Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 6

Robert E. Lee in Texas

“A Desert of Dullness”

LEE found his effects at Camp Cooper in better condition than he had expected, although his tent had been flattened by the wind several times and his dishes broken. Most of his livestock had disappeared, but otherwise his property was all there. Probably the Comanches had stolen his animals, for on the journey home he had heard rumors of their raids. He was so inured to danger on the border, however, that he did not fear them. At night he had felt as secure as in a crowded city and had brought his convoy through safely, with only five men to guard thirty horses. “I know in whose powerful hands I am,” he explained, “and on them rely, and feel that in all life we are upheld and sustained by Divine Providence.”

Just after Lee’s return from Fort Brown an April norther zoomed down the valley of the Clear Fork, as intensely cold as any of winter; and Lee found the camp just as lonely a station as when he had left it for the Rio Grande. Katumse and his people were still trying to farm, without much success. “I wish there was anything interesting here to relate to you,” he wrote Mary shortly after he arrived, “but we are in a desert of dullness, out of which nothing is drawn.” Again a drought was threatening, repeating the pattern of the previous spring. Eight days after Lee had reached Camp Cooper, while the temperature stood at eighty-nine degrees, he was sitting in his shirt sleeves during the fore part of the night engaged in writing, when a second norther came roaring down, requiring heavier clothes and blankets before morning.

At least for a short period during this “desert of dullness” Lieutenant Eagle’s court-martial furnished Lee temporary interest. He enjoyed the visit of Colonel Bainbridge; and Majors Thomas, Van Dorn, Paul, Captain King, and other officers were on the jury.

Major Thomas was accompanied to Camp Cooper by Mrs. Thomas; and Lee, a careful host, was driven to distraction. His “man, Kremer.” was both awkward and unskilled in preparing food other than bread and beef, and the commissary could furnish no variety. Lee could depend on its preserved vegetables and fruits, but he thought this hardly enough for his guests when he remembered the elaborate table Mrs. Thomas had recently spread for him at San Antonio. How could he offer her just the rough fare of the border? He knew that Major Thomas would expect only what border officers customarily ate, but Mrs. Thomas should have better fare. In his plight he sent Kremer down the river to the nearest ranch to procure butter, milk, and poultry; and the servant presently came back to the post with “a few eggs, some butter and one old hen.” Lee decided that he would not serve the “old hen” to dainty Mrs. Thomas, even though, he said, “game is few now and out of season and we are getting none of it.” Greatly concerned, he wrote Mrs. Lee that he would inform her later how he “got on” with entertaining, but he overlooked reporting the results in other letters.

As May wore on, dust filled the air. On May 18 Lee wrote: “I must stop and look to my tent for there is a dust storm raging that sifts through everything and clogs my pen while I write. The thermometer is ninety-nine on the north side of my tent in a stiff breeze.” Indeed, the “stiff breeze” brought no relief. A short time later, in the afternoon, the temperature stood at the toy-degree mark, although the wind was blowing steadily. The trees sighed mournfully and vegetation sickened. Once more drought visited the Clear Fork country. Day after day heat made Camp Cooper’s tents and jacales insufferably hot. Dull red skies greeted the morning, afternoon clouds seemed thin and waterless, and promising early gardens turned brown, then shriveled and died, much to the discouragement of the soldiers.

So again dysentery, scurvy, fever, and other summer afflictions sent many patients to Dr. Gaenslen’s two hospital tents, where heat from the canvas tops only added to their misery. And death struck again. A bright little boy, an only child, died, and his parents were prostrated with grief. They asked Lee to officiate at the funeral since there was no minister present. “So for the first time,” he wrote Mary, “I read the beautiful funeral service of our church over the grave to a large and attentive audience of soldiers. The family were much affected.” His men must have wondered what manner of man could reach such heights of military fame during the Mexican War as to be cited again and again for bravery and fearlessness and later as a sympathetic friend minister to the spiritual needs of grief-stricken parents.

July was equally trying. The drought increased in destructiveness, and the thermometer ranged above one hundred degrees, although sickness was on the decrease. But death claimed its second victim, another little boy, the son of one of Lee’s sergeants. Lee had admired the child only the day before his illness, much to the pride of his parents. Then the dreadful malady struck quickly and fatally. The sergeant came to Lee, as he had on other matters, tears flowing down his cheeks, and asked him to read the funeral service as he had for the other victim. For the second time Lee performed this sad rite. It was his duty, he felt, although his spirit quailed within him. “I hope I shall not be called on again,” he wrote Mary, “for though I believe that it is far better for the child to be called by his heavenly Creator into his presence in its purity and innocence, unpolluted by sin and uncontaminated by the vices of the world, still it so wrings a parent’s heart with anguish that it is painful to see. Yet I know it was done in mercy to both—mercy to the child, mercy to the parents. The former has been saved from sin and misery here, and the latter have been given a touching appeal and powerful inducement to prepare for the hereafter.”

Long rides up and down the Clear Fork or across the rolling hills in search of a new location for Camp Cooper helped Lee to forget his sadness. As early as December 5, 1856, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston had written to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that the site of Camp Cooper would probably be changed in the spring to some other place on the reserve or near by and that Lee would locate it after his return from Fort Brown. On March to he had instructed Lee to seek a suitable place. If he found a site only outside the Indian reservation, he was to negotiate a lease from the owner and to prepare plans for the buildings.

Daily Lee rode out from the post, sometimes alone but more often accompanied by one or more of his junior officers. The meandering river, its fine pecan, elm, and hackberry forests, an occasional ranch, and the unspoiled frontier wilderness always interested him. Riding along the quiet river, across the post-oak flats, ravines, and creeks brought him the freshness and vigor of border life, as well as the friendly, intimate companionship of admiring junior officers. As they rode along these trackless wilds, the younger officers confided in him as they might in their fathers, and Lee accepted with gentle understanding this unconscious tribute. In later years General Joseph E. Johnston, who had been closely associated with Lee during the Mexican War, explained: “He [Lee] was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect and sense of his superiority.” Lee accounted for his own reserve in a letter to Fitzhugh: “I hope you will make many friends;” he said, “. . . but indiscriminate intimacies you will find annoying and entangling, and they can be avoided by politeness and civility.”

Lieutenant John B. Hood, one of Lee’s West Point cadets who later became a prominent Southern commander, in his Advance and Retreat, told of an intimate conversation with Lee on one occasion. “Whilst riding with him upon one of these excursions, and enjoying the scenery and balmy air as we passed over the high undulating prairies of that beautiful region, the conversation turned upon matrimony, when he said to me with all the earnestness of a parent: “Never marry unless you can do so into a family which will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the house.” He perhaps thought I might form an attachment for some of the country lasses and therefore imparted to me his correct, and at the same time, aristocratic views in regard to this very important step in life. His uniform kindness to me whilst I was a cadet, inclined me the more willingly to receive and remember this fatherly advice; and from these early relations first sprang my affection and veneration which grew in strength to the end of his eventful career.”

Lee had the happy faculty of retaining friends and of having their friendship grow into near devotion. Even General Scott was no exception. While Lee was making new, devoted friends on the border, Scott was using his influence to secure a lieutenant’s commission for Lee’s son Fitzhugh. “I make this application mainly on the extraordinary merits of the father,” Scott wrote Secretary of War John B. Floyd, “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.” Then he added that the son, too, was a remarkable youth, about twenty years of age, of fine stature and in fine health, a good linguist, a good mathematician, and about to graduate at Harvard. “He is also honorable and amiable like his father,” he added, “and dying to enter the army.” The commission was promptly granted.

Lee’s interests on these rides were not always spiritual and philosophical. For instance, his love for cats manifested itself again. A cat would make his tent more home-like; and on his rides out from the post, he inquired at ranches for a cat, a cat that was yellow with spots on its back. Finally he learned of a litter of kittens at a ranch down the river, one of which the cowman promised him as soon as it was old enough to take away from its mother. Lee lightly admonished the donor that his cat must have at least one yellow spot on its coat.

Monotony was occasionally broken by an Indian scare. One morning during the latter part of June two Comanche scouts rode into camp bringing the news that a body of Indians was corning down from the north to attack the reserve. The scouts said that two of the hostile warriors had approached them about twenty miles north of Camp Cooper to entice them into their camp, but that instead they had returned as quickly as they could to bring the alarming news. These tidings threw Katumse’s camp into great excitement, and the warriors kept their horses saddled all night. But morning found them undisturbed. “I confess I was incredulous and went to bed with no expectation of being aroused,” Lee wrote. “I believe their apprehensions have somewhat subsided.”

However, the search for a new site for the post went on, and even the enlisted men became deeply interested in it, for the weather remained warm and the Camp Cooper valley was like a bake oven. Lee also sought new springs that would relieve the camp’s water shortage, because the supply at the post was failing, the river water was not drinkable during summer, and Camp Cooper’s well was “gyp.” On one of his rides Lee found a seepage in a ravine and immediately dispatched a fatigue party to dig springs. Meanwhile, on June 29, the thermometer registered 112 degrees, an additional incentive to find a cooler location for the post.

Although Lee spent much time in looking for a new post site, he had improved Camp Cooper as best he could with materials at hand. For more than twelve months, fatigue parties of enlisted men had been sent into the post-oak woods north of the Clear Fork and to a near-by quarry for logs, clapboards, pickets, and building stone; while still others built thirteen structures about the parade ground, in the shape of a large “L.” Captain Caldwell’s quarters, the bakehouse, three company kitchens, and the guardhouse were made of stone with clapboard or canvas roofs; and the forage and quartermaster storehouses and two stables for the Second Cavalry horses were of logs. Other structures were of a more temporary character. Lee’s quarters, as well as those of the other commissioned officers and enlisted men, and the two hospital structures were jacal with part-canvas sides and roof.

Lieutenant Herman Biggs of the First Infantry had made a full report on these improvements to Major D. H. Vinton, quartermaster, on May 24, 1857. He had also mentioned those factors which would materially relate to the building and maintenance of a permanent post. “Building Material, limestone in the immediate vicinity in abundance. . . . Water—sufficient thus far, of medium quality, procured by post wagons. . . . Fuel—quantity limited, mesquite, quality, ordinary, cost nothing, procured by company wagons, facilities for procuring, very bad. . . . Forage—quantity small, quality good, cost (of corn) $2.09 per bushel, obtained on contract. . . . Beef—quantity sufficient, quality good, cost 5¼ cents per pound, obtained on contract. . . . Hay—quantity limited, quality good, cost $20 per ton, obtained on contract, few facilities for procuring it. . . . Roads—condition, now good; distance to Ft. Belknap, 40 miles cross the Clear Fork of go the Brazos; to Ft. Chadbourne, 100 miles, cross the Clear Fork of the Brazos and tributaries; to Camp Colorado, 110 to miles, cross the Clear Fork and small tributaries of it; to Ft. Mason, 165 miles; to San Antonio, 275 miles. All the above rivers and streams are forded. Water is found on the road at convenient distances. Transportation—by government trains. And Supplies—except those already named received from San Antonio by Government trains, quality good.”

So much sickness and death at Camp Cooper reminded Lee of his wife’s failing health, but he was relieved when she wrote him that she would return to Berkeley Springs, Virginia, for the benefit of the hot baths; and that his brother-in-law, Mr. Childe, would accompany her. “See how kind our Heavenly Father is to us,” he wrote her on July 5. “He always arranges for us better than we could do for ourselves.”

The preceding day had been the second Fourth of July Lee had spent in Texas, and again his mind reverted to happy domestic scenes at Arlington on other holidays. This second Fourth, however, was not so lonely as that spent on his Comanche reconnaissance. His duties were so many and varied that he now had little time for repining. He also found interest in looking after the social and religious welfare of his men. Only a few days prior to the Fourth, Father Shane and Captain John M. Jones of Fort Belknap had visited Camp Cooper, and in a company kitchen a religious service was held, attended by only a small number of men. Lee could not understand the Latin part of the service, but he liked the priest’s sermon on the text: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul.” He wrote later that he hoped the priest’s words would sink deep into the hearts of the attentive soldiers.

On July 16, 1857, Lee received Special Order No. 89, assigning him to still another court-martial, this time at Fort Mason. Six days later he left Camp Cooper for the last time, turning over the command of the post to Captain Caldwell. Hardly had the trial started when he received a message ordering him to take command of the Second Cavalry at San Antonio, in place of Colonel Johnston who was being ordered to Washington. Promptly Lee and Johnston boarded the stage for San Antonio.

Fredericksburg was a favorite stopping place for travelers to San Antonio, It was a clean, progressive town settled by the German immigrants of a decade past. Lee always found the food at the town hotel tasty and varied and the accommodations as good as could be found in San Antonio. At night he was furnished a neatly kept room with oak furniture, a clean bed, and a homespun carpet. The room had two large curtained windows with roses trained above them on the outside, a sofa, a tall bureau upon which were a few books and a porcelain statuette, potted plants, a brass study lamp, a large ewer and wash basin, and towels.

Lee thoroughly enjoyed talking with the Fredericksburg residents about their migrations, their experiences on the border, and their plans and prospects; but his military duties never permitted him a lengthy stay.

San Antonio was also a town of never-ending interest, although Lee gave few details about it in his letters home. Fortunately, however, Frederick Law Olmsted, an Eastern traveler, visited it about the same time that Lee came to take command of the Second Cavalry, and in his A Journey Through Texas, described it well. He was impressed with its singular heterogeneity, a change that had come since Lee had visited it first in 1846. Upon entering the town from the north, he noticed the outlying German homes of fresh square-cut blocks of creamy-white limestone, mostly of a single story and humble proportions but neat and thoroughly roofed and finished. Some houses had small bow windows, balconies, or galleries.

He entered Commerce Street by way of a bridge over the San Antonio River. This was the narrow, principal thoroughfare, where he saw American houses, and the breaking out of “the triple nationalities into an amazing display,” till he reached the main plaza. About the pavement of the plaza the sauntering Mexicans prevailed, but bearded Germans and sallow Yankees furnished variety. “The signs,” he said, “are by all odds German, and perhaps the houses, trim-built, with pink window-blinds.”

The American dwellings stood back, with galleries and jalousies and garden picket fences against the walk, or rose in three-story brick to respectable city fronts. The Mexican buildings were stronger than he had seen elsewhere and were used for several purposes. They were all low, of stone or adobe, washed blue and yellow, with flat roofs close down upon their single story. “Windows had been knocked in their blank walls, letting the sun into their gloomy vaults,” and most of them were stored with dry goods and groceries, which overflowed around the doors. At intervals about the plaza were American hotels and new glass-front stores, alternating with sturdy, battlemented Spanish walls and confronted by the dirty, grim, old, stuccoed stone cathedral, whose cracked bell, in discordant tones, called its worshipers to vespers, as though to repel the intruding race who had brought progress, while the cathedral dome frowned down from its imperturbable height. This was the San Antonio to which Lee came, to mingle with its even-flowing life and its tranquil indifference to change.

Lee and Johnston arrived in San Antonio on July 27, and Lee secured board at Mrs. Philips’ Hotel facing the plaza. But he made arrangements with Johnston to occupy his home while he was away. Then he found time to write Mrs. Lee, explaining: “General Twiggs commander of the department has directed me to take up my abode here, which I shall therefore have to do; but, except so far as it puts me in quicker communication with you, the change to me is not desirable. I prefer the wilderness of Texas to its cities. In a few days, however, when the matter is fixed, I will rent me a little house on the bank of the San Antonio where I can at least enjoy bathing.” A careful study of Lee’s letters to members of his family shortly after his arrival in Texas and those of this period indicate that there had been a definite change in his point of view. Earlier he had evinced little interest in border life and problems; but now he could deliberately prefer a remote station and enjoy its solitude.

At San Antonio Johnston learned that he was to lead an expedition against the Mormons of Utah, who had refused to accept the jurisdiction of federal courts and were generally suspicious and resentful of all federal officials, civil and military. Lee feared that General Scott would withdraw the Second Cavalry from the Texas border for service with Johnston, but he was relieved to learn that this was not contemplated.

Shortly after he had arrived in San Antonio, Lee learned that his son “Rooney” (Fitzhugh) had received his commission as a second lieutenant and was on his way to California to join his officer brother, Custis. He was pleased and wrote Mary that this would start their sons on military careers, but that it pained him to realize that it would probably bring separation from their family.

On October 21 Mrs. Lee wired her husband that her father, George Washington Parke Custis, had passed away. Lee was shocked. The news was “as unexpected as afflicting,” he wrote in his “Memo. Book.” He was gravely concerned, for he knew that his sick wife was unable to solve the many problems arising as a result of her father’s death. Immediately he made plans to go to her, relinquishing command of the Second Cavalry to Thomas and transferring the regiment’s headquarters back to Fort Mason. Two days later he sold his mare and equipment to Lieutenant Grahame, paid his “little bills,” gave Kremer his wages, took leave of his friends, and left San Antonio for a long stay in Virginia before he would again see Texas.

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