Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 4

Robert E. Lee in Texas

IV
Along the Rio Grande

THE Second Cavalry had been redistributed by the time that Lee had returned from his reconnaissance. Colonel Johnston had moved his head-quarters to San Antonio, having succeeded Brevet Major General Persifor F. Smith to the command of the department. Captains Van Dorn and O’Hara with their companies were to go from Camp Cooper to a point on the Mason-Belknap road six miles from the Colorado River. This would create a buffer zone between their camp and Fort Mason and provide for a more elastic defense against Indian raiders attacking the exposed Llano and Colorado Valley settlements. Only Smith’s and Bradfute’s companies remained at Fort Mason. Captains James Oakes and A. G. Brackett moved their companies to Fort Clark to intercept marauding Comanches and Kiowas, who might try to raid the north Mexican states. And to assist them, Captain Innis N. Palmer’s company was to be stationed at Verde Creek and Captain Whiting’s at a point where the El Paso road crossed the Sabinal. Long since, the Mexican government had complained of these Indian raids, and now Johnston proposed to do something about them.

But Lee had little time to think of troop changes; other problems claimed his attention. The drought had not yet run its course, and his troopers were in low spirits. The Camp Cooper basin sweltered in oven-like heat, from which there was no relief, day or night; Lee’s green garden of spring was now parched, and his “few cabbage and roasting ears had passed away.” Those troopers, who on the recent expedition had drunk all kinds of water, “salt, sweet, bitter and brakish,” had now the same experience at Camp Cooper.

Having to drink bad water, to endure intense heat, and to be without vegetables, the men were plagued by sickness; and Dr. John G. Gaenslen’s hospital tent was crowded with patients, some afflicted with dysentery, some with scurvy, and others with more dangerous maladies. Lee visited his sick men regularly, rendering whatever aid and fatherly cheer he could. In spite of care some of those stricken died. Never did Lee demonstrate more devotion to his men. To him, it was stark tragedy for strong young men to die. On July 31 he stood by at the death of Lieutenant George M. Dick and later wrote the youth’s father the sad news, saying that “inflamation of the intestines” had been the fatal ailment and that the Lieutenant had died calmly, whispering, “I am going to a better world.” Lee buried him with military honors and masonic rites.

He was also worried because of his wife’s illness at home. Several weeks earlier she had gone to a Virginia health resort but had recently returned home unimproved. Then, as if he were not enough burdened, he also received the sad news that his sister Mildred, Mrs. Edward Vernon Childe, had recently died in Paris. “I had never realized that she could have preceded me on the unexplored journey upon which we are all hastening,” he wrote Mrs. Lee sorrowfully. “I pray that her life has just begun, and I trust that our merciful God only so suddenly and early snatched her away because he then felt that it was the fittest moment to take her to himself.”

Fortunately, pressing military and social duties helped to soften his grief. Hardly had he buried Lieutenant Dick before Inspector General Joseph K. F. Mansfield arrived at Camp Cooper. Lee erected a tent for him beside his own and set a plate for him at his table, for his visitor was a distinguished Mexican War veteran. The two men enjoyed recounting their campaign experiences and talking of current problems. Lee accompanied Mansfield about the post, while the latter told him much about Texas’ military problem, its widely dispersed population, its remote settlements, and its inadequate defense.

In turn, Lee told much about the Comanche reservation and the wild bands that yet roamed the prairies and gave his guest expert opinion. Undoubtedly the Indian agents also called on Mansfield to pay their respects, for he later wrote that Neighbors was “a gentleman extremely well qualified” as supervising Indian agent, and that under him S. P. Ross of the Brazos Agency and Baylor of the Comanche Agency were “perfectly competent” and “qualified” for their positions.

Ross had encouraged the “peaceful and harmless” Brazos Indians to build permanent “log and grass huts and houses . . . and to plant 700 acres of corn.” Yet for the second successive year drought had cut the yield to the vanishing point, so that the Indians had been forced to kill their own cattle and fowl to supplement their government rations.

On the other hand, the Inspector saw the Comanche problem as Lee saw it. He noticed, of course, that Katumse’s people had herds of horses and rattle, flocks of chickens, and 160 acres of drought-blighted own; but he learned that only the women worked the fields, while the warriors engaged in hunting, occasionally joined raiding parties, or loafed about their village. Katumse’s Mexican captives surprised him. His people had “among them 25 men and boys, and 15 women and girls as prisoners,” he entered in his inspection report; and those who had become Indianized were “worse than the Indians in rascalitics.” Nevertheless, he felt that all the captives should be ransomed and returned to their Mexican homes.

Van Dorn, and O’Hara had left with their troopers for their new station before Mansfield’s arrival, and two companies of the First Infantry had taken their places at Camp Cooper. These were under Captains J. N. Caldwell and John II. King. Mansfield’s report on the quality of both the officers and the men of the new companies was entirely favorable, since they were men seasoned in border experience.

He commended equally the Second Cavalry units, including Lee, the post commandant, despite the obvious faults of the camp. At best Camp Cooper was a tent post and without normal conveniences. Frequent trooper desertions resulted. Company K of the Second Cavalry had a total of forty-six absent without leave; and “extra-duty” men and those in the guardhouse swelled the number of malcontents.

For four days Lee and Mansfield looked in on Camp Cooper’s every nook and cranny—the officers’ quarters, the enlisted men’s barracks, the hospital, the commissary, the arsenal, and even the horses’ picket line (for there were no stables). Mansfield moved expertly from place to place, making suggestions here and nodding approval there. He and Lee watched target practice, in which the contestants fired at a mark one hundred yards away, and were surprised that the cavalrymen made better scores than the infantrymen.

Second Lieutenant I. F. Minter’s Drawing of Camp Cooper,
accompanying his Inspection report of June 30, 1859

A: Barracks, Company D; mud walls with shingle roof.

B: Barracks, Regimental Band, Second Cavalry; same construction.

C, D, F: Small buildings of rough stone and oak boards; C used as Adjutant’s office; D, Quartermaster and Commissary; F, storage.

F: Commissary storehouse; rough stone with shingle roof.

G, H: Built of pickets and rough boards; G, kitchen for Commanding Officer; H, Regimental Quartermaster, Second Cavalry.

I: Assistant Surgeon’s quarters; rough stone and oak boards.

K: Temporary storehouse; tarpaulins on frames.

L: Temporary storehouse for forage; tarpaulins on frames.

a: Messroom and kitchen; pickets and oak boards.

b: Storeroom and saddler’s shop; rough stone and oak hoards.

k: Kitchen.

At last, on August 4, inspection was completed, and Mansfield rode down the valley of the Clear Fork, bound for Fort Belknap, while Lee turned his attention to post duties.

Two weeks later, in midafternoon, Lieutenant Joseph H. McArthur and his family arrived. To Lee the border was no place for women, and his sympathy went out to Mrs. McArthur, a pretty, inexperienced, New York woman. She and her two small children had come with Lieutenant McArthur to make Camp Cooper their home. Lee feared that they did not understand the difficulties and trials of living at a border post and tried to help them adjust themselves to the conditions. For the first day he gave them his own tent, furnishing a narrow bed for the two children and a pallet for the Negro woman servant and her child. Later he erected two tents for the family on the bank of the Clear Fork. He gave the children bread and molasses to stay their hunger until supper and served their elders with water and wine.

It pleased Lee to act as a hospitable host, particularly in making Mrs. McArthur and the children feel that they were welcome. One can well believe that they reminded him of his own family two thousand miles away, for he was presently engaged in writing home. To his beloved Mary he expressed his concern about her illness, saying that he would trust a kind Providence to heal her. He urged that she impress on his children’s minds the necessity of study. He wanted Rob to learn industry, thrift, and prudence, and to study Latin, French, arithmetic, and handwriting; if he learned these well, he would be fit for any task. But he advised against reading fiction because he thought it painted beauty more charming than nature and described happiness that did not exist. He urged his small daughter, “Life,” or Mildred, to read and improve her mind: “Read history and works of truth—not novels and romances.”

Then came urgent news. Lee’s scouts had learned that Comanche raiders, Yamparikas, in small war parties of six, eight, and ten, after having ravaged the Mexican settlements, were trying to slip past Camp Cooper on their way back to the Arkansas by moving through the heavy timber farther east. This was proof of what Commissioner George W. Manypenny had recently said. “These bands who spend the winter below the Arkansas and commit depredations on the Texas frontier,” he charged, “proceed northwardly in the spring in pursuit of buffalo. They are well supplied with horses, and enrich themselves by plunder. They receive their annuities on the Arkansas and regard them as compensation paid them by the united States for the use of the Santa Fe road by emigrants.” (He probably had forgotten that they had been bribed not to attack the traders by Commissioners Arbuckle and Stokes at Camp Holmes in 1835.) “Like the Kiowas,” he concluded, “they are insolent, and treat their agent with contempt.” If this were true, thought Lee, he would teach them a much-needed lesson. Quickly he made plans to pursue them with a troop of cavalry supplied for a twenty days’ expedition, but other factors intervened, and the expedition did not go out.

As the summer wore on, the heat increased. But at last, in late August, cooling rains fell on a thirsty earth. Not once but twice downpours drenched the valley. And again thunder boomed and rolled down the river, and lightning snapped and crackled among the trees. Then the sleeping Clear Fork awoke and roared its delight, the water at the ford rising to the girth of the cavalry horses. The gentle patter of rain on canvas was music to the listening troopers, who breathed deep into their lungs the sweet smell of rain on the parched land. But most welcome was the cool wind which blew steadily from the east following the heavy rain and which drove away the dancing heat. Again grass and flowers brightened the landscape, and even the birds seemed to welcome the change.

Such a temporal blessing caused Lee to think of God’s goodness. “We are all in the hands of a kind God who will do for us what is best,” he wrote Mrs. Lee, “and more than we deserve. . . . May we all deserve his mercy, his care and his protection.”

But he wrote reproof for those who were pressing his claims for a brigadier generalship. Of course he was vitally interested in promotion, but he wanted those in authority to recognize his merits without pressure. His Virginia friends had felt that President Franklin K. Pierce might forget him while he was stationed on the frontier and had addressed a petition to him in Lee’s behalf. They reminded the President that Lee had graduated from West Point “with the highest honors,” and that he deserved reward for his “life long services in peace and war, his brilliant and pre-eminent distinctions won upon the field,” and for other things. If a brigadier generalship were to be created, they asked that it be given to Lee. But Lee gently chided Mrs. Lee and her father for encouraging the petition. “If it is on my account that you feel an interest in it,” he wrote, “I beg you will discard it from your thoughts. You will be sure to be disappointed. Nor is it right to indulge in improper and useless hopes. It besides looks like presumption to expect it.”

Lee’s Virginia friends were right in believing that official Washington sometimes forgot border officers. It was equally true that the dreariness of post life, with only occasional reconnaissances, purposeless drill, and court-martial sessions, smothered their ambitions and threw them into a rut. Lee constantly sought variety, but again and again frustration beset him. Just now his proposed Indian campaign promised a change. Then his plans were wrecked by the arrival of a courier bringing him a summons for a court-martial session at Ringgold Barracks. He was to sit in trial of an old friend, Major Giles Porter. At once he began preparations for his long journey, writing to Mrs. Lee that he would be gone two and one-half or three months and that at Fort Mason Major Thomas would join him as a traveling companion. Lee had a marked fondness for this fellow Virginian. a calm and silent man, shy and modest as a maiden, with silver-blue eyes that flashed only under emotion—“Old Slow Trot” Thomas.

On September 2 Lee and his small escort left Camp Cooper. They rode down the river until they came to “Samboheads,” then turned toward the Mason road. Twenty-seven miles out they crossed “the three creeks” and encamped for the night on the last one. Up to this point their journey had been pleasant; the day was cool ­and vegetation showed green from the recent rain. But after supper a terrible rainstorm broke and raged all night, so that, when morning came, the brooks and ravines were filled with water. And when they came to Hubbard’s Creek, it, too, was a roaring torrent; and they had to spend the remainder of the day on its bank. From here they rode down the Fort Mason road through Shackelford and Coleman counties, past West and East Caddo creeks and through heavily timbered country to Camp Colorado. Here they made only a brief stop. They crossed Jim Ned’s Creek and continued southward, passing on their left the imposing Santa Anna peaks rising from a mesquite plateau like two huge apartment houses. Then they crossed the Colorado and entered a beautiful hill country, in the deep valleys of which were limpid streams, such as the spring-fed Brady’s Creek and the San Saba River. On September 8 they arrived at Fort Mason, 165 miles from Camp Cooper. Here Lee and Thomas loaded their baggage and camp equipment into a wagon and united their escorts and mess.

Promptly at eight o’clock the next morning they started for San Antonio, the next stop on their journey, making halts at the German towns of Fredericksburg and Boerne. On their third day out from Fort Mason they reached San Antonio and were joined by one of Lee’s friends of West Point days, Captain James A. J. Bradford. However, Lee could not forget domestic problems, and while at San Antonio he wrote Mary that he was greatly concerned because of her illness. “I pray that he [God] may relieve you in his own time.”

On September 13 the travelers reached the quaint Alsatian town of Castroville, a replica of the poor villages of the Rhone Valley of France. It was settled by French and Germans as the result of a colonial grant made to Henri Castro, of Portuguese descent, by the congress of the Texas Republic, on February 15, 1842. It was a thriving place for the border, with a good mill, stores, and tile-roofed cottages scattered prettily. Lee found the M. Tardé Hotel a two-story house, with double galleries, “the best tavern in Texas.” Here the weary travelers had not only white bread, sweetmeats, and potatoes, but napkins, silver forks, and radishes, French servants, French neatness, French furniture, delicious French beds, and the “lively and entertaining bourgeoise.”

Lee’s party was now traveling across Medina County over the Eagle Pass road, through a beautiful live-oak region, the deep shade of the oak relieved here and there by the yellow-green of the mesquite. Twenty-five miles farther along the road they reached D’Hannis, “like one of the smallest and meanest of European peasant hamlets,” It consisted of about twenty cottages and hovels, all built of jacal (upright poles with their interstices made tight with clay mortar), the floors of beaten earth, the windows without glass, the roofs built so as to overhang the siding and covered with a fine, brown grass thatch, the ridge line and apexes being ornamented with knots, tufts, crosses, or weathercocks. This was a second colony established by Castro in 1846.

Lee found this town interesting also, but he and his friends did not stop. They crossed the Frio River farther along the road and arrived at Fort Inge on the Leona River in Uvalde County at ten o’clock on the morning of September 16. As was usually the case with border forts, there were no structures for defense, except a stockade of mesquite logs about the stables, which were open, thatched sheds. The post consisted of about a dozen buildings of various sizes, officers’ quarters, barracks, a bakery, a hospital, a guardroom, and others, all scattered about the border of a parade ground, pleasantly shaded by hackberries and elms. The buildings were rough and temporary, some of the officers’ lodgings being jacal. But all were whitewashed and neatly kept, by taste and discipline. Captain Whiting of the Second Cavalry, with Company K. had only recently arrived to take command of this post, and both he and his men gave Lee and his fellow travelers a hearty welcome.

From this point on to Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande, about fifty miles to the southwest, the country was desolate. There was “no grass for the horses or shade for the men.” Lee described it as a “wretched country, no trees, or grass, cactus; thorny acacia are the only growth” The road was rough, and there were water holes and ravines everywhere, but no water.

This was Indian country. Only a short time prior to Lee’s coming, a sergeant who was bringing a load of hay into Fort Duncan was pounced upon by a band of Indians, within a mile of the post, and before his men could deploy to meet the attack, “their mules were cut from the traces under his nose, and jerked into the chaparral.”

Fort Duncan was reached at midday on September 18, and Lee and his friends found food and water and rest from travel and the fiery sun. Fort Duncan was a more important post than Fort Inge. A fine band played upon the terrace at the close of evening and fashionably dressed ladies added pleasing domesticity to so remote a place.

But the row on row of brown-topped sheds, cabins, military storehouses, and blocks of white tents showing through a bright green mesquite grove were in sharp contrast to the wretched-looking Mexican hovels of Piedras Negras beyond the sluggish Rio Grande, or to those of Eagle Pass, above the fort and on the American side of the river. Upon approaching the town from Fort Duncan, a visitor could see a few tottering shanties, mere confused piles of poles, brushwood, and rushes, with hides hung over the doors; broken cart wheels, yokes, and other rubbish; chickens were running loose, and hogs were sleeping in holes they had rooted out on the shady sides. Most noticeable of all were two or three adobe houses, looking like long, two-story sepulchres, but which were used as stores. The population of the town was only two or three hundred people, the majority of whom were Mexicans.

From Fort Duncan Lee had expected to travel through wild and lonely country to Laredo, his next stop, almost one hundred miles distant, and quite unoccupied except for a few ranchers, Mexican outlaws, and wild animals. In his “Memo Book” he listed “Rattlesnake Den and Turkey Creek” as two of his stopping places, but he also must have crossed Cuevas, Cuero, and Abrasta creeks and Arroyo de los Hermanos, if he traveled the Duncan-Ringgold Barracks military road paralleling the Rio Grande. He had also expected dry, warm weather, such as he had encountered between Forts Inge and Duncan, but he was agreeably surprised. A short distance from Fort Duncan he rode into a rainstorm, and his journey for the remainder of the way was pleasant, with only one exception.

A swollen stream detained the party for one day. The men finally decided that it was safe to cross and swam their mules and floated the wagon over. But water came up into the wagon bed and wet Lee’s wardrobe thoroughly, from his socks to his plume. They were “immersed in the muddy water—epaulets, sash, etc.,” he wrote Mrs. Lee ruefully; then he added, “They are, however, all dry now.” Lee’s mare took him over the stream comfortably.

Continuing down the Rio Grande, on the sixth day out from Fort Duncan, Lee and Thomas overtook Colonels Bainbridge, Seawell, and Bumford, also going to Ringgold Barracks to attend the trial. This gave them much pleasure, for they had seen few travelers along the way. The combined party now resumed its journey, passing through Zapata and Starr counties, and arrived at Ringgold Barracks, just below Rio Grande City, on Sunday, September 28. Lee and Thomas encamped outside the garrison since no other acceptable quarters were available. Lee had good cause to feel tired; he had been in the saddle for twenty-seven consecutive days and had covered 730 miles since leaving Camp Cooper.


GENERAL GEORGE H. THOMAS
Courtesy National Archives

Lee was favorably impressed with his brother officers who, with him, composed the court. “Captain Bradford whom we knew at Old Point (Virginia) is on the court,” he wrote Mary. And others were “Colonel Chapman of the Infantry, from Georgetown, Captain Marcy [Randolph B. Marcy), Colonel Bainbridge, Bumford, Ruggles, and Seawcll, and Captain Sibley, an old Classmate of mine. Colonel [Carlos A.1 Waite is president of the court and Captain Samuel Jones, of the Artillery, judge advocate.” He added that Jones had brought his wife and child with him in a six-mule road wagon from Sinda, about 120 miles up the Rio Grande. In concluding his letter, Lee apologized for his cramped writing. His finger was stiff, “caused by a puncture from a Spanish bayonet while pitching my tent on the road, which struck the joint.” This accident probably caused Lee to feel that Colonel Jones had made a mistake in bringing his family with him. “Every branch and leaf of this country,” he wrote, “are armed with a point, and some seem to poison the flesh. What a blessed thing the children are not here. They would be ruined.”

He again wrote two weeks later, saying that the trial was under way but that it progressed slowly. He could not see its probable end. Five of the officers of the court were assigned with troops for Florida service and were impatient to get away. Mrs. Waite was packing. The Waites had no children and had good servants and a very convenient carriage. They also had camp furniture made for quick putting up, taking down, and carrying about. He presumed that Mrs. Waite would have to leave her chickens, goats, and pigeon. Then humorously he added: “If officers of the army will get married, I think they should insist that their wives have no children. This will help the matter much.” Already he had made friends with Colonel Sibley’s two small children, a girl and a boy. “I have become very intimate with them,” he wrote lightly. “They would be willing to go with me to Camp Cooper if their mother would permit.”

Lee found time dragging on his hands at Ringgold Barracks. Major Porter had employed two Texas lawyers, a Judge Bigelow and a Colonel Bowers, to represent him. They were very shrewd attorneys, accustomed to the tricks and stratagems of special pleading, which, fee thought, “if of no other avail, absorb time and stave off the question.” But this gave him added leisure for letter writing. Earlier he had written Agnes about Camp Cooper, his “Texas Home,” its inconveniences and loneliness, and he had asked her to visit him. In reply she said: “I am much obliged for your description of your camp. . . . I know exactly what to expect if I go out there, but I don’t see that you have room for any additions to your family, with your present accommodations.” Still, she admitted that she would like to live in Texas for a year or two.

Then on October 24 Lee expressed to his wife his impatience because of the dragging court session. Those officers who had been assigned to Florida stations were eager to get away, he said, but the actual troop movements would not come until November 1. Nevertheless, they were packing, and some were selling their surplus beds, chairs, cows, goats, and chickens. “I am sorry to see their little comforts going,” he wrote, “for it is difficult on the frontier to collect them again.” Mrs. Sibley told Lee that her chairs and cow had gone, and Mrs. Waite, her goats. He was also concerned about Johnson, his handy man and cook, who had fever. He hoped that it would prove a slight case “for his sake and my own,” he said, “for though he is a poor cook, he is all I have, and neither the Major [Thomas] nor I can stand these long and interesting sessions of the court without eating.”

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