[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

[image ALT: link to previous section]
previous
Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


[image ALT: link to next section]
next
Chapter

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
p218
Chapter XIV

First Experiences Under Fire

(VERA CRUZ)

When Captain Lee learned of the Vera Cruz expedition is uncertain. Nor is it known whether he exerted himself to procure a transfer to Scott's army. There is no evidence to bear out the tradition that Scott particularly requested that Lee be sent to him.1 Scott's order book shows no such entry, and his correspondence with the War Department discloses few requests for the services of individual staff officers. He wrote General Butler: "I do not wish to ask, specifically, for the chief of any branch of the general staff now on duty under the orders of Major General Taylor."2 It may have been that Scott requested Lee's services, in spite of the absence of any record to that effect; it is more probable that Lee's name was mentioned to Scott by Colonel Totten, who had been chosen chief engineer of the expedition that was to operate farther south. Totten was then fifty-nine, and though he possessed extraordinary physical endurance, he doubtless wished to associate with him the best of his young subordinates.

Whatever their inspiration, Lee received orders about January 16, 1847, to proceed to Brazos and there to join General Scott.3 Lee was doubtless overjoyed to go, for he was not advantageously placed with General Wool. He was to show, very shortly, that he possessed the "strategic sense" that is indispensable at army headquarters, but with Wool, he had no opportunities of displaying it. In northern Mexico he could only have had a suitable opening at the headquarters of General Taylor, and thither he had small p219 chance of receiving a transfer, though he and Taylor were fourth cousins, whether they were aware of it or not.4

With hasty farewells and high hopes, Lee left Wool about January 17, 1847, just before his fortieth birthday. Mounted on his mare Creole, he made a long ride of more than 250 miles. He probably was in the company of some of the troops sent from Taylor's army to Scott, much to the indignation of the Taylor and his lieutenants. The journey was completed without mishap or hardship. Creole was in such good condition when Lee rode her into Brazos that she attracted no little attention.

Lee found General Scott immersed in preparations for the descent on Vera Cruz, fuming at every wasted hour and writing vigorous letters to all whom he accounted guilty of delaying the start of the expedition. The newly arrived captain of engineers was received as a member of the general staff attached to Scott's headquarters. He stepped overnight, as it were, from the execution of small operations to the planning of great enterprises, and although he did not know it, he had started up the ladder of fame. He found himself, too, in the company of friends, among them Major John L. Smith of the engineers and "Joe" Johnston, his sworn comrade of West Point and Fort Monroe. When the time came for quarters to be assigned on shipboard, Johnston and Lee were given a cabin together on the General's ship, the Massachusetts.

Creole and one of his other horses Lee left in the care of Jim Connally, his orderly,5 for fear that if they were forwarded by the army hostlers they would be injured aboard ship. Even as it was, Lee was destined to worry over the rough handling his mounts might be forced to endure. "I hope they may both reach the shore again in safety," he wrote his sons, "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."6

p220 On February 15, 1847, Scott raised his red pennant and led the way down the coast toward Tampico, where some 6000 American soldiers were awaiting transports. Three days later the convoy was off the mouth of the Panuco. Seen from the river, Tampico must have stirred the imagination of Lee and the other soldiers. It was built on the side of a hill rising on the right bank of the stream. A wide, well-paved market place stood between the wharves and the red and white houses of the principal citizens. But Tampico, like many another city, presented its best side to the visitor. Its back streets and its suburbs contained wretched rows of gloomy shacks, sheltering a population deep in poverty.7

The next morning, February 19, Lee went ashore in the suite of General Scott, whose known love of pomp and display was to be gratified to the fullest that day by the waiting regiments in Tampico. The troops had all been paid off on the 18th, and were in a humor to contribute to a holiday. As Scott and his staff approached, Lee saw the river bank lined with soldiers, while the heaviest guns barked a salute. At the landing below the market place, the artillery were drawn up, and large details of infantry kept back the multitude of Mexicans who were intent on seeing the leader of the hated Llanquies, as the worthy Tampicoans styled the "Yankees." When Scott stepped on land, the band from Governor's Island struck up a tune, and all the high officers then ashore came forward to pay their respects. They had a mount at hand for Scott, a fine gray horse with handsome trappings, but the General declined to ride. His great bulk rising above that of all the large men of his staff and escort, he strode across the market place and up the streets to the quarters that had been selected for him. All Tampico seemed to be looking out of the windows at him or gaping from the pavement.8

Scott was soon deep in conferences with the commanders, so Lee had some time for sight-seeing in the town. In the company of Major Smith he had a taste of the boasted Mexican chocolate, which greatly pleased his companion. He soon began to meet old acquaintances, among them Lieutenant William Barry, whom he had known at the Narrows in New York harbor. As a lover of p221 animals, Lee kept an eye open, also, for the town's showing in horses, donkeys, and ponies, and when he wanted to have a look at the fortifications he procured a pony for the purpose.

Altogether it was a diverting and exciting day. For many of the men it ended in a disastrous conflict with the strong drink of Mexico. "Everybody talked, everybody knew what was just told him, everybody was delighted and everybody made a night of it, except the town-guard, and it had a night of it, for there was the sound of revelry on the banks of the Panuco. Drunken soldiers and drunken sailors fraternized, and the long bitter oath of the Western volunteer and teamster drowned the caramba of the Mexican. The full moona came up to lighten the scene, while the glowing fires and the fiery furnaces of the steamers in the river threw a lurid glare upon the heavy armaments bristling upon their decks."9

On February 20, Lee steamed southward again with Scott aboard the Massachusetts. This time their destination was the Island of Lobos, the rendezvous of the fleet, seventy miles south of Tampico and 200 miles up the Gulf coast from Vera Cruz. Part of the passage was rough and most discomforting to Joe Johnston, but it did not disturb Lee, who found what company he could with the officers who possessed sea legs, among them Lieutenant John Sedgwick, formerly at the Narrows.10

The Massachusetts arrived off Lobos on February 21, but did not discharge her passengers because of the heavy weather.11 The place itself was so uninviting in appearance that the delay in landing could only have seemed a hardship to those who were still in the throes of mal de mer. Lobos was only a few feet above the surface of the sea, which broke in heavy surf. Barrenness was everywhere except for stunted shrubs. Even these had been cut away by the six regiments of American troops who had been landed and encamped there to prevent the spread of smallpox that had broken out aboard one of the ships.12

The day after Lee's arrival off Lobos the guns of the sloop Saint Mary and the cannon on shore fired a salute in honor of p222 Washington's birthday. Most of the troops celebrated the anniversary with such dinners as could be provided from the scant stores, and not a few of them found the liquor with which to drink toasts to the success of their adventure.13 Almost before rebellious stomachs had become quiet there came another storm that set the ships abobbing.

General Scott, meantime, was getting more and more restless. His transports, surfboats, and supplies had been held back, he wrote, "by no want of foresight, arrangement or energy on my part, as I dare affirm." The season was drawing on; if he did not capture Vera Cruz and get into a higher country before the beginning of April the yellow-fever would be fatal to the expedition.14 On February 25 he was able to re-embark the troops on the island, as the smallpox was under control, but even then he had to fume nearly a week before he could give the order to make sail. During this period of waiting Lee may have had some hand in preparing the orders for the guidance of the engineers after their landing at Vera Cruz.15 Otherwise, he was master of his own time. Some of his leisure he devoted to a long newsy letter to his older sons at home, a letter in which narrative was mingled with admonition in a somewhat emotional strain that he never employed except in addressing his boys. "I shall not feel my long separation from you," he said, "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 pain."16

The end of riding the tides off Lobos came on March 3. By no means all of Scott's transport was then at the island, and half his surfboats had not arrived, but he felt that what he had at hand was sufficient for the first stage of his operations. The red pennant was accordingly raised once more and the fleet began to make its way down the coast, headed by the steam vessels. Scott himself walked the Massachusetts from bow to stern, watching p223 the movement of the other ships. The soldiers on all the transports were cheering in high glee, and the sailors were singing:

"We are now bound for the shores of Mexico
And there Uncle Sam's soldiers we will land, hi, oh!"17

The weather was favorable as the fleet continued southward before the wind. Shortly after noon on March 5, following the little brig Porpoise, Lee saw Vera Cruz, with its castle, and a little later he sighted the American fleet that had been blockading the port for months. All around the Massachusetts and astern of her were transports, carrying their full canvas and manoeuvring boldly, despite the reefs among the islands. As the incoming ships passed the men-of‑war, the soldiers crowded the rail and sent up roars of greeting, to which the sailors instantly replied in kind. Some of the transports dropped anchor amid the warships to the lee of Isla Verde, directly off Vera Cruz; the others kept on eleven miles farther to the anchorage off Anton Lizardo, where many supply ships already were assembled. It must have been a day of many thrills for Captain Lee of the engineers.18

Commodore David Conner, senior officer of the navy in Mexican waters, had been in touch with Scott since December and had studied the coast carefully to determine where Scott's army could best effect a landing for the investment of Vera Cruz. A wise choice of a landing place was, of course, most important to the army, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that the Mexicans would offer the sternest resistance. The day after Scott's arrival, Conner invited the General, his principal officers, and his staff to make from the sea a reconnaissance of the landing places and of the town and fortress as well. Lee went with the rest aboard the steamer Petrita, and they ventured so close to the castle off Vera Cruz, San Juan d'Ulloa by name, that men on the other ships expected to see them blown out of the water. The castle opened on the Petrita when it was a mile and a half distant, but the fire went wild. It was the first hostile shot Captain Lee had ever heard as a soldier. A young lieutenant in the party, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George p224Gordon Meade, who was later to be one of Lee's chief opponents, thought that General Scott took needless risks in going so close inshore; a single hit might have disabled the little ship, and two or three rounds more might have broken up the expedition.19

This reconnaissance brought General Scott to the opinion Commodore Conner already had formed, namely, that the best available landing place was on a sandy beach about three miles southeast of the walls of Vera Cruz, opposite the little island of Sacrificios. Anchorage was afforded here, sheltered by the island and used by foreign ships. It was a rather small roadstead, but it offered a measure of protection against the frequent "northers" that were and are the curse of the sailor's life off the Mexican coast.

Immediately on his return from the reconnaissance Scott gave orders for a landing the following day at the selected beach. Hope and excitement both ran high. Dawn, however, brought rough weather and prompted postponement of the enterprise until the next morning. All the transports were sent down to Anton Lizardo, because Scott had determined to transfer the troops to the men-of‑war, and thereby reduce the number of ships that had to be crowded into the Sacrificios anchorage.

March 9 was to Lee perhaps the most interesting day he had thus far spent as a soldier. Early in the morning the troops were placed in the surfboats and were rowed to the men-of‑war, the decks of which were soon jammed with men, muskets, and equipment. When the soldiers had all been transferred, the bands struck up, and the steamers started northward between 10 and 11 o'clock, headed by Commodore Conner's flagship, the Raritan, behind which came the Massachusetts. In perfect weather, the fleet passed over nine miles in two hours, and dropped anchor in assigned positions at Sacrificios. The light Spitfire, under Commander Tatnall, and the Vixen, Commander Sands, together with five armed schooners, were run in close ashore to cover the landing. Thus far, not a gun had been fired, though it was assumed that the Mexicans were in position behind the dunes and were merely biding their time. The crews of the p225 three foreign men-of‑war at Sacrificios, and the men of the merchant ships riding there, thronged rail and rigging to watch for the thunder to break as the Americans went ashore. "It put me in mind," wrote one humble soldier in his diary, "of seeing so many robins or black birds on a wild cherry tree, or crows on trees, watching the dead carcass lying beneath."20

The infantry were now returned to the surfboats, about fifty men in each, under a naval officer, with eight or ten sailors as oarsmen. The boats were then towed astern of the Princeton, which was anchored abreast of the landing place. At last all was ready and the great moment was at hand. Every spectator on every ship within sight of the landing place waited breathlessly. The distant walls of Vera Cruz and of the castle, plainly visible, were covered by a multitude of excited people. "It was just before sunset," one observer wrote, "an hour at which all the beauties of the Mexican coast are wont to stand out in bold and beautiful relief. The day had continued as clear as it had begun, and the breeze, as it died gradually away, had left behind it a glazed and unruffled sea. The magnificent mountain of Orizaba, with its snow-clad summit, which had been hid from view most of the day, suddenly revealed itself with startling distinctness and grandeur; the distant Cofre of Perote loomed up, also, in blue and mystic beauty, and the bold and rugged outline of the coast seemed more bold and rugged still. . . ."21 None of this splendor was lost on Robert Lee, as he saw it from the poop-deck of the Massachusetts.

The division of Lee's old drillmaster, General Worth, contained most of the regular infantry in Scott's expedition, and naturally had been chosen as the van. General Worth himself was to head the landing party. When word came that the boats were all loaded, Worth stepped down into a swift gig and took his place. A gun boomed out from the flagship; the surfboats cast off from the Princeton and formed in line abreast. The sailors bent to their task, and the bands once more struck up. A few tense moments, and the men of the 6th Infantry, forging ahead of the others, sprang out on the beach. Not a shot greeted them. Quickly the contingents of the other leading boats joined them and made a p226 rush for the crest of the nearby sandhills. In an instant this high ground was won, and the flag of the United States was planted in plain view of all the ships. Not until then did it dawn on every one that the landing was unopposed, through some unexplained miscalculation on the part of the Mexicans. In universal relief, a cheer rolled from the fleet and echoed on the sanddunes.22

With the landing of the Vera Cruz expedition began Lee's first real opportunity in the field. He had every advantage. General Scott had already formed a high opinion of Lee's ability and had included him in what he termed his "little cabinet," consisting of Lee's own chief, Colonel Totten, Lieutenant Colonel Ethan A. Hitchcock, acting inspector general, Lee, and General Scott's son-in‑law, Henry Lee Scott, who was the commander's assistant adjutant general and chief of staff.23 Lee was thus brought into close daily contact with Scott, who was a man quick to recognize merit and ready to take sound counsel, deferentially tendered, however pompous and dogmatic he seemed. Lee was, moreover, in the strongest branch of the general staff. Colonel Totten had seen to that. Directly under Totten was Major John L. Smith, next came Lee, and then a number of other officers of the highest promise, men who had stood at the very top of their respective classes at West Point. Among them was a youngster of twenty, Brevet Second Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George B. McClellan, who had been No. 2 in 1846 at the Military Academy. One step above him was First Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.P. G. T. Beauregard, of the class of 1838. Another junior officer of fine abilities was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Zealous B. Towerº of Massachusetts, a second lieutenant, and No. 1 in the class of 1841. In the affiliated corps of topographical engineers, besides Joe Johnston, was Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gustavus W. Smith, whose ambitions were to cross the career of Lee fifteen years later.24 George Gordon Meade was also in the topographical detachment p227 and watched with indignation the efforts of Colonel Totten to give the engineers the advantage. "I have been pretty much of a spectator for a week," young Meade confided to his wife, "the corps of engineers having performed all the engineering that has been done. This is attributable to the presence of Colonel Totten, who wishes to make as much capital for his own corps, and give us as little, as possible.25

Toward evening, on the 10th of March, General Scott and his staff came ashore. Establishing temporary headquarters in a few tents pitched close to the bowers that the soldiers had erected over night, Scott and his official family rode around the city. From the distance at which they saw it, Vera Cruz appeared strong and not unimposing. The hillocks of brush-covered sand gave place to level ground as the city was approached. The port was encircled by a curtain wall connecting a line of bastions and redans that seemed to be heavily armed. Prickly pear had been set out between the bastions and a system of trous de loup26 had been dug in the shifting sand in front of the walls. Beyond the towers of the city, as seen from the land side, rose the castle San Juan d'Ulloa. It was about 1000 yards off shore, was protected on three sides by reefs, and had a formidable water battery. In 1838 the French had taken it, and a young American sailor who had watched the bombardment, David G. Farragut by name, had hastened to the fort and had studied its condition. He had concluded that it was vulnerable because shell easily shattered the coral-like limestone of which the place was built. Scott, however, had been told that the castle had been "greatly extended, almost rebuilt and its armament about doubled." He estimated that the garrison of the town numbered about 5000 and he anticipated no great trouble in taking it, but he was doubtful of his ability to reduce the castle with the siege train then available.27

Having completed his first reconnaissance, Scott gathered Lee and the other members of his "little cabinet" about him and raised p228 the question of whether Vera Cruz should be stormed or taken by siege. Descanting at length on the public's demand for a heavy "butcher's bill," he declared unequivocally for regular approaches. Somewhat to his surprise, Totten, Lee, and the rest agreed with him. The investment of the city was accordingly ordered, despite the difficulties imposed by lack of transportation for use on the sandy, broken ground. It was foreseen that all the heavy guns had to be dragged by hand from the landing place to the batteries.28

Owing to a succession of northers, March 12 around before the five miles of the line of investment had been taken up;29 and it was March 17 before all the entrenching tools had been brought ashore.30 The next day ground was broken for the batteries.31 It was one of the busiest times Lee had ever experienced. He had a hand in most of the work of the engineers, who laid off the lines, located the batteries, and directed the preparation of the platforms for the heavy ordnance. With the others he studied the condition of the city walls for General Scott, in order to ascertain if they could be utilized for an attack on the castle.32 This reconnoitring, which was very different from that which he had done under General Wool, sometimes carried him so close to the Mexicans that he was warned of their proximity by the barking of their dogs.33 The northers blew as though they were the allies of the natives. The sand was insufferable, the food was poor. And then there were the fleas, the unrivalled fleas. "I have never seen anything like [them]," one officer wrote years afterwards. "If one were to stand ten minutes in the sand, the fleas would fall upon him in hundreds. How they live in that dry sand, no one knows. They don't live very high, for they are ever ready for a change of diet. The engineer officers, G. W. Smith, and McClellan, slept in canvas bags drawn tight about their necks, having previously greased themselves all over with salt pork."34

p229 On the 19th, Lee very nearly escaped death. From the position of one of the working parties, he started back to the lines, accompanied by Lieutenant P. G. T. Beauregard, with whom he had to make his way along a narrow path cut through the brush. At a turn in this path, they suddenly saw the figure of an American soldier and heard his challenge, "Who goes there?"

"Friends," cried Lee.

"Officers!" Beauregard yelled in the same breath.

It was too late. The soldier, thinking that the Mexicans were upon him, blazed away with his pistol, straight at Lee, who had no time to dodge or to strike at the man's weapon. The bullet passed between his left arm and his body, singeing his uniform. A deviation of a fraction of an inch in the soldier's aim would have changed some very important chapters in the history of the United States. Naturally enough, word of Lee's close escape reached headquarters. He explained the facts and appealed for leniency toward the offender, but to no purpose. General Scott was furious over the recklessness of the sentinel and demanded that he be punished.35

General Scott was now ready to open the bombardment, but he had concluded that his army ordnance was not heavy enough, and he had asked the navy for the loan of six heavy pieces to be used against the walls. Lee was designated to locate these in battery. He picked a position within 700 yards of the Mexican defenses, and succeeded in masking it so completely that the enemy was unaware of what was being done. Using details from the various infantry regiments, together with the engineer troops, Lee started to construct a protecting work with sandbags, and at intervals of every two guns he erected a very thick traverse.36

On March 22 selected detachments of sailors began to drag the guns from the Sacrificios landing to the new "naval battery," as it was styled, a distance of about three miles. The guns weighed 6300 pounds each, and they had to be hauled along winding sandy trails and through a lagoon two feet deep and seventy yards wide. The sailors, however, were glad of an opportunity to share in the operation, and they contrived with the aid of some homely "trucks" to deliver the guns to Lee.

p230 Scott, meantime, had grown impatient of delay and had decided to begin the bombardment with the army ordnance. This fire continued for two days and caused much suffering in the city without breaching the walls or silencing the Mexican artillerists. The naval battery would still be needed to deliver the decisive sledge strokes. As the six guns had come from five different ships, each vessel was permitted to supply a gun crew. These men, with the officers, were sent ashore and were bivouacked in rear of the battery, itching for action. Among them was Lee's brother, Sidney Smith Lee. He had been given the honor of heading the detachment from the Mississippi, which had contributed a 64‑pound shell-gun to the battery.

The naval battery having been ordered to open on the morning of March 24, Lee pushed the construction as rapidly as he could without disclosing the position to the enemy. On the evening of the 23d so much work remained to be done that Lee exercised the authority given him by Totten and called on the sailors to help with the parapets.37 The seamen, who had come from the fleet in the expectation of having a fight, were much disgruntled at the order, and though they went about filling the sandbags and wielding the shovels, they growled so much that their commanding officer, probably Captain John H. Aulick, protested to Lee. His men did not want to hide behind dirt, he said; all they asked was that they be allowed to get at the enemy. It was an outrage to employ them in digging ditches;b when Lee finished them, the men would not stay behind them. There was nothing left for Lee to do but to show his orders and to keep the sailors at the work despite their complaints.

By daylight on the 24th all the sandbags were filled, and soon thereafter the last gun was in place. The sailors were sponging it and were trying to get the sand out of it when well-directed shots showed that the battery had been observed by the Mexicans. Orders were at once given to unmask the pieces and to open on the enemy. It was then 10 o'clock, and Captain Lee, who was p231 directing the fire, had his first experience in actual combat. He had been under fire aboard the Petrita on March 6, but until that moment he had never aimed a weapon at a foe in more than twenty-two years of military duty. His thought that morning was not of himself or of the novelty of his position. Objective-minded, then as always, he seemed unconscious of personal danger. "No matter where I turned," he recorded in a letter home, "my eyes reverted to [Smith Lee], and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted to 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. . . . [The service from the American battery] 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."38

The fire of all the nearby Mexican batteries was quickly concentrated on the sailors. They had all the fighting they cared for, and they were not at all unwilling to take advantage of the shelter they had been loath to provide the previous night. Some of them had the narrowest of escapes. "Just in the rear of the guns," to quote a midshipman from the Potomac, "a trench had been dug for the powder-boys to jump into for shelter. They would run from the magazine a little farther back, and wait in the trench until cartridge was wanted. A large shell happening to fall just back of the trench, the order was given to lie down. A powder-boy threw himself upon the ground very near the shell, and I saw him eye it anxiously. He then commenced rolling himself toward the trench, and there being a gentle inclination the disturbance of the loose ground caused the shell to roll after him. . . . Finally he rolled into the trench and the shell followed — fortunately not on top of him. No jack-in‑the‑box ever sprang up with more sprightliness than did that powder-monkey. After all the shell did not explode."39

p232 The sailors cut down the Mexican flag with a fair shot, and twice they silenced a heavy battery known as the Red Fort. They kept up their salvoes until 4 o'clock and then ceased only because their ammunition was exhausted. The Mexican counter-fire, which had been well-directed and stubborn, had meantime slackened. The effect of the battery's bombardment of the walls of the town was already apparent. Satisfied with their day's work, but loath to quit the scene of so much excitement, the sails and their officers left the battery at sunset, and other contingents moved in. In the hurry of the relief, Lee was unable to say good-bye to his brother. Nor did he have opportunity of exchanging adieux with Captain Aulick, who had protested so hotly against his men being required to dig dirt the previous evening. The captain went back to his ship in order that another officer of the same rank might have the honor of commanding the battery for a day. Not long afterwards Lee met the captain, who seemed to feel that he owed an apology for expressing himself so vehemently against fortification. "Well," said he, "I reckon you were right. I suppose the dirt did save some of my boys from being killed or wounded. But I knew that we would have no use for dirt banks on shipboard — that there what we want is clear decks and an open sea. And the fact is, Captain, I don't like this land fighting, anyway. It ain't clean!"40

The men who came from the fleet on the evening of the 24th were as good as those who went back to the ships. One of the newcomers was Raphael Semmes, later the captain of the Alabama in her exploits against Federal shipping. Pondering the inhumanity of the bombardment, Semmes spent a sleepless night. In his Service Afloat and Ashore he left a very vivid account of the scene in the battery — "the engineers working away at our sand-bags, like so many specters, by the starlight, the sentinel, at a little distance, pacing his solitary round, and the sailors collected in small groups, discoursing, sotto voce."41

Before daylight on the 25th Lee had the damaged battery prepared for a renewal of the action. The boatswain's mate piped all hands to the guns, and the bombardment was resumed. The enemy responded with spirit. A small Mexican battery directly in p233 front of the naval guns was handled with especial skill, while the castle San Juan d'Ulloa, partially aroused at last, sent over a few shells at intervals. One of these, from a thirteen-inch gun, struck the sand some five yards in rear of a naval gun. "At about this distance in the rear of each piece," Semmes recorded, "we had stationed a quarter-gunner, with a small copper tank, capable of holding eight or ten charges of powder — each charge weighing about ten pounds. The shell falling near one of these petty officers, he turned, upon hearing a noise behind him — he had not seen the shell fall — and finding a monstrous cannon ball there, as he thought, mechanically put his hand upon it. Finding it hot, it at once occurred to him what it was. It was too late to run, and in the consternation of the moment . . . he doubled himself up in a heap, and attempted to burrow himself, head foremost, in the sand, like an ostrich. All this occurred in the space of a second, and in a moment more the shell exploded, with the noise of a thousand pieces of artillery, shaking the battery like an earthquake, and covering the officers and men with clouds of dust and sand. Our fire was suspended for a moment, and when the smoke had cleared off sufficiently to enable us to distinguish objects, every officer looked around him in breathless anxiety, expecting to behold the blackened corpses, and mutilated bodies of half his comrades at least. Strange to say, not a soul was hurt."42

Not long after the guns opened for the third day's fire on the morning of March 26, a flag of truce was sent out by the Mexicans through the flying sand of another severe norther.43 Soon word passed around that the enemy was preparing to surrender. Ere long firing ceased. It was renewed no more at Vera Cruz, for though the Mexicans rejected Scott's terms, they resumed conference during the forenoon of March 27, and that night signed the capitulation. This provided that the Mexicans should march out with the honors of war, surrender their arms, and be paroled. The city and its armament were to pass into p234 the possession of the United States. The castle, its garrison and its guns were included in the surrender, much to the satisfaction of the Americans, who had not warmed to the prospect of besieging it with the ordnance then available.44

Released from duty with the naval battery, Lee took the first opportunity of riding again around the walls of the town to observe the effect of the bombardment. Some 2500 shells had been fired, 1800 of them from the long cannon of the sailors. The Mexican batteries had been almost demolished, a long stretch of city wall had been reduced to powder, and many houses in the poor district facing the American works had unfortunately been wrecked. Although Lee could not see it at the time, much damage had been done one of the churches, where a shell had penetrated the roof and had exploded among women and children who had taken refuge there.45

Next came the ceremonies attending the formal surrender of Vera Cruz, in which Lee had no conspicuous part, though he doubtless witnessed the march of the Mexicans on the morning of March 29 to the field where they laid down their arms. It was a smaller force than Scott had thought, for instead of numbering 5000 men in the city alone, the strength of the troops in Vera Cruz was 3360, and that of the castle garrison, 1030 — a total of 4390. Some 600 of these had been killed or wounded, according to Mexican accounts, which may have been exaggerated. The American casualties, army and navy, were nineteen killed and fifty-seven wounded.46

In appreciation of the part the engineers had in this easy victory, General Scott entrusted his victory dispatch to Colonel Totten and commended him, after the manner of conquerors, "to the very favorable consideration of the department."47 Before Colonel Totten left for Washington, he, in turn, wrote Scott in warm commendation of the other engineers who had been engaged in the siege. He listed them by seniority and by name, Lee second on the list.48 Two days later Lee got his first mention in orders, p235 when Scott included him among those who, in Scott's words, were "isolated by rank or position as well as by noble services." Lee was cited along with Joseph E. Johnston for having rendered "occasional aid" in staff work.49 The distinction Lee gained at Vera Cruz was much greater, in reality, than the orders indicated. Scott's good opinion of him was confirmed.50 On Totten's departure he became second ranking engineer officer of the army, and from the beginning of the subsequent operations he seems to have been consulted by the commanding general much more than was Major John L. Smith, the senior engineer, who was in ill-health.

There followed a few days of comparative inaction, during which Lee managed to prepare his financial statement for the engineer's office.51 Similar reports were made quarterly during the whole of his service in Mexico, and sometimes they had to be prepared in the midst of action, but not one of them was delayed beyond the due date.

On Sunday, April 4, occurred one of the oddest incidents of the occupation. Although the articles of capitulation had guaranteed freedom of religious worship to the population of Vera Cruz, some of the local clergy hesitated to open their churches for fear that the American soldiers might profane them. Word of this having reached General Scott, he sent a message to the bishop, and asked if he might have the use of two churches, as he had some excellent chaplains in the army. The Mexicans took this to mean that the General desired religious exercises held, and they decided they had better officiate themselves than have the Americans do so. Services were accordingly resumed in all the churches. The "Catholic question" was a live one in the United States at that time, and even attendance on mass was something of a danger to a man with political ambitions such as Scott cherished; nonetheless he set an example by going to church the next Sunday, accompanied by his staff, all of them in full-dress uniforms. There were no seats in the church, which was situated p236 close to one of the American batteries, but the ecclesiastic promptly placed a bench against the wall for the distinguished worshipers. Lee sat down with the General.

Noticing, in the crowd of soldiers around the door, his friend Lieutenant Henry J. Hunt, who had been in garrison at the Narrows with him, Lee motioned to him to come and take a seat by his side on the bench. After Hunt had joined him the acolytes cleared a way around the church for a procession. Then one of them brought down a large lighted candle from the altar and gave it Scott. The General did not understand what was afoot, but he took the candle and passed it to his aid. The acolyte promptly returned with a smaller taper intended for the aid, and when he saw what had happened, he blew it out, retraced his steps and soon returned with another light, as large as the first, which he placed in the General's hand. This time Scott kept it, though he still did not realize what he was expected to do with it. In a few moments the other officers were supplied with candles, and all of them were requested to stand up. A side door opened, a company of prelates entered, and before they knew it Scott and his staff were marching in procession around the church. The probable candidate for the presidency of an anti-Catholic country not only was in a Catholic church, but was participating in a Catholic ceremony! It was too much for the risibles of officers who knew the extent both of Scott's ambitions and of the religious prejudices of many American voters. Lee walked as seriously as if he had been on parade at West Point, but soon he felt Hunt touch his elbow. Lee looked reprovingly at his companion, but when Hunt did the same thing again, Lee bent his head and whispered: "What is it?"

"Captain Lee," said Hunt.

"Well?"

"I really hope there is no Pussyism in all this," reviving the jest of the religious controversy at Fort Hamilton over the righteous Doctor Pusey.52 Lee said nothing and continued his march; "but," said Hunt, "the corners of his eyes and mouth were twitching in the struggle to preserve his gravity."53


The Author's Notes:

1 Long, 51.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Jan. 8, 1847; Ex. Doc. 56, 1st sess., 30th Cong., p44.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Wool in his dispatch of Jan. 16, 1847, to R. Jones, loc. cit., mentioned Lee's orders in a postscript, as though they had just been received. The orders for Lee certainly came between Jan. 10 and Jan. 17, 1847. Orders for the detachment of a large part of Wool's division had been revised on Jan. 12, 1847 (Ibid.).

[decorative delimiter]

4 Letters of Zachary Taylor (Bixby Collection), p. viii.

[decorative delimiter]

5 This man's first name is wrongly transcribed Jem in Jones, 372, and in the other biographies that copied Jones's version of Lee's letter of Feb. 27, 1847, to his sons.

[decorative delimiter]

6 Lee to his sons, Feb. 27, 1847; Jones, 371‑73.

[decorative delimiter]

7 Autobiography of an English Soldier with the U. S. Army (cited hereafter as English Soldier), 134, 137.

[decorative delimiter]

8 Kenley, 238‑39; Lee to his sons, Feb. 27, 1847, loc. cit.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Kenley, 239.

[decorative delimiter]

10 Lee to his sons, Feb. 27, 1847, loc. cit.

[decorative delimiter]

11 J. J. Oswandel: Notes on the Mexican War (cited hereafter as Oswandel), 59.

[decorative delimiter]

12 English Soldier, 142‑43; Oswandel, 58; Scott to Marcy, Feb. 28, 1847; Ex. Doc. 60, 1st sess., 30th Cong., p87.

[decorative delimiter]

13 Oswandel, 59.

[decorative delimiter]

14 Scott to Marcy, Feb. 28, 1847, loc. cit.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Cf. G. O. 33, Feb. 25, 1847, with Eng. MSS., 993.

[decorative delimiter]

16 R. E. Lee to his sons, Feb. 27, 1847, loc. cit.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Oswandel, 63.

[decorative delimiter]

18 W. H. Parker: Recollections of a Naval Officer (cited hereafter as Parker), 82‑83; Raphael Semmes, Service Afloat and Ashore (cited hereafter as Semmes), 124‑25.

[decorative delimiter]

19 George Meade: Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade (cited hereafter as Meade), 1, 187. Parker, op. cit., 82, was manifestly in error in saying the vessel was not fired on.

[decorative delimiter]

20 Oswandel, 68.

[decorative delimiter]

21 Semmes, 127.

[decorative delimiter]

22 Semmes, 128; Parker, 84; Oswandel, 69‑70; 2 Rives, 382; MS., G. O. 34, Feb. 26, 1847, with Lee 993, Eng. MSS.; P. S. P. Conner: The Home Squadron under Commodore Conner . . . (cited hereafter as Conner), 57.

[decorative delimiter]

23 Memoirs of Lieut. General Scott, written by himself (cited hereafter as Scott), 2, 423.

[decorative delimiter]

24 All these men except Major John L. Smith are listed in Cullum. Totten mentioned all of them in his report on Vera Cruz, Ex. Doc. 1, 1st sess., 30th Cong., 244‑45. This document, which contains most of the important reports on Scott's campaign, is cited hereafter as Mexican Reports. For the organization, etc., of the engineer troops, see Mexican Reports, 67, 97, 627‑28.

[decorative delimiter]

25Meade, 192‑93.

[decorative delimiter]

26trou de loup is a conical hole in which is a sharpened stake, designed to impale any one who steps or falls into the trap.

[decorative delimiter]

27 E. A. Hitchcock: Fifty Years in Camp and Field, edited by W. A. Croffut, p239 (cited hereafter as Hitchcock); English Soldier, 152; 2 Scott, 422‑23; Mexican Reports, 221; Parker, 79; 2 Ripley, 19. For a map of the fortifications, see 2 Ripley, 31. The copy of the map in the Lee collection, doubtless one used in the siege, is very crude.

[decorative delimiter]

28 2 Scott, 42; Mexican Reports, 216.

[decorative delimiter]

29 For the northers, see Semmes, 129; Hitchcock, 240; Mexican Reports, 217, 220. On March 15 Lee made a tour of inspection with Scott (Oswandel, 78; Hitchcock, 240).

[decorative delimiter]

30 Semmes, 130.

[decorative delimiter]

31 2 Scott, 426; W. S. Myers, ed.: The Mexican War Diary of George B. McClellan (cited hereafter as McClellan's Diary), 61, 63.

[decorative delimiter]

32 Mexican Reports, 220.

[decorative delimiter]

33 R. E. Lee, Jr., 8, quoting undated letter of R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee.

[decorative delimiter]

34 D. H. Maury, 34.

[decorative delimiter]

35 Hitchcock, 243.

[decorative delimiter]

36 Parker, 96; McClellan's Diary, 68.

[decorative delimiter]

37 This episode, which is given in Jones, L. and L. 46, could not have occurred on the night of the 24th, for Raphael Semmes was then in the rear of the battery and specifically stated the work of repair was done by the engineer troops. It could not have been on the night of the 25th, because the action the next morning was brief. All the evidence fixes the night of the 23d as the time.

[decorative delimiter]

38 Undated letter quoted in Fitz Lee, 36‑37.

[decorative delimiter]

39 Parker, 97‑98; R. E. Lee to Smith Lee, March 27, 1847; Fitz Lee, 37; Hitchcock, 245.

[decorative delimiter]

40 Jones, L. and L. 45‑46.

[decorative delimiter]

41 Semmes, 137.

[decorative delimiter]

42 Semmes, 140.

[decorative delimiter]

43 D. H. Maury stated (op. cit., 35) that Lee and J. E. Johnston were the commissioners named by Scott to arrange the terms of surrender. This is incorrect, though it is possible that these two officers met the Mexican representatives and escorted them to headquarters. Colonel Hitchcock did this for one of the parties that came out under flag of truce.

[decorative delimiter]

44 Hitchcock, 246‑47. For the articles of capitulation, see Mexican Reports, 237‑38.

[decorative delimiter]

45 Semmes, 140; Kenley, 268; R. E. Lee to S. S. Lee, March 27, 1847; Fitz Lee, 37; Hitchcock, 248.

[decorative delimiter]

46 2 Rives, 385, 388.

[decorative delimiter]

47 Scott to Secretary of War, March 29, 1847; Mexican Reports, 229‑30.

[decorative delimiter]

48 Totten to Scott, March 28, 1847; Mexican Reports, 244‑45.

[decorative delimiter]

49 G. O., 80, March 30, 1847; Mexican Reports, 239‑40.

[decorative delimiter]

50 Cf. Scott's mention of Lee in his Cerro Gordo report (Mexican Reports, 263): "This officer, greatly distinguished at the siege of Vera Cruz . . . "

[decorative delimiter]

51 Lee to the chief engineer, MS., April 1, 1847; Eng. MSS., 937; Cf. ibid., July 1, 1847, 978.

[decorative delimiter]

52 See supra, p193.

[decorative delimiter]

53 Hunt, quoted in Long, 69‑70.


Thayer's Notes:

a The moon was not full on February 19, 1847; quite the contrary, it was barely four days past new — see this page of the U.S. Naval Observatory lunar almanac. Kenley was imagining things, presumably to write a more vivid account.

[decorative delimiter]

b Some things never change. Soldiers prefer fighting to digging ditches — and the best of generals will make them dig a lot of them, for very good reasons: see for example this exactly parallel passage in Plutarch's life of the Roman general Marius (102 B.C.); and the maxim of the Roman general Domitius Corbulo, reported by Frontinus in his Stratagems (IV.7.2): "The pick is the weapon with which to beat the enemy."


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 31 Oct 13