Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 5

Robert E. Lee in Texas

V
From Pillar to Post

MORE and more the greatness of Texas impressed Lee. Its rolling hills and valleys, its sparkling rivers and fine forests, its vast farms and ranches, its diversified climate, and its friendly, hospitable people affected him strongly, while the spirit of optimism which he observed in the state was unlike anything he had seen or felt elsewhere. At first this annoyed, then puzzled him, then led him to understanding and admiration. And as appreciation of this attitude came to him, he could ride along extended trails and view wide-sweeping prairies and semiarid wastes without feeling too lonely; he could camp among ever present dangers, far removed from human habitation, without fear, and find peace. His letters home at this time reveal the spiritual change that was taking place within him, a change that was almost imperceptible but nevertheless real, one that increased his strength, poise, and dignity. Brother officers who witnessed his metamorphosis stood in awe and respected him, though they could not enter into intimate friendship with him. None felt that he could call him “Bob” or in any way establish familiar relations. Yet each knew, also, that he could go to him with any problem, however personal, and find a sympathetic listener and friend, whose advice would be sound, for when Lee spoke, all took heed to his counsel.

This mental and spiritual adaptation made the stay at Ringgold Barracks less an ordeal for Lee than for his brother officers. Day after day the shrewd Texas lawyers engaged in verbal clashes with Judge Advocate Jones, dragging out the trial through October. Members of the court became restless and gave vent to heated argument and quarreling, with Lee counseling peace. Finally, on November 1, the trial was transferred to Fort Brown, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Promptly Lee and Thomas struck their tent and turned it and their wagon and six mules over to the Ringgold Barracks quartermaster until they could start their journey home. Lee paid his servant Johnson his wages and left him in the hospital, and then ordered Corporal McCarty to take his detail of men to Commandant Ricketts of the post for a temporary assignment. Then he and Thomas boarded the steamer Ranchero for Brownsville. When they reached Fort Brown on November 3, they occupied a room at the officers’ quarters with young Lieutenant Howard, engaged their meals at Victor’s Restaurant, and made themselves as comfortable as possible for whatever period might be necessary for the trial, which was resumed on the next day.

But the end of the trial was not in sight. Judge Advocate Jones heatedly pressed his charges; and, in turn, Judge Bigelow and Colonel Bowers defended their client with vigor. Once again members of the jury, tired and fretful, joined in the bickering, much to Lee’s annoyance.

Brownsville was like many another border town, with its progressive, better-class people and its flotsam and jetsam of both Mexico and the United States, including shiftless peones thronging the streets on Saturdays and Sundays. Lee wondered why army officers would bring their wives and families to such an out-of-the-way place. “The more I see of Texas army life,” he wrote his wife on November 19, “the less probability do I see of you ever being able to join me here. Our family is too large and unwieldy to commence campaigning.” Perhaps his own cramped quarters suggested this thought. He made his pallet in one corner of the room, Howard in another, and Thomas in another. He sympathized with Lieutenant Howard’s young wife, who was now having a foretaste of army life while living with her sister’s family in Brownsville. Lee called on her and assured her that tins experience was not typical of what she could expect. Soon young Howard would be transferred to Fort Leavenworth, where she would have better accommodations and a chance to meet other persons of her own age and sex. She presently bade Lee good-by, hopeful of the future.

Once more frustration pressed in on Lee’s sensitive soul as the court-martial dragged out its weary length. One day was much like another—the assembling of the court, the testimony of witnesses, pointless bickering, adjournment, and long hours of waiting for the next day.

To relieve the tedium, Lee sought the society of friends, but they helped him through only a part of the day. Then on Sunday he attended church twice, but the minister was colorless and almost read his sermons, and he was not even a good reader.

Lee found interest in long walks or rides away from the post, studying the plant life of the country; or he engaged in the pleasurable task of writing to members of his family. What were they doing? Was Mary’s health improved? Were she and the children comfortably supported? Did his children have the proper educational advantages? These questions gave him most anxious concern. And his several letters reveal that he not only thought of his family but prayed for them daily, for Lee was a devout man.

Then his love for his state and his nation profoundly moved him, as is seen in a letter to Mary on December 13. He expressed a hope that President-elect James Buchanan of Pennsylvania would be able to “extinguish fanaticism, north and south, and cultivate love for the country and the Union, and restore harmony between the different sections.” He found much interest, too, in the Alexandria Gazette. It gave him not only the local news but also the trend of Virginia politics and the thinking of prominent men on the state’s economic, political, and social problems. If absence does make the heart grow fonder, Lee’s love for his state deepened during these long hours of introspection, while living on the Texas border. The ominous slavery controversy, waxing increasingly dangerous to the peace of the nation, filled him with foreboding. If secession should come, what would Virginia do? Being adjacent to the federal capital would place her near the vortex of sectional discord. Fortunately, however, there were local distractions which kept Lee from worrying too much about these things.

Not the least of them was the weather. Midsummer heat was frequently followed by a sharp norther. On December 19 Lee took one of his customary walks away from the post. The weather was so warm that he had worn a summer coat. For a time his attention was given wholly to his surroundings as he followed a path through the chaparral. The landscape was bright with flowers. At one place he noticed an althea with a crimson blossom like a red rosebud, and everywhere were wild verbenas with rich orange and red petals. While enjoying these sights, about sunset he was caught in a rainstorm and turned back in his walk. Scarcely had he reached the fort, wet to the skin, before a norther sprang up; and all his blankets could not keep him warm. The following morning he wrote Mary: “This morning great coats are necessary. The Norther still rages and flakes of snow fill the atmosphere.”

But this diversion from worry was temporary. A steamer had just arrived at Brownsville from New Orleans, bringing a “full file of papers,” which Lee read with interest. Among the items of national consequence, he endorsed President-elect Buchanan’s policy toward slavery, a policy that neither pleased Northern abolitionists nor Southern “firebrands.” Lee felt that the abolitionists must be aware that their activities were unlawful and that moral suasion was preferable. Negroes were better off, he thought, than they would be in Africa; and as to their enslavement, only a “merciful Providence” could determine its length. He believed that their freedom would come eventually through the “mild and melting influence of Christianity.” Why couldn’t abolitionists see this? “The doctrines and miracles of our Savior,” he said, “have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small part of the human race.” Why should the abolitionists expect to accomplish similar results by violent, immediate means? “We must leave final emancipation to Him who chooses to work by slow influences,” he reasoned, As he grappled with the problem, more and more he became certain that the abolitionists were the untiring agitators of sectional discord. “Is it not strange,” he asked, “that descendants of those Pilgrim fathers who crossed the Atlantic to pursue their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?”

That Lee also read with great interest the copies of the Alexandria Gazette from November 20 to December 8, which he had just received, is important to remember. For the first time he seemed to realize that his profound love for Virginia might ultimately clash with his near-instinctive love for the Union. What would he do if secession came? With much time on his hands, Lee had occasion to read and to think dispassionately. Sectional issues disturbed him. How could the nation survive such bitter strife? Only by the help of God, “who sees the end and who chooses to work by slow things.”

On Saturday before Christmas Lee visited Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, He found the town neat, “though much out at the elbow,” and apparently nothing of interest going on. The public square was inclosed, and the trees and grass flourished, largely because of the forethought of Major William Chapman of the Quartermaster’s Department, who had made the improvement in 1846 while the town was occupied by the United States Army. The most attractive sights to Lee were the orange trees loaded with unripe fruit, the oleander in full bloom, and large date, fig, and palm trees.

Lee was lonely; Christmas was approaching. “My heart will be in the midst of you,” he wrote Mary, “and I shall enjoy in imagination and memory all that is going on. May nothing occur to mar or cloud the family fireside, and may each be able to look back with pride and pleasure at their deeds of the past year and with confidence and hope to that in prospect.” On his daily walks he visited near-by stores and managed to find presents for all the children—handsome French teapots, a beautiful Dutch doll, a “crying baby that can open and shut its eyes” for the girls; and knives and books for the boys. Then on Sunday Lee and Thomas went to church and afterwards dined with the clergyman, Reverend Passmore, on roast turkey and plum pudding.

Lee must have studied Proverbs, for in more than one letter to Mary and the children his advice was biblical. “You must study to be frank with the world,” he wrote his small son. “Frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted that you mean to do right. . . . Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one. . . . Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. . . . We should live, act and say nothing to the injury of any one.” And a short time later, he advised Mary: “Do not worry yourself about things you cannot help. . . . Lay nothing too much to heart. Desire nothing too eagerly, nor think that all things can be perfectly accomplished according to our own notions.”

Earlier, while on his way from Ringgold Barracks to Fort Brown, Lee had formed a friendship with Captain King of the Ranchero; and while in Brownsville he called on Mrs. King. The King cottage was removed from the street by well-kept trees and shrubbery in the yard, among which were several orange trees filled with ripening fruit. Mrs. King’s table was loaded with sweet oranges and many other things tempting to the eye, but, Lee wrote his wife, “I tasted nothing.” He came for a short, formal call on Mrs. King, much to the dissatisfaction of several brother officers who went with him. They told him that on other occasions they had been entertained elaborately in other homes—cold meats, coffee, tea, fruits, and sweets! But Lee felt that to stay for dinner would violate social propriety.

Porter’s trial lasted through January and until February 18, adjourning from day to day to await the appearance of the defendant’s witnesses. Neither Lee’s correspondence nor available official papers reveal just what the charges were, although the officers supported the defendant. A final angry debate arose over Judge Advocate Jones’s announcement that he had forwarded to department headquarters a paper setting forth certain reasons why in his opinion the court should not have waited for witnesses—a paper that had already been rejected by the court. President Waite of the court was particularly harsh in his remarks. Lee regretted the whole circumstance, but within an hour after the adjournment of the trial sine die, he, Thomas, and other members of the court boarded the Ranchero for Ringgold Barracks.

At Ringgold Barracks the party divided, but Colonel Seawell, Major Thomas, and Captains Bradford and Marcy went on to San Antonio with Lee, as soon as he had recovered his escort, mules, wagon, and supplies. They followed the outer road to Fort McIntosh. They traveled for about forty miles almost due northward, through Starr County; then they turned northwestward, crossing Zapata and Encinal counties, through a densely overgrown chaparral region, before they reached Fort McIntosh.

Just before they struck the chaparral wilderness, they came to the favorite resort of wild horses, as well as deer, antelope, and other game. This was also the favorite resort of “mustangers,” or wild-horse (mustang) hunters, whose business it was to recruit the stock of both Texans and Mexicans. While their ostensible purpose was to catch wild horses, a contemporary states that they often also practiced highway robbery, and were, in fact, prairie pirates, seizing any property that came their way, murdering travelers, and pillaging border trains and villages. Often they carried out these operations under the guise of Indians, and, at the scene of a murder, some “Indian sign,” such as an arrowhead or a moccasin, was left behind to mislead justice.

Mustanger camps caught not only shady characters and notorious killers but men of several nations. Theirs was a dangerous profession, and it was only men of adventurous or devil-may-care spirits who found it interesting. Here and there they established their ranches as temporary homes or retreats, and generally near the known haunts of the wild horses.

The mustangs were degenerates of several breeds, some tracing their equine lineage back to the early Spanish Barb or Arabian (Moorish) steed. Occasionally one or more fine animals were found in the herds, but generally they were narrow chested, weak in the haunches, of bad disposition, and worth about one-tenth the price of improved stock. They were as wild as the buffaloes and much more dangerous, fighting viciously with their hoofs and teeth anyone who sought to capture them.

But the hunters took every precaution. They drove them between diverging and hidden wings into a pen. Then they lassoed the mares and turned loose or shot those stallions that could not be tamed. Those which were tamed to be driven sold, delivered at the settlements, at eight to fifteen dollars per head. Only experienced horsemen bought them, so well known was their propensity for wildness. The settler believed that a mustang would “suddenly jump upon you, and stamp you in pieces, his vengeance all the hotter for delay.”

When Lee and his friends reached San Antonio Wells, they found camped near by eight or ten bearded and desperate-looking mustangers. Lee did not encourage intimacy, but he watched them chase and capture about twenty colts. And at Las Animas, a short distance farther along his road, he watched twelve others lasso a roan mare, but he was more impressed with a beautiful iron-gray mare about four years old in the herd.

Lee’s party did not tarry at Fort McIntosh, which they reached on March 6, but took a direct road to San Antonio, traveling over terrain as dry and rugged as that between San Antonio and Fort Duncan which Lee had traversed on his way down to Ringgold Barracks. The remainder of the journey was uneventful, and the weary travelers reached San Antonio on March 6, 1857.

Here Lee expected to find friends and a short rest before he resumed his journey to Camp Cooper, but a cruel disappointment awaited him. He must attend another court-martial, this time at Indianola. By now he was inured to such disappointment, and ten days later he started for his new assignment, having already ordered Thomas back to Camp Cooper. On this trip he traveled by stage, passing Gonzales and Port Lavaca en route. When he reached Indianola two days later, he lodged at the Cassimir House and prepared to make the best of his situation. Fortunately, this court, too, adjourned sine die, on March 28, and presently he was back in San Antonio.

Through all these trying experiences Lee remained in good spirits. While in Indianola he wrote his little daughter, Mildred, about cats. “You must be a great personage now—sixty pounds,” he began. “I want to see you so much. Can you not pack up and come out to the Comanche country? I would get you such a fine cat you would never look at ‘Tom’ again.” Then he told of the death of Jim Nooks, Mrs. Waite’s cat. “He died of apoplexy,” Lee teased. “I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea, and Mexican rats, taken raw, for supper. He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him.” Then he told of other cats he had seen on his Rio Grande trip, one of which he would take back to Camp Cooper, if he could persuade the driver to give him a place on the stage. The cat belonged to a French woman, a Mrs. Monod. He was uncertain whether madame would trust her pet to go “into such a barbarous country and Indian society.” The most unusual specimen he had seen was a wildcat. A Mexican had caught him near Fort Brown and was carrying him wrapped up in his coat when Lee met him on one of his walks. He offered to buy him, but the Mexican said that he was already sold. “I left the wildcat on the Rio Grande,” Lee wrote. “He was too savage; had grown as large as a small-sized dog; had to be caged, and would strike at anything that came within his reach.”

Back in San Antonio Lee could at last relax for a few hours. The first night after his arrival, while he was camping near the town, a norther had blown up, and next morning Lee found a bucket of water in his tent frozen hard. As the weather was still cold and raw, he decided to remain in San Antonio until the norther had abated, especially since it was Sunday. When Lee’s friends learned of his delay in leaving, they besieged him with invitations. He had supper with Colonel and Mrs. Johnston, and breakfast and dinner with Major and Mrs. Thomas. “The supper last night was so good,” he wrote Mary, “and so much to my taste, venison steak, biscuit and butter, that I had little appetite for my breakfast, though waffles, eggs and wild turkey were three dishes that it presented; and when the dinner of wild turkey, tomatoes, French peas, snap beans, and potatoes was followed by plum pudding, jellies and preserved peaches, I despaired of eating any of Mrs. Smith’s supper.”

Before leaving for Camp Cooper, Lee saw one of Major Henry C. Wayne’s camel experiments. Thirty-two of these hardy animals had been imported from the Mediterranean. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had permitted their purchase to solve the transportation problem in the semiarid Southwest, and in 1856 a place for them had been established at Camp Verde, a short distance out of San Antonio. Lee had already seen a second caravan of forty-three camels, also purchased in the Mediterranean area, come into San Antonio under the care of their native tenders, and was quite amazed to see one of the animals rise from the ground “packed with two bales of cotton.”

But just now he had little time to look further into this interesting experiment. As soon as the norther had passed, he engaged Theodore Kremer as a cook at $20.00 per month, paid Vance and Brothers $142.50 for groceries and $16.50 for clothes, settled all his other outstanding accounts, engaged wagons to haul his supplies and equipment, and at nine o’clock on the morning of April 7, commenced his journey to Camp Cooper with thirty horses for the regiment, two wagons and twenty-five men, traveling via Fort Mason.

Lee had found the servant problem difficult to solve, for it was hard to find anyone of experience willing to risk his scalp in the Indian country. While in Indianola he had written Mary that “My servants have informed me they cannot go back to Camp Cooper. It is too dreary.” In San Antonio he was pleased, therefore, to have Kremer accept employment. He was dubious whether or not he could cook and promised to give him a trial “out on the prairie.”

At times Lee did not travel the regular road from Fort Mason to Camp Cooper. He later explained to a friend that by staying away from the well-beaten paths, he could find better camping sites, better grass for his horses, and stood less chance of meeting hostile Indians. When night came, he was tired and seldom thought of danger, even though he might be in an unsettled region. The nights were quiet and the stars friendly. He could banish care and find rest and sleep.

Lee arrived at Camp Cooper on April 18, 1857—eight months and sixteen days since he had left it for the court-martial at Ringgold Barracks. He had traveled almost two thousand miles since leaving his post. “Resumed my old tent,” he entered in his “Memo. Book.” “Found it very delapidated and things scattered.”

At his “Texas home,” however, still another court-martial awaited him. Lieutenant Robert N. Eagle was charged with a minor infraction of duty, which Lee thought was trivial, although he was to serve as president of the court; and on May 5 this trial, too, was adjourned sine die.

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