FOR years Texas had been struggling for independence and separation from Mexico. Its people succeeded in electing a separate government, and as a republic it applied for admission to the United States. This roused the stronger opposition of the jealous republic of Mexico. Then came the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845. This precipitated war with Mexico, which was declared by the United States government in May, 1846. Both commanders-in-chief in this war were Virginians. The two men, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, were exactly opposite in their natures and habits. General Taylor cared little for forms and precedents. He was so blunt and impetuous in action that he was nicknamed “Old Rough-and-Ready.”
General Scott was equally, if not even more, capable as a commander. He was a man of heroic size, but showed himself to be a martinet for forms and regulations. He had the eye of a matinée idol for a dramatic situation, and a self-conscious way of announcing trivial personal matters as if they concerned every one as much as himself. So they called General Scott, with all his ability and success, “Old Fuss-and-Feathers.”
Lee, of course, being a successful engineer and military man, had to be with the army of the United States when it was ready to enter Mexico from the North. This was to be the young captain's first experience in the field. While they were waiting on the border, he wrote to his wife, under date of October 11th, 1846, on the Rio Grande:
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 since we reached the river.
The father-heart dwelt ever upon those at home. He wrote to his two older sons—Custis was thirteen then, and Fitzhugh, nine—from the camp at Saltillo:
I have frequently thought that 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.
He planned to write to his wife next day, as his Christmas celebration, but word came in the morning that the Mexicans were coming. So he wrote later:
The troops stood to their arms and I lay on the grass with my sorrel mare saddled by my side, and telescope directed to the pass of the mountain through which the road approached. The Mexicans, however, did not make their appearance.
Referring to the black-and-tan dog he had been told was pining for his absent master, Captain Lee added:
Can't you cure poor “Spec”? Cheer him up; take him to walk with you—and tell the children to cheer him up.
General Taylor practically ended the war in northern Mexico by defeating twenty thousand Mexicans with five thousand Americans at Buena Vista. This left a large contingent, including Captain Lee's, free to meet forces gathering for the southern campaign under General Scott. These met at Tampico and proceeded from there to Vera Cruz, far down on the Gulf coast, which city was chosen as the next scene of action. On his way down the coast the Captain wrote a long letter to Custis and Fitzhugh, of which this is part:
At Vera Cruz Captain Robert E. Lee became a member of “the Little Cabinet,” the name given to his staff and advisers by General Scott, who made no secret that he expected that a man of such stately presence and heroic achievements must in time be elected by a grateful people, President of the United States. Among those around him were Lieutenants George B. McClellan, also of the Engineer Corps, and P. G. T. Beauregard, and many other officers who became great generals at a later day.
First they determined to lay siege to the city, and Engineer Lee was busy, day and night, for weeks. Then a joint attack upon it by the Army and Navy was decided upon. It was during these preparations that Robert met his brother, Sydney Smith Lee of the Navy. Of the bombardment which followed, the Captain wrote, referring to his brother's conduct in it:
The first day this battery opened, Smith served one of the guns. I had constructed the battery and was there to direct the fire. No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere.
From this vicinity he wrote home about “Spec,” the forlorn rat-terrier:
Tell him I wish he was here with me. He would have been of great service in telling me when I was coming upon the Mexicans. When I was reconnoitering around Vera Cruz, their dogs frequently told me, by barking, when I was approaching them too nearly.
After the taking of Vera Cruz, General Scott began the invasion of the country—to “conquer a peace,” as he pompously announced, “in the Halls of the Montezumas.” But at Cerro Gordo the Americans were met by Santa Anna, with his Mexican hosts. Scott's report of the battle which ensued contained this honorable mention:
Reconnaissances were pushed in search of some practicable route other than the winding, zigzag road among the spurs of the mountains, with heavy [Mexican] batteries at every turn. The reconnaissances were conducted with vigor under Captain Lee at the head of a body of pioneers, and at the end of the third day a possible 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 up the road. Santa Anna said that he had not believed that a goat could have approached him in that direction. Hence the surprise and the results were the greater.
After this battle Lee wrote to his eldest son:
I thought of you, my dear Custis, on the 18th [April, 1847] 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 place a battlefield is!
From Cerro Gordo General Scott advanced toward the Mexican capital, stopping to win battles at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey and Chapultepec. At Contreras there was a great lava-bed called the Pedregal. This has been described as “a vast surface of volcanic rocks and scoriæ, pathless, precipitous, broken into every possible form, presenting sharp ridges and deep fissures, exceedingly difficult for the passage, even in the daylight, for infantry, cavalry or single horsemen.”
This great tract was flanked by a swamp in such a way as to form what the Mexicans believed to be an impenetrable wall in front of Contreras, which was defended, also, by their army. General Scott detailed seven officers to see if the Pedregal could be crossed at night. They reported that the place was absolutely impassable, night or day.
Then Captain Lee offered to lead a detachment across that gruesome waste. This he did, through storm and darkness, “without light, without a companion or guide—scarcely a step could be taken without fear of death.”
Some time afterward, General Scott had occasion to testify of this exploit:
Captain Lee, of the Engineers, came to me from Contreras with a message. . . . I think about the same time—midnight—he, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible to return on foot and alone to St. Augustine in the dark—the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, to my knowledge, pending the campaign.
It would seem that nearly every report of the commander-in-chief in Mexico contained some allusion to Captain Lee's bravery and efficiency, showing that “he was as famous for felicitous execution as for science and daring.”
The dispatch reporting the battle of Chapultepec stated that he “was constantly conspicuous, bearing important orders from me till he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries.”
At the end of the campaign General Scott entered the beautiful City of Mexico in triumph, riding like a royal knight at the head of his army through the crowded streets to the “Halls of the Montezumas.” The victorious commander was not too engrossed in his own great achievements to forget to deal out well-earned praise, in the course of which he stated that his own “success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor and undaunted courage of Robert E. Lee, . . . the greatest military genius in America.”
In six months Captain Lee had been brevet major, brevet lieutenant-colonel and brevet colonel. He could well afford, then, to write to the once unfavorable George Washington Parke Custis, who had expressed a fear that his son-in-law might not receive preferments in proportion to his merits:
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.
A bitter disappointment awaited poor, vain, kind-hearted General Scott. Instead of being nominated for the presidency, he was haled before an unfriendly “court of inquiry”—for political effect. Colonel Lee wrote of this indignity to his brother Smith:
General Scott, whose skill and service have crushed the enemy and conquered a peace, can now be dismissed and turned out as an old horse to die!
It was “Old Rough-and-Ready,” after all, who was rewarded, against his own wish, with the presidency of the United States of America, and “Old Fuss-and-Feathers,” who so ardently desired and expected it, was treated with derision by the ungrateful people of the country. This was not a mere matter of political intrigue, but of nicknames. For General Scott really had greater ability than General Taylor.
There was a long wait, after the surrender of the Mexican capital, before the terms of peace could be agreed upon so that the army could be permitted to go home. Colonel Lee, much as he yearned to be with his family after years of separation, made the best of this delay, and improved the time in every way he could. In the long list of now-familiar names of those who won their spurs in Mexico were:
Albert Sidney Johnston, with a Texas regiment; Braxton Bragg, Richard S. Ewell, Edward Kirby Smith, A. P. and D. H. Hill, Jubal Early, Simon B. Buckner, James Longstreet, and, last, but by no means least, Jefferson Davis, who was in command of a Mississippi regiment. He married a daughter of General, afterward President, Zachary Taylor.
Joseph E. Johnston wrote of the tender heart of his friend Lee:
I saw strong evidence of the sympathy of his nature the morning after the first engagement of our troops in the valley of Mexico. I had lost a cherished young relative in that action. Meeting me, he suddenly saw in my face the effect of that loss, burst into tears, and expressed his deep sympathy in words as tenderly as his lovely wife would have done.
Colonel Robert E. Lee returned from Mexico in the Spring of 1848, at the age of forty-one, “crowned with honors and covered with brevets.” In one respect, at least, his home-coming was like that of Ulysses, for he was first recognized, as he rode up to the mansion at Arlington, by his faithful dog. Poor old “Spec,” an object of deep solicitude in several of his master's letters, was almost delirious with joy, remembering his long-absent friend.
Of his home-coming Colonel Lee wrote from Arlington to his brother, now a captain in the Navy:
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 recognizable to some of the young eyes around me, and am 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 with 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.