as a base for their raids on the border; nor could they restrain Katumse’s warriors from occasionally joining their wild kinsmen.

John R. Baylor of Lagrange, Texas, was the first regular agent of Katumse’s Comanches. Lee learned that when Baylor had first come to the Clear Fork to establish the reservation, he found that the initial 180 Indians had been increased to 277, all “wild, restless, and discontented,” Baylor had employed conciliation, for he had only a small detachment of infantry to protect the agency, and with this small force he could not compel the Indians to remain on the reservation. Well mounted, they entered and left the reservation at will. He convinced Katumse, however, that he had all to gain and nothing to lose by remaining. Later, in January, 1856, with the arrival of the Second Cavalry, he could speak with more authority, and order began to appear out of chaos.

A few days later, Baylor called the Indians into council. He told them that the season was right to start farming. Already he had employed a farmer and a day laborer, and they had plowed 100 acres of land, which were now ready for planting. Pleased, Katumse and his warriors set to work with a will, planting corn, melons, beans, peas, and pumpkins.

When Katumse’s prairie kinsmen learned of this, they also came in from time to time, so that when Lee arrived at Camp Cooper in April, 577 Indians had camped along the Clear Fork. Lee also caught the spirit and planted a garden to corn, cabbage, and other vegetables.

This was the state of the Texas reservation experiment that lee found. At last the wandering Indians had been assigned homes under the watch of troops at Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper. And here at the latter post Lee was to serve as commandant.

Drought was another discouraging factor with which Lee and Katumse’s people had to deal. The Indians should have read the Great Spirit’s message written across the sky; but if they did, they said nothing about it. Lee, the newcomer, knew little about Texas weather. Day after day dust filled the air and norther followed strong southwestern winds. The wind was hot and parched the skin, leaves on the trees drooped, and spring clouds melted as though they were of snow. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed along the Clear Fork, but little rain fell. Black night clouds of April and May slipped around to the west or east, and morning dawned on dry land.

It was easy to convince Indians who had accepted the reservation only halfheartedly that the Great Spirit was angry. Day after day the sky was red with sand. Then came more positive proof. One morning shortly after their corn had put forth its tender shoots, the northern sky was darkened, but it was not a norther—it was grasshoppers! And when these pests had finally moved on, they left a bare field. This was too much. The superstitious Indians abandoned all efforts to farm, and some joined the Yamparikas (Northern Comanches) on a buffalo hunt along the Arkansas. However, Katumse persuaded most of his people to remain. Even if their crops had failed, he reasoned, the great Father in Washington would provide food and clothing for them.

Fortunately Lee did not witness the ravages of the drought on his garden. While his vegetables were yet green, he had led his cavalry in a patrol beyond the frontier.


1 This is only one of many similar instances where Indian agents and border army officers worked at cross-purposes.

Return to Robert E. Lee in Texas