Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy
By Henry Alexander White



IN the year 1845, the Commonwealth of Texas brought into the Federal Union her dispute with Mexico concerning the true western boundary of the Lone Star State. In 1821, Mexico had revolted from Spain and organised a republic; Texas was one of the provinces of this confederation. The great multitude of home-builders moving westward from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, composed chiefly of Ulstermen, at once swarmed into the Texan plains, and established themselves upon lands granted by the Mexican government. Under the leadership of Houston, the Virginian, these colonists threw off the sovereignty of Mexico by the vix:tory of San Jacinto, and formed the independent Republic of Texas in 1836. The following year saw the recognition of this Republic by the United States, and some European kingdoms. A treaty proposing the annexation of Texas to the Federal Union was rejected by the United States Senate in 1844. In the Presidential campaign of that year, the leading issue between the Democratic and Whig parties was the admission of Texas into the Union. The Democrats secured the victory on the platform of annexation, and a joint resolution of both houses of Congress ushered Texas into the Federal household.

The United States supported the State of Texas in the claim that her true western boundary was the Rio Grande. This river formed the limit of the district named Texas, as a part of the Louisiana territory sold by Spain in 1800 and by France in 1803. But Mexico warned the United States not to attempt to establish jurisdiction west of the Nueces River. This stream marked the limit of actual American occupation.

Without consulting Congress, President Polk ordered General Taylor to lead an army across the Nueces to hold the country as far as the Rio Grande. The Mexicans crossed this river and attacked Taylor at Palo Alto and at Resaca de la Palma. Taylor drove the Mexicans in rout, followed in pursuit and captured Matamoras, a town on the western bank of the Rio Grande. Polk then declared to Congress, May 11, 1846, that a state of war already existed “by the act of Mexico herself.” Congress was in sympathy with the President’s action, and war was formally recognised.

This action was a response to the war-spirit ablaze in the West, which was due to the lust for land that characterised the Western colonists of that heroic age, and to race hatred against the Mexicans. This hatred was deepened by the cry of the Texans for help against their oppressors. A desire to thwart England in her supposed design of gaining control of Texas led many to demand the invasion of the region west of the Nueces. Some of the Southern leaders were anxious to secure prospective States in order to maintain Democratic control of the Senate, although Calhoun was stoutly opposed to all aggression. These various motives brought about the popular clamour for war. Roosevelt declares (Life of Benton, p. 174) that “slavery had very little to do with the Western aggressions on Mexican territory.” Far less had it to do with the invasion of 1846, but to this matter we shall refer again. As leaders of the demand for battle on Mexican soil, the people of the West were far in advance of the people of the Southern Atlantic States. From these two parts of our country, the greater part of the volunteer army was enlisted. Two-thirds of all the American soldiers engaged came from the Southern States.

In September, 1846, General Taylor planted his flag on the fortifications of Monterey, nineteen miles south-west of the Rio Grande. On the plateau of Buena Vista, February 22 and 23, 1847, Santa Anna with twelve thousand soldiers assailed Taylor’s army of fifty-two hundred. All of Taylor’s infantry and four-fifths of his cavalry were volunteers and most of them had never been under fire. The splendid courage of the men from the Mississippi valley gave Taylor complete victory. Santa Anna withdrew to the defence of his Capital which was now threatened from the direction of Vera Cruz by General Scott.

In the band of twelve thousand American soldiers who gathered around the old Spanish walled town of Vera Cruz in March, 1847, was Robert E. Lee, Captain of Engineers. He was a member of General Scott’s military staff. At Arlington he had left the beloved wife and seven children with his prayers and blessings. “I, therefore, trust . . . that this is the last time I shall be absent from you during my life,” was a message sent back to the home-circle. Before the arrival in front of Vera Cruz, Lee sent these injunctions to his two eldest sons:

I was much gratified to hear of your progress at school, and hope that you will continue to advance, and that I shall have the happiness
of finding you much improved in all your studies on my return. I shall not feel my long separation from you, if I find that my absence has been of no injury to you, and that you have both grown in goodness and knowledge, as well as stature. But, ah! how much I will suffer on my return if the reverse has occurred. You enter all my thoughts, into all my prayers; and on you, in part, will depend whether I shall be happy or miserable, as you know how much I love you. You must do all in your power to save me from pain. . . . Tell Rob he must think of me very often, be a good boy, and always love papa.

With the assistance of Lieutenants Beauregard and Tower, Captain Lee arranged the batteries whose firing compelled the surrender of Vera Cruz within seven days. One of the American guns was served by Captain Lee’s brother, Lieutenant Sydney Smith Lee, of the navy: “No matter where I turned,“ wrote Lee, “my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh! I felt awfully, and am at a loss what I should have done had he been cut down before me. I thank God that he was saved. He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire.” Concerning the firing against the fortress, Lee wrote: “The shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular discharges, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall. It was awful! My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White


The middle of April, 1847, saw General Scott’s army upon the march of over two hundred miles north-westward to the city of Mexico. In the pass of Cerro Gordo, Santa Anna massed his army to give battle. Lee was sent forward by General Scott to make reconnaissances along the front and around the left of the Mexican position as far as the Jalapa road. Upon the report made by Lee, Scott’s plan of battle was based. Lee in person guided the storming party under Riley and Shields that turned and routed the Mexican left, cut off the Mexican right from retreat and compelled its surrender. General Scott thus made mention of Captain Lee: “This officer was again indefatigable during these operations, in reconnaissances as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planting batteries and in conducting columns to their stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.”

To his eldest son, Lee wrote as follows after the battle:

I thought of you, my dear Custis, on the 18th, in the battle, and wondered, when the musket balls and grape were whistling over my head in a perfect shower, where I could put you, if with me, to be safe. I was truly thankful that you were at school, I hope learning to be good and wise. You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is.

The fearful sights and sounds of the place of carnage lingered in Lee’s memory as the source of a personal grief. The one note of the after-scene that continued to sound in his ear was the plaintive tone of a little Mexican girl whom he found bending over a wounded drummer-boy. Lee longed to escape these horrors. From the next camp he wrote to his wife concerning Jalapa as “the most beautiful country I have seen in Mexico, and will compare with any I have seen elsewhere. I wish it was in the United States, and that I was located with you and the children around me in one of its rich bright valleys.”

Early in August, Scott’s army of ten thousand effectives advanced from Puebla upon Mexico, with the engineer company at the head of the column. At Ayotla, near the northern shore of Lake Chalco, Scott’s camp was pitched, and reconnaissance was begun. Lee was the leader of the band of enginneers who made investigation of the Mexican position. It was at length decided to turn the right flank of the Mexican defences. Therefore, the American army was moved along the highway skirting the southern shore of Chalco until it reached San Augustin. This town was at the foot of the mountains, twelve miles south of the city of Mexico, and it now became the base of operations in the attempt to take the Capital. The strategic movement by which the Mexican line of defences were thus assailed on the right flank and overwhelmed, was very largely due to the advice offered to the commanding general by Captain Lee.

The city of Mexico rests in a valley of elliptical shape, seven thousand five hundred feet above the sea level. In the valley are five lakes. The two smallest lie north of the city; Texcoco is east of the city; Xochimilco and Chalco lie toward the southeast. During the winter months, the valley is partly submerged by water; hence the approach to the city is made on seven high causeways bordered by deep ditches. Toward the east and south the Mexicans had erected strong fortifications commanding these narrow approaches. The causeway from San Augustin to Mexico was high and broad, and, three miles in advance, was fortified at San Antonio. West of the San Augustin causeway two parallel roads ran toward Mexico. Padierna, or Contreras, four miles due west of San Augustin, was the key to these two highways.

Lee and Beauregard were sent, August 18th, to reconnoitre the position of Contreras1 They had to cross a vast field of lava or volcanic rock, of broken and uneven surface, called the Pedrigal. A few footpaths were the only roads over this rough field of sharp ridges and deep fissures. The movement of the next day upon Contreras was under Lee’s personal direction. It was he who planned the attack and guided the troops to victory.

From San Augustin, on the morning of August 19th, Lee hastened westward in charge of a pioneer corps. At the end of a mile’s marching, the workmen began the construction of a road across the lava ridge that barred the way. By noon-day Lee had brought up the divisions of Pillow and Twiggs to assail the guns of Valencia posted in the edge of the lava field beyond the ridge. Concerning the attack made by Twiggs’s column under Lee’s guidance, the latter thus made report: “I advanced with the rifle regiment deployed as skirmishers, and selected the best route for the artillery through the impracticable fields of lava. . . . The enemy was intrenched behind the San Angel road on the hills of Contreras.”

Against the fortified hill a flank movement was at once set in operation. Lee led Smith’s brigade toward his right in order to turn the Mexican left and rear. But darkness checked this movement, and, upon Lee’s advice, it was decided to bring up reinforcements from San Augustin. This perilous mission over the dangerous Pedrigal was entrusted to Lee himself. Through the darkness and the rain he groped his way across the lava wilderness, and midnight found him making report to General Scott. Before dawn he was on the return journey, leading Ransom’s command to make assault in front of the Mexican position. Over the ridge and field of lava, Lee guided this force to the attack, just as the flanking columns were rushing upon Valencia’s rear. The Mexicans fled in every direction, and twenty-two heavy guns were left behind as the spoil of war.

The daring courage of Lee, so signally shown at Contreras, was melted into tenderness when he saw in J. E. Johnston’s face the grief caused by the death of a relative in the battle. To his old friend, through the gathering tears, Lee “expressed his deep sympathy as tenderly in words as his lovely wife would have done.”

“The gallant and indefatigable Captain Lee”was accorded by General Scott the chief credit for securing the victory of Contreras. Concerning Lee’s night journeys across the Pedrigal and its dangerous pitfalls, General Scott made this declaration: “He, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible’ to return to San Augustin in the dark,—the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge, pending the campaign.” When Scott reached the field of Contreras he found his troops already moving, under Lee’s advice, toward San Antonio. At once Scott sent Lee to make reconnaissance toward the rear of that place. Scott was now advancing directly towards Mexico. The highways leading to that city from Contreras and San Augustin were found to converge in the village of Churubusco. The Mexican army was there concentrated to resist the American advance over both
roads. Direct assault upon the village was made in front; Lee led a turning column under Shields and Pierce across the Churubusco Bridge toward the Mexican right and rear.

Advancing from Coyoacan, [says Lee,] toward the city of Mexico until I had crossed the stream over which the bridge of Churubusco is thrown, I crossed the field obliquely to the rear, towards the road from Churubusco to Mexico. Discovering a large mass of infantry on the Churubusco bridge, and apprehending a fire from batteries to defend the rear, I drew out towards the city of Mexico until I reached the large hamlet on the Mexican road about three fourths of a mile in the rear of the bridge of Churubusco. Throwing the left of his brigade upon this building which offered protection against the mass of cavalry stretching towards the gates of Mexico, and his right upon the building in the field in rear of which we had approached, General Shields formed his line obliquely to that of the enemy, who, not to be outflanked, had drawn out from his entrenchments and extended his line from the bridge to nearly opposite our left. General Pierce’s brigade coming up just after General Shields’s brigade had commenced the attack, took position to his right, enveloping the building in the field. Our troops being now hotly engaged and somewhat pressed, I urged forward the Howitzer battery under Lt. Reno, who very promptly brought the pieces to bear upon the head of their column with good effect. Perceiving that the enemy’s cavalry were showing themselves on our left, and that our force was greatly outnumbered, I hastened back to the General-in-chief, who directed Major Sumner to take the Rifle regiment and a squadron to the support of that wing. About the time this force reached the open country in rear of Churubusco, the enemy began to give way, and before they had reached the position occupied by General Shields, had broken in all directions. Their front forced by General Worth’s division, and the main body driven into the main road to Mexico by our infantry and cavalry, I joined the troops in pursuit.

After an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a peace, the two combatants girded themselves for the final struggle. Across the highway leading into the city from the south-west the Mexicans concentrated their troops for defence. In front they presented a fortified line five hundred yards in length. At the left of this line was Molinos-del-Rey, the Mills of the King, and at the right stood a fort, within which was a large building termed the Casa Mata. Along the front of this entire line extended a deep ditch. On a height, in rear of the line, towered the fortified Castle of Chapultepec. Hovering on the right wing were the Mexican cavalry.

Early on the morning of September 8th, Worth made a gallant assault that continued two hours, and carried by storm the Casa Mata and Molinos-del-Rey. Behind the second line of defences, whose centre bristled with the guns of Chapultepec, Santa Anna’s troops were now massed. Lee and other engineers advised a flank movement to the right of Chapultepec, and an assault on the San Antonio gate, south of the city. Beauregard was the only engineer who favoured a direct attack upon the fortress of Chapultepec. This plan was adopted. An isolated mound of rock, one hundred and fifty feet high, surmounted by a large building, constituted the castle; a solid wall enclosed the building and grounds. Breastworks added strength to the hill, and heavy batteries commanded the approaches. Along the steep western slope were a series of mines. This strong tower, the key to the city, loomed up two miles in front of the gates of Mexico.

Four batteries were established and a hot fire maintained upon the Castle during fourteen hours of September 12th. The early morning of September 13th saw two columns advancing to the assault under Quitman of Mississippi and Pillow of Tennessee. The batteries continued their fire, while up the steep ascent with scaling ladders the two bands moved. Southern soldiers were the chief leaders in this bold dash through the storm of shells and bullets. Many of the most prominent officers who stood arrayed against each other nearly two decades later in the war between the States, marched side by side up the steeps of Chapultepec. Up the western slope marched Pillow’s column, J. E. Johnston leading the advance; Lewis A. Armistead was first to leap into the great ditch, and the wall itself was captured and held. A little later, the South Carolina regiment, leading Quitman’s advance, reached the southeastern summit, and broke through the fortifications. Longstreet fell wounded on the side of the hill; Geo. E. Pickett led the charge which carried the flag of the 8th Regiment through the works and planted it on the Castle’s summit. Shields and Casey were wounded; Beauregard was a member of Pillow’s column, and G. B. McClellan was directing the artillery fire. Around the left base of the fortress a section of Magruder’s artillery was advanced under T. J. Jackson. Steadily onward went Jackson until he reached the point-blank range of the Mexican batteries intrenched across the road immediately in the rear of Chapultepec; away from these guns he drove the enemy, held the position, and with the additional guns brought up as reinforcements kept back the Mexican soldiery who were coming from Mexico to help maintain the Castle. For his effective management of batteries at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, Jackson was brevet ted captain and major of artillery.

Through the hottest firing that day, Lee galloped as Scott’s chief aide, bearing orders to the attacking columns. Scott thus made mention of Lee in his report: “Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me (September 13th), until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights’ sleep at the batteries.” For his gallantry at Chapultepec, Lee was advanced to the brevet rank of colonel; he had already been brevetted as major after Cerro Gordo, and as lieutenant-colonel for daring and skill at Contreras and Churubusco.

Close upon the retreating Mexicans, the American army moved toward the Belen and San Cosme gates. Quitman’s column was first at the goal, and announced its success by waving from the wall, above the Belen gate, the flag of the Palmetto regiment of South Carolina. Worth’s division fastened its grasp upon the San Cosme gate about nightfall. The hours of darkness were seized upon by Santa Anna as an opportunity for the evacuation of the city of Mexico. The hour of sunrise, September 14th, found Lee bearing Scott’s orders to Quitman to occupy the city. Lee was with the squadron that advanced to the Grand Plaza and took possession of the halls of the Montezumas.

While the army was awaiting the conclusion of the treaty of peace, the engineer officers were engaged in making surveys and drawings of the city of Mexico and its defences. In addition to these labours, Lee took upon himself the work of re-establishing peaceable relations between General Scott and some of his subordinate officers. “He was a peacemaker by nature,” says Henry J. Hunt, who has told us of this work of conciliation on the part of Lee.

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White

From a photograph taken in 1852, when Lee became Superintendent of West Point.

Lee took great interest in the making of the treaty with Mexico. “I would not exact now,” he wrote in February, 1848, “more than I would have taken before the commencement of hostilities, as I should wish nothing but what was just, and that I would have sooner or later.” Concerning Mexico in the war, he wrote, with a touch of humour: “It is true we bullied her. For that I am ashamed, for she was the weaker party, but we have since, by way of set-off, drubbed her handsomely and in a manner no man might be ashamed of. They begin to be aware how entirely they are beaten, and are willing to acknowledge it.” As to the official recognition of his own services by the President of the United States, he had only this to say:

I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance on my account, or any concern about the distribution of favours. I know how those things are awarded at Washington and how the President will be besieged by clamourous claimants. I do not wish to be numbered among them. Such as he can conscientiously bestow, I shall gratefully receive, and have no doubt that those will exceed my deserts.

In the early days of April, 1848, we find him sending description of the Romish Church, situated on the mountain to the west of Mexico, and at the same time giving a young friend in Alexandria the advice that “you had better dismiss that young divine, and marry a soldier. There is some chance of the latter being shot, but it requires a particular dispensation of Providence to rid you of the former.” While the Mexican Government was making delay in the completion of the treaty, Lee expressed the view that a display of force would bring these shrewd people to terms; “I might make a rough diplomatist, but a tolerably quick one.”

To spare his war-horse from fatigue, Lee made the slow journey homeward up the Mississippi River by steamer. Wilcox has declared that Lee was then “the handsomest man in the army.” The last hours of June, 1848, closed upon him at Arlington, sending this despatch to his brother:

Here I am once again, my dear Smith, perfectly surrounded by Mary and her precious children, who seem to devote themselves to staring at the furrows in my face and the white hairs in my head. It is not surprising that I am hardly recognisable to some of the young eyes around me and perfectly unknown to the youngest, but some of the older ones gaze with astonishment and wonder at me, and seem at a loss to reconcile what they see and what was pictured in their imaginations. I find them, too, much grown, and all well, and I have much cause for thankfulness and gratitude to that good God who has once more united us.

Lee was now entrusted with engineering work in constructing the defences of the city of Baltimore. When the order of the Secretary of War in 1852 assigned him to the position of Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, he made protest, as follows, to the Chief Engineer:

I learn with much regret the determination of the Secretary of War to assign me to that duty, and I fear I cannot realise his expectations in the management of an Institution requiring more skill and more experience than I command.

Although fully appreciating the honour of the station, and extremely reluctant to oppose my wishes to the orders of the Department, yet if I be allowed any option in the matter, I would respectfully ask that some other successor than myself be appointed to the present able Superintendent.

In Spite of these objections, he was assigned to the position, and all of its duties he discharged with signal success. Lee found his eldest son, Custis, a cadet in the Academy. J. E. B. Stuart was a classmate of Custis Lee. The latter stood at the head of his class when his father came, and he maintained himself in that grade until his graduation in 1854. Painstaking care and attention to all the details of official business marked Lee’s administration of three years. The discipline of the Academy was made more efficient, the course of study was extended to five years, and a spacious riding-hall was constructed.

In 1855, Captain Lee was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the 2d Cavalry, and sent to the scene of Indian troubles in western Texas. He spent the summer of 1856 in parleying with the Comanche chief, Catumseh, and in pursuing his marauding bands. Under the scorching suns of the Wachita and Brazos River valleys he rode eight hundred miles in forty days. The fourth day of July he celebrated by an early march of thirty miles, and during the rest of the day he sought refuge from the fierce heat by lying under his blanket, “which was elevated on four sticks driven, in the ground as a sunshade.” When his wife wrote him of a possible vacancy in the list of brigadier-generals in the army, he sent this answer: “Do not give yourself any anxiety about the appointment of the brigadier. If it is on my account that you feel an interest in it, I beg you will discard it from your thoughts. You will be sure to be disappointed; nor is it right to indulge improper and useless hopes. It, besides, looks like presumption to expect it.”

The month of December, 1856, found him enjoying garrison life on the Rio Grande, yet longing to be with the loved ones at Arlington during Christmas-tide. In daily walks he passed alone up and down the banks of the river, and there found pleasure, as he declared, in his own thoughts, in the varied plumage of the birds and in the beauty of the vines and flowers. Lee’s character breathes in the following injunctions to his son, written about the time that the father began service with the 2d Cavalry:

You must study to be frank with the world. Frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted 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 anyone.

In closing this letter of counsel, Lee told his son of the Connecticut legislator who desired lights to be brought during the darkness of an eclipse that the House might proceed with its duty, even though the day of judgment were at hand:

There was quietness in that man’s mind—the quietness of heavenly wisdom ard inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less. Never let me or your mother wear one grey hair for any lack of duty on your part.

But the shadow of approaching war between the States grew darker during these brief years of Lee’s training as a frontier cavalry officer. In the discussion of political affairs he had taken no part. From the Rio Grande, December 27, 1856, he despatched the following letter, as his earliest extended reference to the social problem that had already sundered the States of the Federal Union into two separate and distinct sections:

I was much pleased with the President’s message. His [Pierce’s] views of the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South are truthfully and faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans and purposes are also clearly set forth. These people must be aware that their object is both unlawful and foreign to them and to their duty, and that this institution, for which they are irresponsible and unaccountable, can only be changed by them through the agency of a civil and servile war.

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages I think it a greater evil to the white than to the black race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare them for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity, than from the storms and tempests of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The docrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist. While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, and all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end; Who chooses to work by slow influences; with whom two thousand years are but as a single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right nor the power of operating, except by moral means, and that, to benefit the slave, he must incite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the result will still be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no concern with, hold good with every kind of interference with our neighbour; still I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?


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