Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 3

Robert E. Lee in Texas

III
Reconnaissance


[That portion of TEXAS through which Robert E. Lee journeyed in 1856–1861]


Military Plaza, San Antonio, about 1857
From a contemporary engraving

DROUGHT appeared along the Clear Fork before May was far spent. Rain clouds piled up against the eastern sky like buttered popcorn but kept at a distance. Dry norther followed hot southwester. Often in the morning the sky was blue and smiling; but at midday, brassy and frowning. The water at the ford was a mere trickle; and even the branches of the widespread pecan and elm waved disconsolately in the wind.

Choking dust, blistering heat, spiders, ants, flies, loneliness, and deprivation—all these made Lee’s early days at Camp Cooper hard to bear. Frustration weighed heavily on his sensitive soul. Good manners, broad learning, and military skill must have seemed of little use in a place like this. True, he could enjoy an occasional visit with an officer and his family, at luncheon, at dinner, or at a party; but these occasions afforded but temporary diversions. Always he thought anxiously about the welfare of Mary and his children. He wanted both his sons and his daughters to have the best of educational advantages, for which his income was hardly adequate.

At border posts only common necessities could be had. In March, just before leaving San Antonio for Fort Mason, he had instructed Lieutenant Charles Radziminski, his young Polish subaltern, to procure supplies which they would need on their long journey and after they had arrived at Camp Cooper. He had explained that his own needs were simple—“a boiled ham, hard bread, a bottle of molasses, and one of extract of coffee.” However, he also added other things—a canvas tent, tables, camp chairs, crockery, and cooking utensils. He found that white crockery cost as much in San Antonio as French chinaware in Baltimore, but he purchased one dozen plates, four dishes, two vegetable plates, six cups and saucers, and tea and sugar pots. He did this, he explained, because he got “very tired of tin, when used constantly.” He also employed a French handy man and cook, but later found him better at caring for horses than at preparing food.

A balanced diet was out of the question at Camp Cooper, but the invigorating climate made the plainest food almost desirable, The blue morning dawns, the crisp air, the pleasant smell of a mesquite fire and simmering coffee not only brought serenity to Lee’s soul but whetted his appetite. Under such circumstances the cook’s breakfast was satisfying. Dutch oven-cooked biscuits, steak, occasionally eggs, molasses or stewed peaches, and apples for breakfast, and boiled beef, potatoes, beans, canned fruit, and bread for luncheon, followed by about the same food for dinner, were repeated day after day. Occasionally butter, a chicken, and milk were bought at a near-by ranch to add variety, or fish caught from the river, but still Lee no doubt thought often of Virginia’s “fleshpots.”

But how could he expect other than simple fare? Transportation difficulties deprived the border soldier of luxuries. More than seven hundred government trains, each of five, ten, or twenty wagons, left San Antonio for the frontier posts to only ninety-two contract wagons—all laden with quartermaster’s stores, medical supplies, ordnance, and even forage for horses and mules, since there was hardly a fort less than fifty miles beyond the settlements. Supplies had to be freighted by slow stages and over rough roads and trails. No wonder contractors charged $4.50 per one hundred pounds for freight hauled from Indianola to Camp Cooper!

Yet there was a degree of domesticity about Lee’s camp. Not only was his garden worked industriously, but he built a house for his hens. At night, while on the road from Fort Mason to Camp Cooper, he had allowed them to roost on top of his wagons, and now they had become quite domesticated. He wrote his daughter Mildred on April 28 how he had built their Camp Cooper home. “I planted four posts in the ground,” he explained, “and bored holes in each three feet from the ground in which I inserted poles for the floor and around which were woven the branches that formed it.” This was done to protect the hens from the snakes. Next he converted the coop into attractive nests, filling them with grass. In a letter written to Mrs. Lee about this same time he said, “This morning I found an egg at my tent door.” And the hen was so tame that she hopped on his writing table while he was at work and upset his ink. But to Mildred he grieved that “My rattlesnake, my only pet, is dead. He grew sick and would not eat his frogs and died one night.”

Rattlesnakes were everywhere as the warm spring days came. They crawled from crags and crannies of near-by cliffs down into the valley to dispute with the prairie dogs their home-ownership. And usually the complaisant rodents vacated to build other homes, going on the theory, no doubt, that two “is a crowd.”

While Lee was occupied at routine tasks, on May 27 he received Special Order No. 64 from headquarters at San Antonio, directing him to lead an expedition against hostile Indians. Sanaco’s Penatekas had recently joined the Tanimas and Naconies to plunder the border settlements, and border protests had poured into the office of Brigadier General Persifor Smith, the department commander. Smith ordered Lee to take two companies of the Second Cavalry from Fort Mason and two from Camp Cooper, totaling not more than 160 men, and to rendezvous them at or near Fort Chadbourne, one hundred miles distant He was to consult with Special Agent Neighbors concerning where the hostile hands would likely be found and about furnishing him with Indian trailers from the Brazos Agency. There was to be no misunderstanding on this point, for it was of the utmost importance that the plans and purposes of the War and Interior Departments of the federal government coincide.

Camp Cooper was all agog. Both officers and men were eager to go, for this kind of service made life at a border post tolerable. Still, only two companies of cavalry could make the reconnaissance. The other two must remain as the garrison, to be assisted by a third company from Fort Chadbourne until Lee returned. Lee presently ended speculation by choosing the first squadron, consisting of Van Dorn’s and O’Hara’s companies.

Lively preparations now followed. Wagons were filled with supplies for the men and corn and oats for the horses. The best horses were chosen, saddles and equipment inspected, and guns cleaned and oiled. Lee was as eager to be off as his men were; but before leaving, he rode down to the Comanche Agency to confer with Neighbors, who received him courteously. The Agent told him where likely Indian camp sites could be found and how best to reach them. He also readily agreed for the celebrated Jim Shaw and his Delaware trailers to aid in the reconnaissance. No better guides were available. After the conference Lee rode back to Camp Cooper with deep respect for Neighbors, for he not only knew well the habits and problems of both the wild and the sedentary Indians, but was alert and progressive.

Lee knew that much importance was attached to this reconnaissance. Colonel Johnston had written Adjutant General Cooper: “I consider the movement of the Second Cavalry against the Indians absolutely necessary to the establishment of permanent security on the frontier.” But both Johnston and the department commander had forgotten, if they ever knew, that at this time of the year the Southern Comanches generally joined their northern kinsmen on buffalo hunts in the Arkansas River country. Nevertheless, a band often lingered behind to steal horses, plunder from the settlers, and engage in illicit trade with the New Mexican Comancheros. And after all, these were the worst offenders.

Shortly after dawn Lee marched away with the first squadron of his command, the members of which were much envied by those left behind. With him were Jim Shaw and his Delawares. They traveled over the military road toward the southwest, over rolling hills, through mesquite valleys, across dry creeks and ravines, past the smut-scarred chimneys of old Phantom Hill, which had been abandoned as a military post and burned two years previously. From Phantom Hill the course was over rugged, broken hills and across a wide mesquite flat skirting low-lying mountains thirty-five or forty miles distant. Castle Peak, standing as a lone vidette guarding Mountain Pass, could be seen thirty miles away, and it had served to mark the meandering road.

Dancing heat along the horizon did not dampen the ardor of Lee’s men. Their column was imposing. First came Lee with Jim Shaw and the scouts; then followed the two companies of cavalry, with shining carbines and accoutrements; and finally, the heavily laden wagon train brought up the rear, with some of the teamsters riding and others walking.

Mountain Pass, about forty-five miles southwest of Phantom Hill, was a conspicuous landmark. The mountain rimming the plain here rose precipitously more than 250 feet and was sliced through by this deep gap. On either side its walls were covered with stunted bushes and boulders. In its trough ran a small brook fed by a spring, near which two years later a station was to be built on the overland stage road to California. Here Lee stopped and rested his command. Then he mounted to the tableland beyond the gap and continued his march over broken country to Fort Chadbourne, a short distance north of present-day Bronte, in Coke County.

The two companies of Fort Mason troopers under Captains Edmund K. Smith and William R. Bradfute had already arrived at Fort Chadbourne when Lee’s column came in sight on June 17. A freight wagon laden with ammunition, bound for Camp Cooper, was also there; and from it, Lee supplied his men. About the post excitement and speculation were rife. Far to the south and west could be seen dense columns of smoke. Obviously, soldiers had not fired the prairies! Had suspicious Indians sent their warning signals to other bands of the coming of soldiers? Who else could have made them? If watchful Indians had set them off, Lee was told, the cavalry could be handicapped.

To prevent the news of his coming from spreading among those wild bands who might be camping west of Chadbourne, Lee hastily pushed out toward the Colorado River on the following morning. Twenty-five or thirty miles from the post his scouts brought him word that all the prairie south of the Colorado River was afire. Flames swept the dry grass with the speed of the wind, leaving the prairies black.

The cavalry struck the red-clay breaks of the Colorado on the fourth day out from Fort Chadbourne, and after crossing the river, moved on up its south bank for about twenty miles. The Delawares found several camp sites and trails, evidently made the previous spring by parties of Yamparikas (Northern Comanches) on their way southward to raid Mexican settlements. But there were no signs of recent occupation.

From the Colorado Lee’s route turned northwestward, winding over hills and mesquite valleys until a high table land was reached, across which ran Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s wagon road of 1849. Back over this the troopers marched in a northeasterly direction. During better seasons these prairies were covered with grass and flowers, and the whir of wings and the call of quail, plover, curlew, and prairie chicken could be heard; but now, all life stood in silence while Nature brought forth her still-born child, Drought. The day was hot, and mirages danced tantalizingly before the men, like limpid pools of fine water. But they did not complain. Presently they struck the head of one of the tributaries of the Clear Fork and explored the region for an Indian camp but found none.

Lee now rode northward with his men, passing west of present-day Sweetwater, Roby, and Rotan. Searing heat continued to plague the men and horses. They found even the large creeks dry. Stagnant pools of briny or bitter water added to their misery, and their thirst went unquenched. Scouts sought out springs they had known in other seasons, but they, too, were dry. Since the troopers had to drink whatever mater they found, many of them were stricken with diarrhea and dysentery. As the heat continued to climb above the hundred-degree mark, Lee’s officers and men lost enthusiasm for their work. At last, on June 28, they crossed the Double Mountain Fork and made camp at the southern base of the two weather-beaten peaks, in present-day Stonewall County.

What Lee saw of the Double Mountains posed a vexing question. Undoubtedly in the past Indians had frequently camped and hunted through this country. But why would they frequent it at any time? As far as he could see to the east, there was a labyrinth of eroded hills, gulleys, and bare clay floors, except that here and there prickly pear, stunted mesquite, and cedar grew precariously. Some hills were capped by strata of sandstone, giving them the appearance of low-roofed houses. Briny pools, occasionally covered with green scum, were all the water that was left in the largest tributaries of the Double Mountain Fork; and the river itself was hardly more than a rivulet, its water brackish and muddy.

Game had abandoned the country, although old deer trails were everywhere. Only at night was there any evidence of life. As the men lay on their pallets, the coyote’s howl, the owl’s hoot, or the lobo’s call to its mate broke the stillness.

But undoubtedly Indian videttes had frequently watched from the top of Double Mountains. Trails and camp sites, numerous but old, were all about. What Lee did not know was that in seasonable springs the region smiled with flowers, green grass, and pulsating life—a veritable Indian paradise. He only knew that it was now barren, that the grass was brown and crisp, and that the baked earth radiated heat so that his nights were far spent before southern breezes brought cool rest.

Lee spent three nights in his Double Mountains camp. For two days his troopers explored thoroughly the breaks, draws, and canyons, for twenty or thirty miles north, south, and west of the twin peaks. At the end of this time, he was forced to divide his command. Daily many of his troopers had weakened because of illness, and his horses had suffered from hard service and the terrific heat. Lee now ordered these sick men to mount the feebler horses and to conduct the wagon train south to the Clear Fork. And while they were moving southward, Captain Earl Van Dorn was to march at the head of the second squadron up the Double Mountain Fork to investigate a column of smoke seen rising in the distance. Scouts had come to Lee with the exciting news that they had discovered a fresh trail of a small Indian band. Lee had reasoned that if a small band were in the vicinity, then a larger one might be near; therefore, he was sending Van Dorn to investigate.

With the first squadron Lee turned down the river until he came to what he called its “north branch”; but he found no Indians, Then, with ten men from each company, he traveled northward, over a high plateau, until he came to the Little Wichita, following approximately the common boundary of Dickens and King counties. But again he met with disappointment—no Indians were found. At least he did find fresh water for the first time, and he and his men quenched their thirst and filled their canteens before they retraced their steps to the Double Mountains, where they spent their third night. On the succeeding morning they followed the tracks of the wagon train back to the Clear Fork.

Here on the Clear Fork, somewhere east of present-day Roby, Lee spent the Fourth of July. Some of his men were sick and others were tired, forlorn, and dispirited, for they had covered many fruitless miles. Prospects of adventure and new explorations had sent them forth; but they had found instead burning heat, a drought-stricken wilderness, fatigue, and illness. Later, in a letter to his wife, Lee expressed his feelings, as he could not do to his men. He said that he had spent the Fourth of July, after a march of thirty miles, on one of the branches of the Brazos, under his blanket, elevated on four sticks driven in the ground, as a sunshade. The sun was fiery hot, the atmosphere like the blast from a hot-air furnace, and the water salt. “Still,” he concluded, “my feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hopes for her advancement as unabated as if felt under more propitious circumstances.”

Meanwhile, on June 29, Van Dorn moved out from his Double Mountains camp as Lee had instructed. Throughout the day his column marched westward along the river in the general direction from which the column of smoke had been seen that morning, while O’Hara and his men followed along a parallel line about eight or ten miles farther back. Then at noon and again at sundown the smoke reappeared to the troopers’ left. Van Dorn consulted with Jim Shaw, who was of the opinion that it was probably made by one band of Indians signaling to another. Since it was now sundown, Van Dorn decided to make camp and wait for the other two columns before attacking the Indians. With only the flickering campfire to give him light, he hastily penciled a message to O’Hara, stating his position. Then he sent out a Delaware scout with the letter; but the scout returned presently, saying that he had been unable to find the other men. Van Dorn then reported to Lee that the scout had failed because of stupidity or unwillingness to exert himself.

When daylight came, neither Lee nor O’Hara had arrived, and Van Dorn decided to proceed alone, screening his movements by following ravines and draws toward the signal smoke of the previous evening. By doing this, he presently came directly upon the camp of three Comanche warriors and a woman. Some of Van Dorn’s men charged the camp, firing as they advanced, while others dashed between the Indians and their horses. Two of the warriors were killed, but a third succeeded in reaching his horse and rushing away. He was hotly pursued by Corporal Marshall, firing as he went. The fleeing Indian followed down a canyon, and when Marshall overhauled him, he leaped to the ground, ran through a cedar-covered area, and escaped.

Back at the camp, Van Dorn captured the woman, twelve horses, the Indian saddles, and supplies. O’Hara and his company, evidently hearing the firing, arrived on the scene just as the affray ended. Then O’Hara and Van Dorn sent out small parties to reconnoiter the country for miles about the camp, but they presently returned to report that no other Indians had been found. The reunited troopers therefore retraced their steps to the Double Mountains, picked up the trail made by the wagon train, and followed it southward to the Clear Fork.

On the way to the Clear Fork the Indian woman told Van Dorn an interesting story. She first informed him that a fourth warrior had been out hunting at the time of the attack on the camp and had escaped. She stated also that they belonged to a Yamparika band residing north of the Arkansas; that four months earlier her party, including twelve warriors and herself, had gone to Mexico on a plundering expedition. in which they had been successful. On their way back they had been attacked north of the Rio Grande by white men and their booty taken; she with the four surviving warriors had escaped with nothing but the horses they rode. After traveling several days northward, they had stopped so that the warriors could raid the Texas settlements. Finally the men had returned with eight additional horses and some plunder. Then they had resumed their journey until they had come to the Big Springs of the Colorado, where they had stolen some cattle from a California train. These they had killed at their Double Mountain Fork camp, where they had stopped to rest, to eat a part of their beef, and to jerk enough of it for their journey back to the Arkansas, when Van Dorn attacked them.

When Van Dorn and O’Hara arrived at the Clear Fork, Lee was greatly chagrined to learn that he had missed the affray. While he was floundering through the Little Wichita breaks, Van Dorn had met and destroyed the only hostile Indian band the four companies were to find. Still, this small success served to renew his and the troopers’ spirits.

He was particularly interested to learn that this Yamparika band had stopped at the Big Springs on their return from Mexico. While there several days past, his scouts had found well-beaten trails leading toward Mexico, apparently frequently traveled by raiding bands. If this were true, other bands might he there now. He therefore decided to return at once, even though some of his men were still sick and many of his horses were in poor condition. To alleviate the situation, he sent lieutenant Walter H. Jenifer and twenty-seven troopers, including those sick men able to ride, on his feebler horses, as an escort for the wagon train, which was to move down the river via Chadbourne to the Concho.

With the remaining troopers Lee rode immediately to the Big Springs, but he found no fresh Indian trails. He now directed Van Dorn to march south to the headwaters of the Concho and to follow down its right hank to the Chadbourne-Mason road-crossing. Captain O’Hara was directed to move along the left bank. Lee himself was to go with Smith’s company down the right bank of the Colorado, at the same time sending Bradfute and his company along the left bank. Each company was to keep in touch with the other and to report any suspicious signs of Indians.

Jenifer moved first with his wagon train early on the morning of July 9, Van Dorn and O’Hara that evening, and Lee with Smith and Bradfute the next morning. Seven days later they reunited at the Concho crossing without having seen any fresh signs of Indians but having found the prairies south of the Colorado burned for a depth of thirty miles. Van Dorn found a large Indian camp site near the headsprings of the Concho, probably occupied by Sanaco’s band the previous spring, since the fire holes in the centers of the lodge sites still contained ashes. He also reported that a smaller band had visited the same region recently, and it was probably they who had fired the prairies.

Lee’s force had found three other small camp sites which had probably been occupied by thieving bands the preceding spring. One was about fifteen miles below the Big Springs, the next about fifteen miles farther east, and the third about twelve miles above the crossing of the Chadbourne-Mason road. Each was located in a grove of willows or other trees and had not been occupied for at least a month, since near-by water holes were now dry.

At last the troopers turned homeward. Lee had made a determined effort to find any lurking raiders who might he within striking distance of the border settlements, but none could be found. His scouts told him that the Naconies, Tanimas, and Penatekas who had plundered the settlements during the past spring were now north of the Arkansas after buffalo. Lee was convinced that this was true and decided to return the four companies to their home posts. On July 18 he directed Smith and his company to descend the Concho to its mouth, cross to the San Saba, about the mouth of Brady’s Creek, and ascend the valley of the Sant Saba to Fort Mason. Bradfute was to ascend Kickapoo Creek to the Spring, then cross to the San Saba and descend it on his route to Fort Mason. Both officers were to search for Indians on the way and to pursue them if they were found.

Lee followed with his first squadron, crossing the Colorado below Valley Creek. Then he passed east of Fort Chadbourne to the headwaters of Pecan Bayou, and thence on northward to Camp Cooper.

Camp Cooper was indeed a “haven in a weary land.” The troopers had been absent for forty days. The separate columns had traversed eleven hundred miles of drought-stricken country and had found only uninhabited wastes, thirst, severe heat, and sickness—and a small band of Indians. They had brought hack only a lone captive Indian woman, and when Lee learned that her father and mother lived on the Brazos reservation, he sent her to them without delay.

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