Robert E. Lee in Texas, by Carl Coke Rister, Chapter 10

Robert E. Lee in Texas

Farewell to Texas

Fort Mason at the time of Colonel Joseph K. F. Mansfield’s
inspection tour of the Texas border posts in 1857

ONCE more the vagaries of Texas weather brought discomfort to Lee. At San Antonio during the summer of 1860 the heat had been searing, bringing long and trying days. Now, in December, on the road to Fort Mason a cold norther blew in, with ice and freezing rain festooning the bushes and trees and giving the forest the appearance of a fairyland. Camping by the roadside brought little relief or rest; and when Lee rode on, his horse’s footing was uncertain and progress was slow. Hour after hour he faced the sharp wind until it seemed to pierce his heavy woolen coat. He was cold and miserable until he arrived at the post on Saturday, December 23, in time to join his friends in their Christmas festivities. The warm fires, the tables loaded with food and drink, Christmas trees bending with gifts and draped with tinsel, music, laughter, and good cheer—all carried his thoughts over eighteen hundred miles to Arlington, where Christmas was again being celebrated without him. Lee had ridden into a new world; hence for this day he tried to banish his fears for the Union and his anxiety on account of his family and to enjoy the hospitality and comforts of his friends.

This was Fort Mason’s slack season, for Indian raiders, with the exception of those who moved up from camps in Mexico, seldom braved the wintry blasts to leave their villages for protracted periods. Ordinarily they preferred their retreats in the deep canyons of the Staked Plains or in river valleys, protected by a north bank. Snug in their lodges, they could live off of jerked meat or food stolen from the settlers and plan for the coming year. Army officers seasoned in border warfare were well aware of this custom of the Indians; so, feeling that there was little danger of immediate attack, the Fort Mason commander allowed his troopers to stoke their campfires and enjoy Christmas.

The officers’ families vied with each other in entertaining Lee, who was always a favorite, particularly with the children. They would sit by the fireside far into the night listening to his tales and watching the firelight play on his face. At one moment his eyes might be grave and sad, but at another they would light with faith and gaiety. He interested young and old alike with his stories of Mexican War days, of his family, and of West Point. But when the talk of the elders turned to national affairs, his voice became vibrant with emotion. In his every mood could be sensed his nobility of character, his lofty idealism, and his faith in an overruling Providence.

Lee always returned social courtesies promptly and was a conscientious host. Soon he had an additional incentive for hospitality. On January 22 his new adjutant, Lieutenant William Warren Lowe, arrived from St. Louis with his young bride. Lee entertained them at breakfast. For the occasion, Billy, his cook and handy man, brought out his very best “equipage” from his mess chest and set before the young couple an appetizing meal. Later in the day Lee wrote humorously about the occasion to Mrs. lee’s cousin, “Markic” [Martha Custis Williams]. “What is your conception of a bridal breakfast in the Comanche country?” he asked. “. . . the most important accompaniment is a fine appetite.” He added, “The lady’s, I am sorry to say, was timid, her swain’s, bold and soldiery, and he attacked the beef steak, hashed turkey and boiled eggs fearlessly. They dine today with their left hand neighbor and come to me again tomorrow.”

This was the first time that Lee had entertained in style, although he wrote his wife that he had some ladies and gentlemen to breakfast with him before—Mr. and Mrs. Shaaf, on the morning of their departure, and Dr. and Mrs. Engle, when they were passing by.

Occasionally, Lee’s thoughts turned to his own military situation. Now fifty-four years of age, he was only a lieutenant colonel. He had been twenty-two years advancing from the rank of captain to his present rating, and his gross income was only $4,060, including his salary of $1,205 and allowances for rations, quarters, travel, and other expenses. This was hardly sufficient to meet his own simple needs and the greater requirements of his family, beyond those met by their private income. He found little comfort in the fact that there were no immediate prospects of a new brigadier general, for even if there were, many other officers had higher rank. Only recently Secretary Floyd had sponsored a brigadier generalship for Lee’s Mexican War comrade, Joseph E. Johnston, to whom Lee wrote his hearty congratulations. Still he unquestionably felt that he had been forgotten. All he could do for himself was to ask his son, Custis, to put in an oar for him if another chance should arise.

Try as he might, Lee could not stop his ears to the rising mutterings of dissension that was threatening to disrupt the Union; nor could his fellow officers—Thomas, Stoneman, Oakes, Van Dorn, Hood, and others. They, too, were West Pointers with army careers before them. They anxiously watched their grave-faced commander and talked in guarded language about current issues. What would Lee do, and, indeed, what would they do, if civil war should come?

Lincoln’s election as president of the United States had caused South Carolina to lead three other southern states into secession, and throughout the north and East were heard threats of coercing them back into the Union. Still vacillating, President Buchanan floundered in a sea of indecision, refusing to send food and men to Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor to strengthen its federal garrison for fear that he would bring on war. In December the aging J. J. Crittenden, attempting ting to play Henry Clay’s role of Great Compromiser, presented to the United States Senate six amendments and four resolutions designed to ease the tension. He proposed to give legal protection to slaveowners, to guarantee to them federal compensation for escaped slaves, and to extend the 36° 30´–line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific. But a Senate committee to consider the proposals failed to approve them; and, similarly, a House committee of thirty-three members later reported that it could arrive at no compromise.

Worriedly, on January 23 Lee wrote his wife his misgivings. He had read and enjoyed Everett’s Life of Washington, which she had sent him, but he could not help but think how the spirit of this great man would grieve if he could see the wreck of his mighty labors. He yet had faith that his countrymen would sustain the Union. “I will not permit myself to believe,” he declared, “till all ground for hope is gone, that the work of his noble deeds will be destroyed, and that his precious advice and virtuous example will soon be forgotten by his countrymen.” Lee had also scanned new Orleans newspapers, hoping to allay his fears and anxiety, but instead he found a nation delicately poised on the brink of “anarchy and civil war.” “May God avert us from both,” he wrote feelingly. “I fear mankind for years will not be sufficiently Christianized to bear the absence of restraint and force. I see that four States have declared themselves out of the Union. Four more apparently will follow their example. Then if the border States are dragged into the gulf of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other, and I must try and be patient and wait the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.” Here on a remote frontier, Lee must have paced the floor of his hut in deep agitation, for indeed there was nothing he could do to affect the final decision.

Five days later he again wrote on the same subject. He had learned that the Crittenden proposals had failed and was disappointed. “They were fair and just,” he said. “The action of the Southern States in seizing public property and capturing United States forts will not calm the angry feelings of the country. If the bond of the Union can only be maintained by the sword and the bayonet instead of brotherly love and friendship, and if strife and civil war are to take the place of mutual aid and commerce, its existence will lose all interest to me.” Against such an eventuality he expressed his hope in the wisdom and patriotism of the nation and the overruling Providence of a merciful God. Since Virginia had led in the movement to draw up the Constitution, “so I would wish,” he concluded, “that she might be able to maintain it to save the Union.” Already Texas had called a convention to consider secession, which, if approved, might make it necessary for Lee to withdraw the Second Cavalry beyond the Red River.

National events moved with dramatic swiftness. On the day after Christmas, Major Anderson, under verbal orders from the Secretary of War, had spiked Fort Moultrie’s guns and had, over the protests of South Carolina, moved his small garrison to the more easily defended Fort Sumter, out in the harbor. Between January 1 and February 1, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas passed the ordinances of secession; and on February 4 the Confederate States of America was formed at Montgomery, Alabama. Its provisional congress elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi president, and later, in May, named Richmond the permanent capital.

Lee watched with great anguish of spirit this threatening storm. Even at his border post there were concrete indications of brewing trouble. Suspicious-looking men lurked about Fort Mason, and Lee called on Captain Richard W. Johnson one day and asked him whether he could rely upon his support if Fort Mason were attacked. Johnson replied, “Yes, so long as I hold a commission in the Union army.” Pleased, Lee then told Johnson of his plans to fortify the post; but on February 13 Scott’s Order No. 16 reached him, requiring that he give up his field command and return to Washington immediately. Lee prepared to depart at once, paying his debts and distributing his “little valuables among the officers.”

“Colonel, do you intend to go South or remain North?” Captain Johnson asked Lee as he was climbing into his ambulance to leave.

“I shall never bear arms against the United States—but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state, Virginia,” was his reply.

The driver cracked his whip, and the ambulance lurched forward. Lee thrust his head out of his hack and shouted back. “Good-by! God bless you!”

Although Lee’s stay at Fort Mason had been brief, he left devoted friends. In later years both civilians and soldiers spoke highly of him and told of his visits to their homes. A captain of the Second Cavalry, who later fought against Lee, said that he “was one of the most agreeable men I ever knew, handsome, courteous as a knight, pleasant and entertaining in conversation. He was universally beloved by all the officers of his regiment.”

Settlers about the post remembered him as courteous, simple, and wholesome, with native dignity, gentle and unobtrusive, yet singularly commanding. One said that he was full of affability and small talk to the ladies, but that one could not be in his presence without an instinctive feeling that he was “one of the greatest of men.” Another said: “I never saw Lee but once, but he made an impression upon me I cannot forget. He was standing upon the gallery of the government building in San Antonio, watching a squad of infantry that were being drilled by a lieutenant. His appearance was so impressive that I stopped to look at him and ask who he was. There was a remarkable repose about him, singularly in contrast with the group of officers about him. He seemed a column of antique marble, a pillar of state—so calm, so serene, so thoughtful, and so commanding! I stood within a few feet of him, perhaps five minutes, and during the time he did not once open his lips. The conviction possessed me at once, and I said involuntarily to myself: ‘There stands a great man!’“

At a well-known spring beside the San Antonio road, Lee met and had lunch with another young friend, Captain George Blake Cosby. “I told him that General Scott wanted to consult with him as to a campaign against the seceded States,” Cosby wrote many years later. “He feared so, too; that Virginia had seceded and war was certain. As he said this, he showed more emotion than is recorded of him when he had won or lost a great battle later on. He told me if he found my surmises correct he would tender his resignation and offer his services to his native State.”

After Lee’s noonday conversation with Captain Cosby, he rode on toward San Antonio, greatly troubled in mind. What would he do if Virginia joined the Confederacy? Should he, too, take his stand with the Confederacy? Or should he resign his commission and retire to private life? For the remainder of his journey, these questions must have harassed him.

San Antonio seethed with excitement when Lee’s ambulance drew up in front of the Read House. Its streets were swarmed with grim-visaged men wearing red insignia on their coats or shirts. A correspondent to the Austin State Gazette described the scene a few hours after Lee’s arrival. “Eight o’clock Saturday, morning,” he wrote. “Our usually quiet city is full of soldiers. All the important streets are guarded, and the main plaza looks like a vast military camp.”

Lee felt gravely alarmed, although he must have known that something like this might occur at any time. “Who are these men?” he asked a Mrs. Caroline Darrow, whom he met near the stage. “They are McCulloch’s,” she explained. “General Twiggs surrendered everything to the state this morning, and we are all prisoners of war.”

Lee was startled out of his usual self-composure by this dramatic statement, and he made further inquiry. He was told that soon after Twiggs had succeeded him as department commander, he had revealed his Southern sympathies in letters to the Adjutant General. As the Texas secession crisis approached, he asked his superiors for instructions, but none were given. Then he wanted to be relieved of his command, and Colonel Carlos A. Waite was sent to succeed him.

Before Waite arrived, however, Twiggs surrendered to Colonel Ben McCulloch all federal arms, munitions, properties, and military posts under his command. It was agreed that Twiggs’s San Antonio garrison of 160 men should evacuate and surrender all local federal properties to the Committee of Public Safety, that the troops should retain their sidearms and camp and garrison equipage, and that all the federal posts in the state should be turned over to the state of Texas, the troops to march to the coast for embarkation. Twiggs agreed to these terms on February 18. Acting for the committee, Henry E. McCulloch took over the northern Texas posts, and John S. Ford, the southern.

Waite sought to repudiate the surrender agreement when he arrived, but it was too late. The Clarksville Standard of March 9, 1861, carrying a San Antonian’s narrative of events dated February 18, said: “He [Waite] rode up to the Alamo building, but seeing the Lone Star flag flying from its summit, turned off, after a hurried conversation with a regular on the inside, entered a neighboring grocery, and smiled his grief away.” Indeed, Waite’s opposition only led to his own arrest by the Texans and to the holding of his men as prisoners of war.

After his talk with Mrs. Darrow, Lee scent to his hotel room, attired himself as a private citizen, and then walked over to his old headquarters to learn more about what had happened. To his surprise Texans representing the Committee of Public Safety—Samuel A. Maverick, Thomas Devine, and Phillip N. Luckett—were in charge. They accepted his salutation with reserve and bluntly told him that Texas was out of the Union and had become a Confederate state and that he must also declare himself for the new cause.

This was Lee’s first severe test of loyalty. The Texans’ demand that he support the new order shocked his sense of propriety. He was yet an officer of the federal army, and he loved the Union deeply. Many times in the past he had deplored the agitation of both Northern and Southern “firebrands,” and now he was asked to become associated with them. He reminded the Texans that he was yet a federal officer, that he was a Virginian and not a Texan, and that he reserved the right of making up his mind without pressure. Then he strode angrily from the room. The Texans did not hold him, probably because they felt that he would ultimately support the action of Virginia, and they had nothing to gain by forcing on him a hasty decision.

Charles Anderson, one of Lee’s intimate San Antonio friends, later wrote that Lee came to him directly from this interview, still wrathful. He quoted Lee as saying that the Texans had threatened to hold his personal effects so that he could not leave the city unless he declared his support of the Confederacy but that they had not placed him under arrest. If Anderson would take care of his baggage and send it on to him later, he would depart the next morning for Washington. He cautioned his friend, however, that he wanted to make clear his view on secession. If Virginia seceded, he would support its action with his sword, and, if necessary, with his life, although he did not believe in secession as a constitutional right. Anderson stated that he did not challenge Lee’s position, although he was an ardent pro-Unionist, and that he readily agreed to care for his baggage. It is difficult, however, to accept at face value Anderson’s remembrance of Lee’s declaration, for certainly Lee’s actions were more conservative after he reached Washington, when he hoped that he would never have to draw his sword against the Union.

On the day following this incident Lee quietly boarded the stage for Indianola, where he could take ship for New Orleans on his way back to Washington. General Scott had ordered him to report to him personally, and to Washington he would go.

Units of the Second Cavalry had also left their border posts preparatory to departing from Texas. For years the troopers had stood between the settlers and the Indians, “protecting each at times from the wrong-doings of the other.” Lee’s inspiring zeal and devotion to duty had developed a high morale in the officers and men of his regiment. By 1861 both civilians and soldiers of Texas regarded the Second Cavalry as the élite regiment of the border, and frontiersmen generally expressed alarm that state troops now proposed to supplant these seasoned soldiers. The state press, too, lamented the imminent clash between these two classes of border defenders, saying justly that “the regular army had made with its best blood many places within the state holy and almost classic ground, and black indeed would Ire that page in Texas history which should record such contests.”

Twiggs’s surrender agreement had put the Second Cavalry on an uncertain footing. Captains Oakes, Stoneman, and Whiting met at Fort Inge to consider uniting their three companies to march through Indian Territory to Jefferson Barracks, but they found that all serviceable transportation had been removed from the Texas posts and that subsistence stores were barely sufficient for a march to the Gulf coast.

To make matters worse, the Second Cavalry was without a commanding officer during this crisis. Colonel Johnston was at San Francisco, commanding the Department of California, and Majors Thomas and Van Dorn were on leaves of absence.

In February, 1861, Companies B, D, H, and I started for the coast and were soon followed by the others. When one detachment arrived at San Antonio, it marched through the principal streets with the regimental standard and company guidons displayed and its band playing “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia.” Some of its enlisted men cut down the Texas flag from above the Alamo and used it to make head-streamers for the train mules. Still the troopers were permitted to leave without a brush with the state troops. However, on the day following the sailing of this group from Indianola, a Confederate force entered the town and captured the remaining transport, together with all the troops who had not yet sailed, who now were paroled as prisoners of war.

What happened at Camp Cooper and Fort Mason, the two posts where Lee had been stationed, was typical of other posts. Captain Innis N. Palmer with Companies D and H, Second Cavalry, left Camp Cooper on February 21, 1861, bound for the Texas coast, in keeping with Twiggs’s surrender agreement; and four days later Captain Stephen D. Carpenter surrendered the post to Colonel W. C. Dalrymple of the state troops and marched away with Company I, First United States Infantry. Captain Richard W. Johnson hauled down the flag from above Fort Mason on March 21 and with two companies of the Second Cavalry, started his long journey to the Texas coast. Taking one final glance backward, he saw dense, heavy smoke rising from burning post buildings, probably fired by his own men.

Lee’s departure for Washington brought to an end his military services in Texas, services that not only had established a proud tradition, the Second Cavalry’s marked esprit de corps, but had matured his own spirit as well. Lee was as ignorant of the great contribution he had made as of the effect that Texas had had on him. Both officers and enlisted men under him took great pride in their “Colonel Lee,” as personifying the finest qualities of American soldiery. Moreover, so long as there was a Texas border, lonely military posts, and men to defend them, the high principles, selfless devotion to duty, and sense of justice which Lee exemplified were criteria for leadership.

In return, the long months spent in lonely outposts, with time for meditation and introspection, had ripened Lee, although he no doubt often felt that his Texas years were bringing him to a dead end. No great military advance had been accomplished, and since 1856 he had known little more than frustration of his aims and purposes. He had sought to punish the Comanche marauders but had not found them; he had attempted to keep Katumse and his people “on the white man’s road,” but they had deserted it; he had started to build Camp Cooper into a modern post but was transferred to another field of service before his work was completed; he had spent fruitless months attending court-martials; and he had sought unsuccessfully to capture the slippery Cortinas. As a climax, while he was “lost on the frontier,” the brigadier generalship proposed by his friends was denied him, although official Washington had readily admitted that he richly deserved reward and that he was ”America’s very best soldier.” Less modest men had pushed their own interests and had been favored while Lee spent months of vain waiting for promotion. Moreover, during the time when he was many miles from home, he had been harrassed by mounting and pressing domestic problems, not the least among them the serious illness of his wife and the death of his father-in-law.

In “Walden,” Thoreau, quoting Damodara, said: “There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon.” In western Texas Lee was awed by the “magnificent distances” and learned to appreciate the sweep of the country. Yet silence and loneliness oppressed him at times, and once he wrote that nothing was drawn from his “desert of dullness.” Nevertheless, almost imperceptibly, much had been drawn—amazing patience, forbearance, human understanding, and deep spiritual insight. His intense feeling for his family, his home, and Virginia had ripened into near passion.

East front of Arlington, showing Federal troops in occupation
Courtesy National Archives

When Lee arrived at Arlington on March 1, 1861, he entered a new period of his life, which carries us beyond the bounds of this narrative, and which his biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, describes in graphic detail. Lee was permitted to know only a few weeks of affection and comfort of family and home before he was swept into the vortex of war. On March 1 General Twiggs was dismissed from the army because of his Texas surrender; Colonel E. V. Sumner of the First Cavalry was promoted to brigadier general to succeed him; and Lee was given Sumner’s former command and rank. On April 7 Lee’s old comrade of Mexican War days, P. G. T. Beauregard, this time with the Confederate Army, ordered his men to fire on Fort Sumter, which, two weeks later, surrendered. Now that war had come, President Abraham Lincoln, with Secretary Cameron’s approval, authorized Francis Preston Blair, Sr., to offer Lee command of a federal army of up to 100,000 men to invade the South. Declining the offer, Lee hastened to General Scott to tell him of his refusal.

“Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life,” Scott is reported to have told him, although for some time he had privately thought that Lee might refuse to bear arms against the South. He added that if Lee proposed to resign from the United States Army, he ought to do so at once, for his present position as a federal officer was “equivocal.”

Two days later Lee sent Scott his written resignation, expressing at the same time his deep appreciation of the many favors the General had shown him and saying that he would have presented his resignation at once but for the struggle it had cost him. He added the hope that he would never again have to draw his sword. Months later Mrs. Lee wrote a friend, “My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state.”

On the same day that Lee resigned his commission, he wrote his brother, Smith, and his sister, Mrs. Marshall, explaining his action. To Mrs. Marshall he expressed his love for the Union and his loyalty as an American citizen, but, he said, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” Had he accepted Blair’s tentative offer, he would have had to do just that. He added that he hoped the time would never come when he should be called upon to draw his sword again except in defense of his native state.

But the time did come speedily. Already Lincoln had sent out, on April 15, a ringing call for 75,000 volunteers, to be used presumably in coercing the South. Then the long-threatened storm of war struck, and Lee was forced to take a more militant stand. He realized that Virginia could not escape invasion, for it was just across the Potomac from Washington. The state had seceded from the Union on April 18 and now called on Lee to help repel the massing enemy. The occasion which he had hoped would never arrive was upon him with terrible swiftness, and, the die cast, he accepted the call unhesitatingly. On April 22, at Governor John Letcher’s request, he boarded a train for Richmond to accept a commission in the service of Virginia, which ultimately brought him to the command of the Southern armies.

Lee had deliberately made his decision to support Virginia in its hour of need. He had sheathed his sword to retire to private life; but the Union had gone to pieces in a stormy sea on the rock of sectional discord. Lincoln was trying to reunite it by force of arms, military despotism, Lee thought, and Virginia now called upon him to defend not only its sovereign rights but also his home and his family. Lee felt that he had no greater obligation, save to his God, than to defend them. Therefore, he sped toward Richmond to answer the summons, turning his back on the flag he yet loved.

Lee’s Texas service had brought his physical, mental, and spiritual powers into complete co-ordination. Now he was master of himself and had reached the zenith of his military fitness—mentally alert, with broad experience and sound knowledge of the science of war. Soon the Confederacy would see him as his Fort Mason admirer had described him: “so calm, so serene, so thoughtful, and so commanding.”

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