Washington and Lee University

The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton


IN 1846 there was an outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico along the frontier. In command of the United States troops in Texas was General Zachary Taylor, a Virginian by birth, who had gained some little reputation in the long- drawn-out struggle with the Indians. The early battles of the war were fought under his direction and command. It was entirely due to the renown he won in such battles as Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Matamoras, Monterey, and Buena Vista that he was later elected President of the United States. He possessed genuine military genius and was a silent and a stern man. His lack of formality and ceremony had already gained for him the nickname, “Old Rough and Ready,” in contrast to that given General Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers.”

When it became evident, after hostilities had actually begun, that this war was really a serious one, three lines of attack by the United States were decided upon. One army, under Taylor, was to go by way of Matamoras, on the Rio Grande, into the interior; a second, under General Kearny, was to invade New Mexico and California; and a third, under General Wool, was to descend upon the northern part of Mexico. With this last army Lee went for the first time into the field. In the war he served with such distinction that it may be said that his whole later career was the result of this brilliant beginning. The life he led at this time was described in his letters home. In one to his wife, written soon after he reached Mexico, he says:—

We have met with no resistance yet. The Mexicans who were guarding the passage retired on our approach. There has been a great whetting of knives, grinding of swords, and sharpening of bayonets ever since we reached the river.

Writing to his two oldest sons on Christmas Eve of 1846, he says:—

I hope good Santa Claus will fill my Rob's stocking to-night; that Mildred's, Agnes's, and Anna's may break down with good things. I do not know what he may have for you and Mary, but if he only leaves for you one half of what I wish, you will want for nothing. I have frequently thought if I had one of you on each side of me riding on ponies, such as I could get you, I would be comparatively happy.

They had been asking about the horses and ponies in Mexico, and he continues in the same letter:—

The Mexicans raise a large quantity of ponies, donkeys, and mules, and most of their corn, etc., is carried on the backs of these animals. These little donkeys will carry two hundred pounds on their backs, and the mules will carry three hundred on long journeys over the mountains. The ponies are used for riding and cost from ten to fifty dollars, according to their size and quality. I have three horses. Creole is my pet; she is a golden dun, active as a deer, and carries me over all the ditches and gullies that I have met with; nor has she ever yet hesitated at anything I have put her at; she is full blooded and considered the prettiest thing in the army; though young, she has so far stood the campaign as well as any horses of the division.

Lee's duty as an engineer was to learn the country thoroughly so that the movements of the army might be directed to the best advantage; to choose positions for troops and artillery; to gain accurate information; and to draft maps, cut roads, and build bridges. In all this he showed great ability, but it was in searching out the land that he won special notice.

General Wool was told at one time that Santa Anna, with a much more powerful army than his, had crossed the mountains and was only twenty miles away. It was imperative that the truth behind this rumor should be learned, and Lee volunteered for the task. It was arranged that he should have with him a troop of cavalry and a guide, but in some way orders were confused, and he missed them. Having no one with him except a Mexican boy, who could be trusted only because Lee had told him that he would shoot him if he played false, he set out. Employing a boy as a guide Lee went on, not daring to lose any time. After a ride of many miles he came upon a road heavily worn with tracks of mules and wagons. He believed that he had found the traces of a detachment of troops, and he determined to go on until he reached the outposts of the enemy. Finally, he came within sight of camp-fires, and his guide at once began to beg that they go back, urging that this was Santa Anna's army and that death for both was certain if they went on and were captured. Lee then left his guide and rode forward alone. He was challenged by no pickets and came at last to where he could see what seemed to be white tents, and could hear loud talking. Hoping to learn the size of the force, he rode forward still further and discovered that the supposed white tents were sheep in tremendous numbers, and the army nothing but drovers with a large train of wagons going to market with herds of sheep, cattle, and mules. From the drovers he learned that Santa Anna had not crossed the mountains, and he at once returned to camp with the good news. Everybody rejoiced to see him safe, “but,” said Lee, “the most delighted man to see me was the old Mexican, the father of my guide, with whom I had last been seen by any of our people and whom General Wool had arrested and proposed to hang if I was not forthcoming.” Although Lee had already ridden forty miles that night, he rested only three hours before he headed a troop of cavalry on a scouting expedition far beyond the point where he had come upon the sheep. On this search Lee learned the exact position of the enemy.

About this time a change was made in the general plan of campaign which vitally affected Lee. It was decided that the quickest way to end the war was to strike directly at the City of Mexico—“to conquer a peace,” as General Scott put it. General Scott, at this time the commanding general of the United States Army, had been impatiently waiting in Washington for a chance for active service, but had been kept out for political reasons by the President. He was now placed in command of a new force raised for the expedition. Scott was a native of Virginia, and had been a lawyer before he went into the army. He had won high reputation as a soldier in the War of 1812, and, at the time of the war with Mexico, had reached the age of sixty years. He was rather vain and self-important, but he was a fine soldier and a great and good man.

Scott's high position enabled him to have his wishes carried out and he determined to surround himself with able officers, particularly from the Corps of Engineers. He soon drew from that branch Colonel J. G. Totten, J. L. Smith, R. E. Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, G. B. McClellan, J. G. Foster, Z. B. Tower, I. I. Stevens, and G. W. Smith. Almost at once he placed Lee on his personal staff. In this way the two men grew to be close friends and Scott came to have great confidence in Lee and a great admiration for him both as a man and as a soldier.

While on his way to Vera Cruz, from which place the expedition was expected to start, Lee wrote his sons the following letter:—


My dear Boys:—

I received your letters with the greatest pleasure, and, as I always like to talk to you both together, I will not separate you in my letters, but write one to you both. 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 oh, how much will I suffer on my return if the reverse has occurred! You enter into all my thoughts, in 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 pain.

You will learn, by my letter to your grandmother, that I have been to Tampico. I saw many things to remind me of you, though that was not necessary to make me wish that you were with me. The river was so calm and beautiful, and the boys were playing about in boats, and swimming their ponies. Then there were troops of donkeys carrying water through the streets. They had a kind of saddle, something like a cart saddle, though larger, that carried two ten-gallon kegs on each side, which was a load for a donkey. They had no bridles on, but would come along in strings to the river, and as soon as their kegs were filled, start off again. They were fatter and slicker than any donkeys I had ever seen before, and seemed to be better cared for. I saw a great many ponies too. They were much larger than those in the upper country, but did not seem so enduring. I got one to ride around the fortifications. He had a Mexican bit and saddle on, and paced delightfully, but every time my sword struck him on the flanks, would jump and try to run off. Several of them had been broken to harness by the Americans and I saw some teams in wagons, driven four in hand, well matched and trotting well. We had a grand parade on General Scott's arrival. The troops were all drawn up on the bank of the river, and fired a salute as he passed them. He landed at the market, where lines of sentinels were placed to keep off the crowd. In front of the landing the artillery was drawn up, which received him in the center of the column and escorted him through the streets to his lodgings. They had provided a handsome gray horse, richly caparisoned, for him to ride, but he preferred to walk with his staff around him, and a dragoon led the horse behind us. The windows along the streets we passed were crowded with people, and the boys and girls were in great glee—the Governor's Island band playing all the time.

There were six thousand soldiers in Tampico. Mr. Barry was the adjutant of the escort. I think you would have enjoyed with me the oranges and sweet potatoes. Major Smith became so fond of the chocolate that I could hardly get him away from the house. We remained there only one day. I have a nice stateroom on board this ship. Joe Johnston and myself occupy it, but my poor Joe is so sick all the time, I can do nothing with him. I left “Jem” to come on with the horses, as I was afraid they would not be properly cared for. Vessels were expressly fitted up for the horses, and parties of dragoons detailed to take care of them. I had hoped they would reach here by this time, as I wanted to see how they were fixed. I took every precaution for their comfort, provided them with bran, oats, etc., and had slings made to pass under them and be attached to the coverings above, so that, if in a heavy sea, they should slide or be thrown off their feet, they could not fall. I had to sell my good old horse “Jim” as I could not find room for him, or, rather, I did not want to crowd the others. I know I shall want him when I land. Creole was the admiration of every one at Brazos, and they hardly believed she had carried me so far, and looked so well. Jem says there is nothing like her in all the country, and I believe he likes her better than “Tom” or “Jerry.” The sorrel mare did not appear to be so well after I got to the Brazos. I had to put one of the men on her whose horse had given out, and the saddle hurt her back. She had gotten well, however, before I left, and I told Jem to ride her every day. I hope they may both reach the shore again in safety, but I fear they will have a hard time. They will first have to be put aboard a steamboat and carried to the ship that lies about two miles out at sea, then hoisted in, and how we shall get them ashore again I do not know. Probably throw them overboard and let them swim there. I do not think we shall remain here more than one day longer. General Worth's and General Twiggs's divisions have arrived, which include the regulars, and I suppose the volunteers will be coming on every day. We shall probably go on the first down the coast, select a place for debarkation, and make all the arrangements preparatory to the arrival of the troops. I shall have plenty to do there, and am anxious for the time to come, and hope all may be successful. Tell Rob he must think of me very often, be a good boy, and always love papa. Take care of “Spec” and the colts. Mr. Sedgwick and all the officers send their love to you.

The ship rolls so I can scarcely write. You must write to me very often. I am always very glad to hear from you. Be sure that I think of you, and that you have the prayers of Your affectionate father,

R. E. Lee.

In the early winter of 1847 the Scott expedition laid siege to Vera Cruz, which had defenses supposed to be almost impossible to take. Lee, as an engineer, was kept very busy here. He had the chief direction of the placing of batteries, and for two weeks he worked both day and night. His work was so well done that General Scott said in his report that Lee had greatly distinguished himself. Here Lee came near to death from one of his own men, a panic-stricken sentry firing at him so close that his coat was burned, while the ball passed between his arm and his body An amusing incident occurred in connection with Lee's work. He received orders to throw up earthworks to protect a battery to be manned by the sailors from a man-of-war. The sailors did not like the digging and the captain of the frigate protested, saying that the only use his men would have for earthworks would be to fight from the top of them. Captain Lee was deaf to all such protests and gave his attention to pushing the work rapidly forward. It was barely finished when the Mexicans opened fire and all the sailors gladly took refuge behind the despised “bank of dirt.” Not long afterward the gallant sea captain apologized for his comments, and then said, “The fact is, Captain, I don't like land fighting anyway. It ain't clean.”

At Vera Cruz Lee found his brother, Lieutenant Sydney Smith Lee, of the Navy. In a letter from there, Lee said, after describing a certain battery:—

The first day this battery opened, Smith served one of the guns. I had constructed the battery, and was there to direct its fire. No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh! I felt awfully, and 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. I had placed three 32 and three 68 pound guns in position. . . . Their fire was terrific, and 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.

Vera Cruz was at last taken, and Scott moved towards the interior, but at Cerro Gordo, Santa Anna confronted him with a large army, holding a position of great strength. General Scott's own account tells best what followed. Said he:—

Reconnoissances were pushed in search of some practicable route other than the winding zigzag road among the spurs of the mountains, with heavy batteries at every turn. The reconnoissances were conducted with vigor under Captain Lee at the head of a body of pioneers, and at the end of the third day a passable way for light batteries was accomplished without alarming the enemy, giving the possibility of turning the extreme left of his line of defense and capturing his whole army, except the reserve, that lay a mile or two higher up the road. Santa Anna said that he had not believed a goat could have approached him in that direction. Hence the surprise and the results were the greater.

As a result the Mexican left was turned and the Mexican army defeated. Again Scott reported:—

I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee, Engineer. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz; was indefatigable during these operations of reconnoissances, as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planting batteries and conducting columns from stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.

These reconnoissances, or scouting expeditions, were very dangerous. Once when Lee had gone too far on one of them, he had to hide under a fallen tree near a spring to which the Mexicans came for water. He could hear the hostile soldiers talking and got very anxious to escape, but he was obliged to lie there until the coming of night made his escape possible. Several times parties crossed the very log under which he lay. Lee wrote his son Custis about the battle of Cerro Gordo and said:—

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 you were at school, I hope learning to be good and wise. You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is.

The army, marching on, reached Contreras only to find it so strongly defended that the regular road could not be passed over. It ran between a deep swamp and an apparently impassable lava bed, but Lee found a mule trail over the Pedregal, as the lava field was called, and this he opened up. He then led over it the commands of Generals Pillow and Worth, who captured the village of Contreras. It proved necessary for them to push on at once and engage the enemy, and Lee volunteered to return and tell Scott of the plan so that he could assist. Alone, in the night, in the midst of a terrible tropical storm, Lee made his way across the Pedregal, which was infested with roving Mexican bands, back to Scott, and then returned to take part in the morning's assault. Scott, who had already sent seven officers in turn to cross the Pedregal and had seen them all return unsuccessful, declared Lee's trip “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage, performed by any individual, to my knowledge, pending the campaign.”

In the battle of Contreras, Lee guided the left wing of the army to the attack. In his report of this battle Scott commended his staff, and after Lee's name said, “as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring.” The army was again victorious at Molino del Rey, and then followed a series of brilliant and daring recon- noissances by the engineers, chief of whom was Lee with Beauregard assisting him. The army then stormed the heights of Chapultepec and successfully carried them, thus opening the way to the City of Mexico. In this engagement Lee was wounded. Scott's report again mentioned him, saying, “Captain Lee, Engineer, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries.”

Scott's reports make very clear his opinion of Lee, and later he said that his “success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee.” He also said of him that he was the “greatest military genius in America, the best soldier that he ever saw in the field, and that, if opportunity offered, he would show himself the foremost captain of his time.” Scott's opinion was shared by others. Every commander with whom Lee served in Mexico spoke of him in the same strain. One of his biographers, speaking of his work in Mexico, says:—

The high estimate of Lee's military abilities formed by all who associated with him in the Mexican War was not based upon mere partiality for the man because of his winning personal qualities. His services at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and Contreras especially, were marked by those striking qualities which won him so much celebrity in the War of Secession; namely, quick perception, fertility in expedients, sound judgment, energy, audacity, and perfect intrepidity.

As a result of his brilliant work, promotion followed. He was given the brevet rank of major for his work at Cerro Gordo, brevet lieutenant-colonel for that at Contreras, and brevet colonel for that at Chapultepec. When Lee's father-in-law wrote him of the anxiety of his friends that his bravery and his services should be suitably rewarded, Lee characteristically replied:—

I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance on my account, or any concern about the distribution of favors. I know how those things are awarded at Washington, and how the President will be besieged by clamorous 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.

He was sincerely modest about his part in the war and wrote to his brother:—

As to myself, your brotherly feelings have made you estimate too highly my small services, and though praise from one I love so dearly is sweet, truth compels me to disclaim it. I did nothing more than what others in my place would have done much better. The great cause of our success was our leader.

While the results of the war were being settled by diplomacy, Lee remained in Mexico until June, 1848. He studied a great deal during this period, but he also spent many hours on horseback enjoying the beautiful scenery and the wonderful plants and flowers. His letters home were long and full of interesting details. When General Scott, for political reasons, was ordered before a court of inquiry, Lee was very indignant and wrote, “General Scott, whose skill and service has crushed the enemy and conquered a peace, can now be dismissed and turned out as an old horse to die.”

His home-coming was full of joy for Lee. He wrote his brother:—

Here I am once again, 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 recognizable to some of the young ones around me and perfectly unknown to the youngest. . . . 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.

He brought home with him the horse he had ridden in Mexico, Grace Darling, and for her sake took the long trip up the Mississippi instead of coming directly home. She had been shot seven times, which showed in what sort of places her master had been in the habit of going, and he, naturally, was devoted to her. He also had a small pony, named Santa Anna, sent home by sea for his son Robert, which soon became a family favorite.

The Mexican War was in many respects a small affair, a struggle with only a narrow scope. Its great importance in American history lies in the fact that in it were developed many of the men who were to be the leaders, on one side or the other, in the great struggle for the Union then near at hand. Of the subordinate officers in the Mexican War, Lee gained the greatest distinction, but there were many others not far behind him. Of these Scott ranked George B. McClellan next to Lee. In Scott's army were Ulysses S. Grant, twenty-five years old, a lieutenant of infantry, who for gallantry, won by brevet the rank of captain; he had been with Taylor at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterey, and joined Scott at Vera Cruz; George B. McClellan, twenty-one years of age, an engineer, for bravery was breveted first lieutenant and later captain; George H. Thomas, a first lieutenant of artillery, was breveted three times for gallantry; John Sedgwick and John G. Foster were twice breveted, and Winfield Scott Hancock, a second lieutenant of infantry, was also breveted; Irvin McDowell, later to be the first commander of the Army of the Potomac, was in Mexico as an aide-de-camp; Joseph Hooker was also a staff officer and Ambrose E. Burnside joined the army with a party of recruits while it was on the march to the interior. These were the most important of the number who later were distinguished as Federal officers.

Many of the men who were to be Confederate leaders also took part in the war. Albert Sidney Johnston was there with a Texas regiment; Joseph E. Johnston, who was then a lieutenant-colonel, was twice wounded and breveted three times; Braxton Bragg, a captain of artillery, was the first to plant the colors on the ramparts of Chapultepee; Thomas J. Jackson, a lieutenant of artillery, won high praise from his superiors; John B. Mao gruder was wounded once and breveted twice while in Mexico; Richard S. Ewell and P. G. T. Beauregard were twice breveted, and Edward Kirby Smith three times. Others there were A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill, Jubal A. Early, Samuel Cooper, Simon B. Buckner, and many more. With Taylor were James Longstreet, W. J. Hardee, Richard Taylor, and a host of others. Jefferson Davis, who, as President of the Confederacy, was to become commander-in-chief of all its armies, was there in command of a Mississippi regiment.

All these young fellows together braved hardship and toil and danger. They suffered and fought side by side, under the same flag and for one cause. Little did they dream that fifteen years later they would be ranged, some on one side and some on the other, in one of the greatest wars of history, in which, be it said to their credit, they never lost their respect nor, in many cases, their affection, for each other.

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