Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 8

Robert E. Lee in Texas

VIII
“A Rough Diplomatist”

ON the way to Eagle Pass lee had opportunity to consider the various aspects of his problem. He had learned that Cortinas and his five hundred or more pillagers had laid waste the Rio Grande Valley from Brownsville to Rio Grande City, a distance of 120 miles, and back to the Arroyo Colorado. Anglo-Americans had abandoned the country as though fleeing from a scourge. The outlaws had either taken their horses and cattle or caused them to be scattered in the chaparral thickets, or their owners had driven them into Mexico. It was reported that they sold a cow and calf for as little as one dollar. Rio Grande City was almost depopulated, and only one family was left in Edinburg. Business for 240 miles above Brownsville had been interrupted or suspended for five months, and fields lay fallow. Claims of citizens against the federal government had piled up to the staggering sum of $336,826. Many of the claims were exaggerated, but many more were valid. The valley was swept not only by Cortinas’s bands but also by the Texans. The Mexicans burned the ranchos belonging to persons against whom they had a grudge; and the Texans, in retaliation, destroyed those that were left. In all these raids and counterraids 15 Americans and 80 loyal Mexicans had been killed, and others had been wounded, while Cortinas had lost 151 men killed and many more wounded.

During all this turmoil and excitement residents of Brownsville had appealed to President Buchanan, Governor Houston, and any other officials, national or state, whom they thought might help them. A Brownsville grand jury had laid the blame at Mexico’s door, charging that three-fourths of Cortinas’s raiders resided in Mexico; that a short time earlier fifty men, in one body, under a Monterrey officer, had joined the outlaws; and that still later thirty to sixty 𔄬jailbirds” had come from Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas. All these were given regular military training, marched under the Mexican flag, and openly proclaimed their allegiance to Mexico.

Lee did not know how widespread were these raids. If they were as threatening as his informants reported them to be, then he must switch additional cavalry units to the danger points. Washington officials had been nonplused. Some had wondered if these reports were hatched to promote Houston’s “protectorate” plans, but Secretary Floyd at least was convinced that they were not and had ordered that corrective measures be taken. He had instructed Lee to notify Mexican authorities to “break up and disperse” the raiders then plundering the Rio Grande Valley and, if necessary, to “cause this to be done by the force under his command.” In this event drastic action, which might cause friction with Mexico, would be necessary, but Lee felt that the occasion warranted the taking of strong measures. He had written Secretary Floyd that he would leave for the Rio Grande immediately, taking with him Captain Brackett’s company of the Second Cavalry then at Camp Verde.

Lee was not many hours out of San Antonio before he had proof of border chaos. At the Sabinal he heard that raiding Indians had stolen some horses only a few hours before his arrival and that a posse was organizing for pursuit, led by the Kennedy brothers and a Mr. Knox of San Antonio, who, while encamped on the plains east of the river, had lost two of his best horses to the Indians. On the road farther west a Mrs. Hall told him that she and her husband had saved their horses only by brandishing pistols before the determined Indians who were trying to drive them from the corral. This was disquieting news, and Lee might have joined in the pursuit but for his orders to go to the Rio Grande.

Still, he reasoned, his trip to Eagle Pass might be fruitless, for he was acting on a report from a government contractor, a Mr. Duclos, who had heard that Cortinas outlaws were approaching the town. Near Eagle Pass Lee met the stagecoach and inquired of the driver about conditions in town. The driver replied that all was quiet, that Cortinas had not arrived, but that he was reported nearing Laredo, farther down the river. A short time later, when Lee rode into Eagle Pass, he found that it was as quiet as the stage driver had reported, that Duclos’s story was “all flam and clap trap.” Therefore, he halted there only long enough to write some letters, one of which was to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, reporting that “Everything in this section of the country is quiet, and the usual intercourse and commerce between Mexico and the United States is uninterrupted.” Then Lieutenant Eagle’s company of the Second Cavalry joined him for his ride down the river toward Laredo.

Lee’s force was impressive as it moved along the road. The smartly groomed troopers astride excellent, sleek horses, guidons fluttering, and accoutrements glistening under a Texas sun, with cumbrous supply wagons bringing up the rear—all tended to warn venturesome and lawless men that the rights of the federal government were not to be trifled with, While on the march Lee had followed a strict schedule—reveille at 4 A.M., the start of the day’s march at 5:30 A.M., and a final halt at 2 P.M. to graze the horses until dark.

Long hours of riding through sweltering heat were exhausting, but Lee was accustomed to rough campaigning. The lure of the trail and venturing beyond human habitation fascinated him. An evening sunset, breaking through rain clouds; the soft twilight, with his men silhouetted against their campfires; the dusky dome of the sky, studded with millions of glittering stars at bedtime; the blue dawns; and the approaching storm cloud, with its flashes of lightning and rumbling thunder—all to him were God’s manifestations of power. The laughter and pleasing banter of his men enlivened the tiring ride through desert wastes. At noon or at night he heartily enjoyed the food his cook set before him. Boiled ham, rice, eggs, tomatoes, and molasses and bread, with a slice of sponge cake for dessert, made up his fare for supper, after which he could enjoy talking with his men until bedtime. “Now if I had one of my daughters to keep house for me,” he wrote Mrs. Lee after one supper, “I would be set up.”

But there were trying days, too. While he was at Laredo, a cold norther blew up, whipping about his troopers’ exposed plateau camp. Lee could have stayed in town and toasted his feet before a warm fire, but his thoughts, as usual, turned first to his men. He ordered them to break camp and resume their journey down the river until they could find firewood. He lingered in town until he could load his wagons with corn, a task which was not completed until 1 P.M. By that time the hard-driving rain had changed to sleet and snow, and the ground was covered with an icy coating.

With loaded wagons Lee rode out of Laredo, wrapping his greatcoat about him for protection against the piercing wind. But at five o’clock he stopped to allow his wagons to catch up with him. He also expected to overtake his troopers, but they had stayed nearer the river. After he had halted, he heard their bugle and concluded that they had made a comfortable camp. Then he dismounted, spread out his blankets, and sought their warmth in restless sleep. But he was up at dawn, a teamster having made contact with the troopers during the night. When Lee rode into their camp, he found that they had suffered terribly from exposure and that two of them had died. Some of them had bought whiskey at Laredo, and at least one of the two men who had died of exposure had drunk enough of the liquor to make him heedless of proper precautions against the weather.

The storm lifted as suddenly as it had descended, and Lee and his men resumed their journey, making a comfortable camp the next night well down the river. From here the trip to Ringgold Barracks was without disturbing incident, the men finding the broken terrain and broad, sweeping mesquite and chaparral flats quite monotonous.

Rio Grande City and near-by Ringgold Barracks were yet visited with rumor and excited gossip about Cortinas. Reliable residents told Lee, however, that Cortinas had fled southward, “some say alone, others with a few followers,” Lee explained. Heintzelman reported that Cortinas had left for the Burgos Mountains, three days’ march from the river, and that he probably would not concentrate another force on the Rio Grande.

While at Ringgold Barracks, Lee wrote a stern letter to Governor Andres Treviño of Tamaulipas, a letter strictly in keeping with his orders. “I have been instructed by the Secretary of War of the United States,” he wrote. “to notify the authorities of Mexico on the Rio Grande frontier that they must break up and disperse the bands of banditti which have been concerned in these depredations and have sought protection within Mexican territory, and further, that they will be held responsible for the faithful performance of this plain duty on their part.” He closed by “requesting” that the Governor disperse any bands within his jurisdiction.

Here the colorful Texan, Major Ford of the Texas Rangers, rode into town to report to Lee that his men were encamped about forty miles below. Lee received him with all the consideration due a brother officer. Ford was greatly impressed with his host and later wrote: “His [Lee’s] appearance was dignified, without hauteur, grand, without pride, and in keeping with the noble simplicity characterizing a true republican. He evinced an imperturbable self-possession, and a complete control of his passions. To approach him was to feel yourself in the presence of a man of superior intellect, possessing the capacity to accomplish great ends, and the gift of controlling and leading men.”

From Ringgold Barracks Lee moved into the region recently devastated. It yet carried the scars of war—doorless and roofless jacales, smut-blackened chimneys standing amid rubble that once was ranch homes, gates torn from their hinges, broken-down fences, and untilled fields and empty barns. “The occupants,” he observed, “had generally taken refuge in Mexico.”

Lee’s arrival at Edinburg, opposite Reynosa, was most opportune, for there was little less than war existing between these two towns, one American, the other Mexican. On the morning before his arrival Mexican soldiers had fired into Major Ford’s Texas Rangers from across the Rio Grande. The fire had been returned, and two Mexicans had been severely wounded.

Lee took immediate steps to quiet the troubled waters by sending across the river Captain Brackett, bearing a white flag and a peace message for the Reynosa authorities. He was instructed to inquire into the cause of the firing and to demand that some of the outlaws, who were known to be in town, be delivered to the Americans. Brackett found all of Reynosa’s streets barricaded and loaded cannon planted in front of the House of Justice. The town was guarded by four companies of Mexican troops, and re-enforcements were hourly expected from Camargo and Matamoros.

The message which Brackett bore was similar to that Lee had sent to Governor Trevinñ, except that it was more pointed. It warned the Reynosans that further depredations on the American side of the Rio Grande “cannot longer exist, and must be put an end to.”

The message was an agreeable surprise to Reynosan authorities. They had expected an attack, but now it was possible to avoid further trouble. Quickly President Zepeda of the town council called that body together to frame a reply. Hurriedly the council dispatched Zepeda to Lee with the answer. They refuted his charge that Reynosa had harbored Cortinas’s men and stated that they, too, had orders to arrest and imprison “factious Cortinas” and his “skulking vagabonds” whenever they came to town. They said that in the past Reynosa had been known as a haven of refuge for Anglo-Americans fleeing from these robber bands. But they had not found the Anglos so circumspect. Only three days before Lee’s arrival, they charged, Major Ford and about seventy Texans had crossed the Rio Grande and had occupied the town. Zepeda had warned the Major that he was violating the rights of a friendly nation and had told him that neither Cortinas nor any of his henchmen were in town, whereupon he had withdrawn. But later the Texans had fired on the Mexican garita (sentry box), wounding a Mexican river guard and a boy working in a near-by field.

Lee queried Ford about the Reynosan incident and was told that the Mexican account of it was substantially correct. Ford had heard that the town was harboring Cortinas outlaws and that some of the townsmen had joined with them in raids on the American side of the river. He had crossed the river with his rangers to punish the outlaws and to impress the Reynosans with their responsibility in keeping peace. But, he said, he had withdrawn from Mexico when the town leaders had assured him that the outlaws were not there.

Lee listened quietly to Ford’s explanation, his only comment at its conclusion being, “You should have sent a courier to inform them who you were.”

Zepeda’s assurances of his good intentions caused Lee to use soft words. He told Zepeda that he accepted his promise “to pursue, apprehend, and punish” the outlaws found in Reynosa, and that he had ordered his own officers to assist him whenever it was necessary. Nevertheless, he feared that Zepeda was pretending and ordered Brackett to guard the American side of the Rio Grande, with Stoneman’s squadron in support, to see that the Reynosans kept their promise. Recently he had heard that they had made threats against the residents of Edinburg and Tobasso, and Brackett was to give these towns adequate protection. Then, having made provision for the protection of the towns, Lee resumed his journey to Fort Brown.

Finally, at Brownsville, on April 12, Lee listened to many complaints and grievances from outraged residents. Out of them all came one alarming fact: both Mexican officials and citizens, covertly or openly, had aided Cortinas. Only six days earlier, General Guadalupe García had complained to Lee of Ford’s occupation of Reynosa. This gave Lee an opportunity, in turn, to remind García of his border responsibilities, and that any shirking on his part might provoke even graver consequences. He had been told that Cortinas’s confederates were in Matamoros planning to cross the Rio Grande to depredate in Brownsville. “If this is the case,” he continued, “I shall expect, as an evidence of the friendly relations between the governments of the United States and Mexico, that they be apprehended and punished.”

From García’s reply, one may judge that he at least knew of such activities, but he affirmed that Mexican officials had always sought to adhere to strict American-Mexican boundary agreements. When outlaws violated American friendship and trust, Mexican authorities had been prompt to mete out merited punishment. This had been a long-established policy, he said, although Mexico had been occupied with its own domestic problems. Yet, as an implied apology, seemingly, for the recent lack of energetic measures, he stated that the capital of Tamaulipas “was temporarily established at Tampico” and that the central government was “resident at Vera Cruz.” In short, Mexico was in chaos, much as that part of it along the Rio Grande. He assured Lee, however, that he would vigorously seek out and lodge in jail those raiders within his jurisdiction.

Five days after Lee had received García’s assurances, he wrote to Adjutant General Cooper his opinion of the Rio Grande situation. He was aware of the difficulty of defending small towns and isolated ranches on the United States’ side of the river. The entire region from Eagle Pass to Brownsville was a vast, lonely mesquite-chaparral flat, with only occasional dim trails. It would require a force of 20,000 troops to police the region adequately. He repeated the professions of friendship of Mexican authorities and stated that they proposed strong measures to stamp out outlawry, but he felt that this could not be done because of unruly Mexicans who lived south of the border and who supported the Cortinas cause. He wrote Mrs. Lee that Mexican leaders lacked ability, but he remembered that the same statement could be made about Texans whose sympathies were with filibusters. “The last reliable account of Cortinas,” he wrote, “was that he was retiring further into the interior of Mexico. He had with him his family and two men, and was more than one hundred miles from the frontier.” Since April 11 Lee had insisted that García show evidence of his professed willingness to co-operate by action; and at last, he wrote, García had received orders to “arrest him [Cortinasj wherever found.”

The defense of the western border of Texas against marauding Indians also gave Lee grave concern while he was at Brownsville. Several companies of troops formerly stationed at posts along this segment of the frontier had only recently been transferred to the Rio Grande. Their removal had brought a prompt protest from Governor Houston, who wanted Lee to induct Texas Rangers into federal service. Houston bluntly stated that the rangers were superior in every sense to federal soldiers and that they could well take care of the Indian problem. They were acquainted with Indian habits and mode of warfare and were woodsmen and marksmen. They knew where to find the Indians’ haunts and how to trail and successfully pursue the raiders. Furthermore, the believed that they would act in defense of their homes, their families, and their neighbors, remembering the thousands of outrages the Indians had committed along the border. He argued that the Texans were hardy and could subsist on game, being dexterous hunters. “What are privations, suffering, and danger to them,” he reasoned, “in comparison with the plaudits of their fellow-citizens, which follow their success.” They were inured to the changing weather, to the heat of the prairies, to northers, and to violent storms. They were content with the earth for a bed and a blanket for a covering. Houston believed that with men like them on the border the marauders would keep their distance.

Houston painted a sordid picture of the border. The settlers in Palo Pinto and Eastland counties and the Germans along the Medina had only recently experienced the horrors of Indian raiders, who, indeed, had pillaged within thirty miles of San Antonio. “Not content with murdering the settlers and carrying off their horses,” he complained, “they shoot the cattle in their path.” Even now they were lurking in dense brakes and mountain fastnesses to make forays when the settlers were off guard. For this reason the settlers were deserting their cabins and their corn and wheat fields, and starvation stalked the land.

Lee recognized the justness of Houston’s appeal, but he declined to accept the state troopers, promising that more vigorous measures would be taken immediately to aid the border people.

The month of May brought smiling skies, beautiful flowers, and green trees to Virginia but to Brownsville only blistering heat, and swarms of flies, mosquitoes, and fleas. Lee twiddled his thumbs, impatient to return to San Antonio so that he could work out more complete plans to combat the Indian raiding problem. By day his tormentors were flies and fleas, and by night, mosquitoes. “I have a lively time within doors,” he wrote Mrs. Lee good-humoredly, “the fleas by day and the mosketoes by night. I am so extremely awkward at catching them that they mock at my effort.”

When day after day had passed without reports of Mexican depredations, at last Lee made preparations to start for San Antonio. His wagons were greased, his mules foraged, and his men provisioned. Then came news of Cortinas. He had returned to Matamoros! Indolent peones threw off their listlessness to chatter and gesticulate as they collected in knots or surreptitiously carried the news from house to house. However, they were soon aware of a new order. Lee urged civil officials at Matamoros to seek Cortinas’s arrest, but this move failed. Then he devised a plan to take him by surprise. He threw two columns of troops across the river to trap him, but evidently Mexican sympathizers had warned the bandit to leave, for the troopers did not find him.

This failure convinced Lee that he could do little else in Brownsville. Therefore, he instructed his officers to keep a strict watch along the Rio Grande and on May 6 started for San Antonio, 264 miles away. One week later, after an uneventful journey, he reached his head-quarters.

In one respect Lee’s visit to the Rio Grande was disappointing: Cortinas was yet at large. But in another it brought wholesome results: law and order returned to the Rio Grande; lawless Mexicans became more observant of citizens’ rights; and Mexican officials promised co-operation in running down outlaws, The general morale of the settlers was appreciably higher than before Lee’s visit. The sight of uniformed American troopers, carrying at their head the Stars and Stripes and riding fine, well-matched horses, was heartening, The federal troops had joined hands with the rangers to drive Cortinas and his gang far south of the border.

Lee knew, however, that the professions of Mexican officials and citizens was one thing and their actions another. Only recently Governor Houston’s special commissioner, Robert H. Taylor, had written from Brownsville that Mexican officials knew of Cortinas’s movements and allowed him to draw his “supplies of powder and ammunition from Matamoros.”

Gortinas was yet the dashing outlaw, the Mexican of the hour, the Robin Hood of the peones, and a military and political figure of great power. Undoubtedly he would return to plague the border ranchos. That he continued to raid the lower Rio Grande valley in later years, became a brigadier general in the Mexican Army, and was elected governor of Tamaulipas prove that he grew in the esteem of his worshipers. To Lee, however, he remained “that myth Cortinas”; but had Lee been allowed to deal with him in his own way, he would have been, as he expressed it, “a rough diplomatist, but a tolerably quick one.”

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