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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.


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Vol. I
p360
Chapter XXI

Education by Court-Martial

On April 12, 1855, Lee received orders to repair to Louisville, Ky., and to take command of the new 2d Cavalry, as its colonel was not ready to report for duty.1 It was the first time since the Mexican War that he had left home without the assurance that the family would speedily join him at his new station. Except for the two years of the war with Mexico and the inspection tour in Florida he had not been separated from Mrs. Lee and the children for so much as three months continuously since 1840, when he had been relieved from work on the Mississippi. Now there was no hope of renewing the happy life of Arlington in some pleasant Eastern city. The 2d Cavalry had been established for frontier duty. The only question was where it would be placed. Whether to Texas, to the plains, or to California, Lee had to go with it. That was one heavy price he had to pay for his new commission as lieutenant colonel. So, without ado or long farewell, he left his beloved Arlington, whither the family had returned from West Point.2 Following the oft-travelled route he reached Louisville, and on April 20 assumed direct command of troops for the first time in his military career of twenty-six years.3

As the establishment of the two cavalry regiments had been at the instance of the military authorities, in the face of stiff opposition,4 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Secretary Davis had been put on his mettle to provide competent commanders and good recruits. Major E. V. Sumner, who well merited the honor, had been transferred from the 2d Dragoons and had been made colonel of the 1st Cavalry. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph E. Johnston had been named lieutenant colonel. In the 2d Cavalry, with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Sidney Johnston as colonel and Lee as second in command, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.W. J. Hardee and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William H. Emory were commissioned p361 major. Emory served only a short time, whereupon Davis offered the post to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Braxton Bragg, and when he declined, the secretary named George H. Thomas, one of Lee's associates for a part of his superintendency at West Point. Among the captains were Earl van Dorn, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. Kirby Smith, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George Stoneman. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles W. Field and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John B. Hood were lieutenants. Altogether it was a roster of picked officers.5 One troop of the regiment was recruited from each of eight states and one contained men from many states.6

Almost before Lee was able to form an estimate of his brother officers and his men, the 2d was ordered to Jefferson Barracks, Saint Louis, Mo. Thither Lee went, and soon found himself temporarily in command as ranking officer at the station.7 He went to work vigorously to drill his troopers, not a little provoked when requisitioned clothing failed to arrive for two months. "Yesterday, at muster," he confided to Mrs. Lee, "I found one of the late arrivals in a dirty, tattered shirt and pants, with a white hat and shoes, with other garments to match. I asked him why he did not put on clean clothes. He said he had none. I asked him if he could not wash and mend those. He said he had nothing else to put on. I then told him immediately after muster to go down to the river, wash his clothes, and sit on the bank and watch the passing steam-boats till they dried, and then mend them. This morning at inspection he looked as proud as possible, stood in the position of a soldier with his little fingers on the seams of his pants, his beaver cocked back, and his toes sticking through his shoes, but his skin and his solitary two garments clean. He grinned very happily at my compliments."8

Lee made the best of dull routine and separation from his family. He wrote often, cheerfully, and sometimes as though he were passing on to his children the philosophy with which he consoled himself. "We make a great deal of our own happiness and misery in this world," he told Agnes, "and we can do more for ourselves p362 than others can for us. You must expect discomforts and annoyances all through life. No place or position is secure from them, and you must make up your mind to meet with them and bear them."9

He had need of these maxims very soon after he inscribed them. For he speedily got his first unpleasant dose of what was to become the irksome physic of his changed military life. This was court-martial service, which during the next five years was to compel him to ride hundreds of miles, and then to sit for tedious hours while witnesses testified and advocates argued. The War Department did not intend to waste talents: Both he and Albert Sidney Johnston were detailed to leave their regiment in the belief that its ranks would be slow in filling.10 They were ordered across the state of Missouri to Fort Leavenworth, on the edge of Kansas, there to hear charges brought against several officers.11

The court convened on September 24, 1855, and when it was adjourned, Lee was sent to Fort Riley, farther westward in Kansas, to sit in judgment on a surgeon who was alleged to have abandoned his post of duty in the midst of an epidemic. It was a horrible affair, with a grisly record of fifty-nine deaths, seven of them in a single day, among a helpless garrison. Lee obligingly wrote out the more touching details for Mrs. Lee, including the demise of Mrs. Lewis Armistead, whose husband later fell in Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. "A soldier," Lee concluded, speaking in part for Armistead and in part, no doubt, for himself, "a soldier has a hard life and but little consideration."12

The courts-martial consumed so much time that the regiment, which now had 35 officers and 675 men, set out on October 27, without Lee or Major G. H. Thomas, to ride to Texas, there to relieve six companies of the 2d Dragoons who were ordered to the West.13 When Lee at last was free at Fort Riley, he got still p363 another assignment to court-martial duty, but this time he was lucky: the court was held at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, early in January, so he had opportunity of coming East and of seeing his family again.14 His stay was brief, and from Carlisle Barracks he was ordered to West Point for his fourth court-martial in as many months.15 Hardly was he back home from West Point when orders arrived for him to join his regiment in Texas. Leaving on February 12, 1856, he went by steamer to Galveston, where he arrived on March 2. A long journey inland brought him on March 6 to San Antonio. In that familiar city, which had grown appreciably in the ten years since he had been there, he had to wait two weeks before he could set out for regimental headquarters, which were located temporarily at Fort Mason, one hundred miles from San Antonio.16 Five days' fast riding northward brought him to the fort, where Albert Sidney Johnston welcomed him.

On March 27, 1856, Johnston assigned Lee to command the two squadrons of the regiment then at Camp Cooper, 170 miles north of Fort Mason. At this outpost, which he was to call his "Texas home" for nineteen months, Lee arrived on April 9, relieving Major Hardee.17 The camp was part of the Comanche reserve, on the clear fork of the Brazos River, 35 miles from the point of its junction with the main stream. Snakes were everywhere. Wolves prowled and howled at night. West of the camp a wild country stretched away to the "Staked Plains." The courses of some of the nearby rivers had not been mapped. Even to the eastward, on the road back to civilization, were large areas of country of which no one had full knowledge. North of the camp the Comanches roamed and hunted, always ready to send an arrow after the white man. Downstream from the camp were the lodges of a part of the tribe, under Chief Catumseh, whom the government was trying to "humanize," as Lee put it, with free p364 clothing and food. These Indians professed friendship, but they were not trusted, Lee's impressions of them were anything but favorable. Three days after he had reached Camp Cooper he wrote Mrs. Lee: "Catumseh has been to see me, and we have had a talk, very tedious on his part, and very sententious on mine. I hailed him as a friend, as long as his conduct and that of his tribe deserved it, but would meet him as an enemy the first moment he failed to keep his word. . . . Yesterday I returned his visit, and remained a short time at his Lodge. He informed me that he had six wives. They are riding in and out of camp all day, their paint and 'ornaments' rendering them more hideous than nature made them, and the whole tribe is extremely uninteresting. . . ."18 He did not put himself out to conciliate them. When he was supposed to go through the ceremonial of disrobing, Lee contented himself with taking off his necktie.19 "These people give a world of trouble to man and horse," he wrote not long afterwards, "and, poor creatures, they are not worth it."20

Indians or no Indians, it was Lee's nature to make the best of his surroundings. There were no buildings at Camp Cooper and no lumber with which to construct any. He had to live in a tent and to store all his belongings there. Like most good campaigners, he had brought some chickens with him in a coop and he sought to make them as comfortably productive as he could. In a lettera to his youngest daughter, he told her about them. "I have only seven hens and some days I get seven eggs. Having no plank, I have been obliged to make them a house of twigs. I planted four posts in the ground and bored holes in each, three feet from the ground, in which I inserted poles for the floor, and around which were woven the branches that formed it. There are so many reptiles in this country that you cannot keep fowls on the ground. The sides and tops were formed in the same way, and the whole is covered with branches with their leaves on, which makes a shady house but furnishes little protection against rain. Soldier hens, however, must learn not to mind rain. I converted the coop they came in, into nests. They pick up so much corn among the horses that I do not have to feed them, and they seem p365 quite domesticated. I have no cat, nor have I heard of one in this country. You will have to send me a kitten in your next letter. The Indians have none, as there are so many wolves prowling around that they frighten away all the mice. My rattlesnake, my only pet, is dead. He grew sick and would not eat his frogs, etc., and died one night."21

Lee's cheerfulness did not keep him from seeing the hardships and the futility of the life he was leading. The familiar sense of frustration, which had disappeared during the Mexican War and had not often reappeared at West Point, showed itself once again. He wrote an old friend: "Tell Robert I cannot advise him to enter the army. It is a hard life, and he can never rise to any military eminence by serving in the army."22

Only one professional interest was offered Lee at Camp Cooper: the War Department considered it desirable to locate a fort at some strategic point in that area and it designated Lee to suggest a site. For a time he made long rides almost daily to study the terrain and to find the most desirable location. Often he was attended by one of his lieutenants, John B. Hood, who had graduated from West Point during the first year of Lee's superintendency. Lee was fond of Hood, who was a most lovable young man, and he talked with him of many things besides fortification and drills. Perhaps he had an idea that Hood might be tempted to marry some girl of the frontier, simply as an escape from loneliness and he told him very earnestly, "Never marry unless you can do so into a family that will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the house."23

The search for a good site for a fort did not require many days. Monotony of the darkest and dullest descended again, but, like most woes, it was relieved at length. Indians had been carrying on depredations on the edge of the Staked Plains and in the vicinity of Fort Chadbourne, presumably under the leadership of a chief named Sanaco. The department had determined to pursue them and, if possible, track them down. Lee was placed in charge of one expedition against them and was given four squadrons of p366 cavalry that were to be collected, one from Camp Cooper, one from Fort Mason, and two from Fort Chadbourne. Leaving his own headquarters on June 13, 1856, Lee and his troopers spent four days marching to Fort Chadbourne, which was about ninety miles to the southwest. Finding that the troopers from Fort Mason had already arrived, Lee set out on June 18 with the four squadrons, the wagons, the guides, and the Indian interpreter, Jim Shaw. He rode northwestward, making for the headwaters of the nearer branches of the Colorado and the Brazos Rivers, in what is now Fisher County. Four days of slow marching with the wagons failed to uncover any signs of Indians. Smoke which had been supposed to come from Indian camps was found to be from a prairie fire. A sweep on an extended front was next made to the northeast and then toward Double Mountain, in the present Kent County. Indian trails were encountered, but all of them were pronounced by the guides to be old. "The water was salt," to quote the language of Lee's report, "the grass poor, and the country intersected by innumerable and almost impassable ravines." Lee accordingly determined to send back the wagons to the clear fork of the Brazos, and to make a farther scout westward. The men were to carry seven days' rations with them but no tents.

The first day the column was on the march it struck the trail of a small band of Indians, and that evening saw smoke rising to the westward, apparently some fifteen miles away. The next morning Lee divided his party and sent Major van Dorn ahead, with Captain O'Hara in support on van Dorn's right. With the second squadron Lee struck for the main course of the Brazos, reasoning that if the Indians were retreating to the north they would make for that stream. Nothing was heard that day or the next either of the Indians or of the troopers from whom Lee's own little party was now separated. On the second day Lee came to the source of the north branch of the Brazos. "Halting the squadron," he stated in his report, "with a detachment of 10 men from each Compy under Capt. Smith, I crossed a wide high ridge 8 miles in extent, and reached the valley of a stream, the character of whose soil, growth and water differed entirely from any belonging to the Brazos. The stream appeared to take its rise among p367 some high hills or mountains about 20 miles to the west, and wound through a wide valley running to the N.E. for about 25 miles, when it joined a larger valley from the west. At their junction was a high bluff or hill. The water of the stream was fresh, and I supposed it to be the Wichita."

No fresh trails of Indians were to be seen. The country along the upper Brazos was void of game and had very poor grass. "I saw nothing," Lee said, "to attract Indians to the country, or to induce them to remain." Lee consequently decided to turn back. On the second day he rejoined van Dorn and found that the major and his men had met a party of four Indians, had killed two of them and had captured a third, a woman. The fourth member of the party had escaped. This was the only reward for hard days in the hot sun — and Lee had missed even that brush!

The 4th of July, on the long journey back to camp, was spent in a thirty-mile ride, and ended on a branch of the Brazos, ended, as Lee wrote, "under my blanket, which was elevated on four sticks driven in the ground as a sunshade." He thought of Arlington and of the speech Mr. Custis always delivered on that day to celebrating friends. In Lee's bivouac, "the sun was fiery hot. The atmosphere like the blast from a hot-air furnace, the water salt; still my feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hopes for her advancement as unabated, as if called forth under more propitious circumstances."24

Continuing the journey toward camp, Lee sent the four squadrons in a final sweep down the adjacent rivers, in separate columns, and on July 16 brought his men together again on the Concha River, at the crossing of the trail from Fort Chadbourne to Fort Mason. All the detachments had the same report: no Indians had been located, and no recent tracks had been observed. Two days later Lee broke up the expedition and send each squadron back to its station. He reached Camp Cooper on July 23, after an absence of forty days. The distance covered by all the units had been 1600 miles, and the results had been negligible. He came back convinced that the Indians did not inhabit the country on the upper waters of the Colorado and Brazos, and simply passed p368 through on their raids. No opportunity was given him for justifying or demonstrating this conclusion. His first long scout into the Indian territory proved to be his last.25

The dry hot weather continued after Lee's return to Camp Cooper. The vegetable gardens dried up. The "clear fork" of the Brazos ceased to deserve the name and became a chain of stagnant pools.26 Lee tried to keep cheerful, but was depressed by the heat and by the arrival of news that his sister Mildred, Mrs. Edward Vernon Childe, who was only forty-five, had died in Paris. He wrote of her: "The news came to me very unexpectedly, and in the course of nature I might never have anticipated it, as indeed I had never realized that she might precede me on the unexplored journey upon which we are hastening. Though parted from her for years, with little expectation but of a transient reunion in this life, this terrible and sudden separation has not been the less distressing because it was distant and unlooked for. It has put an end to all hope of meeting in this world. It has cut short my early wishes and daily yearnings, and so vividly does she live in my imagination and affection that I cannot realize she only exists in my memory. I pray that her life has but just begun, and I trust that our merciful God only so suddenly and early snatched her away because he saw that it was the fittest moment to take her to himself. May a pure and eternal life be hers, and may we all live so that when we die it may be open to us."27

Soon after the tidings of Mrs. Childe's death, there came orders for the detail that Lee must by this time have learned to expect along with changing weather and hard fare: once again he was summoned to court-martial duty — not at Fort Mason or Fort Chadbourne, but 700 miles away, on the Rio Grande, at Ringgold Barracks. The assignment meant weary days of riding across Texas, and the time was rather unfortunate, because there were reports of the presence of Indians south of Camp Cooper, with the possibility of an affray.28 Lee made preparations to meet the Indians, and then, on September 2, he had to leave Camp Cooper p369 in the expectation of being absent two and a half or three months. The journey turned out to be somewhat less unpleasant than Lee had anticipated. He was twenty-seven days on the road, which he estimated at 730 miles. One day he encountered high water and had all his effects thoroughly wetted, but he enjoyed the company of his friend Major George H. Thomas, who met him at Fort Mason, and for at least a part of the way he was not so completely in the wilderness as he was in the vicinity of his own station.

At Ringgold Barracks, where he arrived on September 28, 1856, he found a number of field officers and one of his classmates, Caleb Sibley. Another friend of the old days at West Point, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James A. J. Bradford, was on the court-martial.29 The company was somewhat extensive and included a number of ladies. Work, however, was tedious, and the principal case before the court was protracted by the presence of two Texas lawyers, "accustomed," as Lee told Mrs. Lee, "to the tricks and stratagems of special pleadings, which, of no other avail, absorb time and stave off the question." Then, too, life was ruffled somewhat by the tone of at least one newspaper received at the barracks. A military writer had attacked Secretary Davis in The New York Times, and the same unknown author had criticised the new regiments, demanding that they be disbanded. Lee was resentful. He defended Davis and said on his own account, "They may suit themselves in everything relating to my services, and whenever they tell me they are no longer required they will not be obtruded on them."30 In a somewhat different spirit, but with a certain resignation, he had answered Mrs. Lee the previous month when she had written him about the prospective appointment of a new brigadier general. A petition to the President, asking for Lee's promotion to that grade, had been circulated the previous spring among Virginia public men and had been numerously signed. It had set out Lee's "life-long services in peace and war, his brilliant and pre-eminent distinctions won upon the field."31 Perhaps it was to this that Mrs. Lee referred. Lee had answered:

We are all in the hands of a kind God, who will do for us p370 what is best, and more than we deserve, and we have only to endeavor to deserve more, and to do our duty to him and ourselves. May we all deserve His mercy, His care, and protection. 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."32

On October 30, 1856,33 the court adjourned to Fort Brown, on the site of the present Brownsville, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Thither Lee went — by boat for part of the way — and there he landed on November 4.34 He was now in closer touch with the outside world, and he had already made friends among the families of the other officers, who, like himself, had to travel about to form the courts-martial. His duties were not heavy. He had opportunity of visiting Matamoras, on the Mexican side of the river, and almost daily he walked along the banks of the Rio Grande, watching the birds and observing the rich flora.35 Soon he recovered his old poise and wrote home in better spirits:

"The time is approaching when I trust many of you will be assembled around the family hearth at dear Arlington another Christmas. Though absent, my heart will be in the midst of you, and I shall enjoy in imagination and memory all that is going on. May nothing occur to mar or cloud the family fireside, and may each be able to look back with pride and pleasure at his deeds of the past year, and with confidence and hope to that in prospect. I can do nothing but hope and pray for you all. . . . Things seem to be going as usual in the states. Mr. Buchanan, it appears, is to be our next President. I hope he will be able to extinguish fanaticism North and South, cultivate love for the country and Union, and restore harmony between the different sections."36

During the week before Christmas he scoured the poor shops p371 of Fort Brown for presents, and on Christmas morning he had something for every officer's child in the garrison, though he had known them only a few weeks and expected to leave them soon. He went to church and then to dinner with Major and Mrs. George H. Thomas. "I thought of you all and wished to be with you," he wrote home. "[My day] was gratefully but silently passed."37

His own best Christmas gift was a full file of his Alexandria newspaper, the most recent issue only three weeks old. This reached him by a steamer that docked during the holidays. In writing to his wife of this happy arrival, Lee set down for the first time, as far as is known, his reflections on the slavery question that was then inflaming sectional hate. He had participated in the discussions among the officers at West Point during his superintendency; while he was on court-martial duty at Fort Leavenworth he may have seen at first hand some of the passions aroused in "bleeding Kansas";b he had been in contact with slavery all his life, though he had never owned more than some half-dozen slaves,38 and they had probably been inherited or given him by Mr. Custis. He had believed steadfastly in gradual emancipation,39 and had sent to Liberia such of his servants as wished to go.40 But of all he thought and said on a subject that puzzled open-minded Southerners, nothing of any consequence remains prior to this letter, written about seven weeks after the first national election in which the Republican party had presented a candidate:

"The steamer also brought the President's message to Cong; & the reports of the various heads of Depts; the proceedings of Cong: &c &c. So that we are now assured, that the Govt: is in operation, & the Union in existence, not that we had any fears to p372 the Contrary, but it is Satisfactory always to have facts to go on. They restrain Supposition & Conjecture, Confirm faith, & bring Contentment: I was much pleased with the President's message & the report of the Secy of War, the only two documents that have reached us entire. Of the others synopsis [sic] have only arrived. The views of the Pres: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed.41 The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man 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, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & 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 See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & p373 if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; 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 own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?"42

This was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee's class in the border states. They believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill-effects of Negro slavery on both races. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage. He spent no considerable time in any state south of Virginia from the day he left Fort Pulaski in 1831 until he went to Texas in 1856. All his reflective years had been passed in the North or in the border states. He had never been among the blacks on a cotton or rice plantation. At Arlington the servants had been notoriously indolent, their master's master. Lee, in short, was only acquainted with slavery at its best and he judged it accordingly. At the same time, he was under no illusion regarding the aims of the Abolitionist or the effect of their agitation.

When writing in this wise on the slavery question, Lee had been in Texas nearly ten months. Although oppressed often by the thought of his separation from his family, and by the news that Mrs. Lee was ill again,43 he was becoming inured to the life of camps and courts-martial. After that Christmas at Fort Brown he had little to say in his letters home about the hardships of a soldier's life.44 Those hardships continued, however. He passed p374 his fiftieth birthday at Fort Brown, and from there he went to San Antonio on February 6, only to be ordered to a new court at Indianola.45 Before the time arrived for that tribunal to sit he was ordered back to Fort Brown once more.46 Thence he went overland to Indianola, arriving by March 20.c En route he stopped at Sarassa and had the pleasure of seeing M. and Mme. Monod, with whom he had stopped for the night, eleven years before, on his way to report to General Wool at San Antonio. Madame made an impressive entrance: it was "foreshadowed," in Lee's words, "by the coming-in of her stately cats, with visages grave and tails erect, who preceded, surrounded and followed her. Her present favorite, Sodoiska, a large mottled gray, was a magnificent creature, and in her train she pointed out Aglai, her favorite eleven years ago when I first visited her. They are of French breed and education, and when the claret and water was poured out for my refreshment they jumped on the table for a sit-to."47 These felines interested Lee the more because he was in search of a cat to preside over his tent at Camp Cooper48 — partly for mousing and partly for company.

The court at Indianola adjourned within ten days, and Lee started back to Camp Cooper by way of San Antonio and Fort Mason. He reached Fort Mason on April 11, while a heavy cold norther was blowing. Picketing his horses under the shelter of a thicket to protect them from the wind, he betook himself to a tent, but he could not forget his animals and he went out during the night in a futile attempt to relieve their distress. The next day was Easter Sunday. "My [services]," he wrote home, "have been performed alone in my tent, I hope with a humble, grateful and penitent heart, and will be acceptable to our Heavenly Father. May He continue His mercies to us both and all our children, relatives and friends, and in His own good time unite us in His worship, if not on earth, forever in heaven."49

Six days later, April 18, 1857, Lee was back at Camp Cooper, p375 after some empty alarums of Indians by the way. He found his tent still standing, though it had been blown down often in the seven months of his absence,50 and he got, no doubt, from his captains and lieutenants fuller details of their brushes with the Indians than they had been able to write him during the winter. There had been four clashes, in which two cavalrymen and more than a dozen redskins had been killed. Lee's opinion of these casualties had been expressed in January to Mrs. Lee: "It is a distressing state of affairs that requires the application of such treatment; but it is the only corrective they understand, the only way in which they can be brought to keep within their own limits."51

A return to Camp Cooper did not bring immunity from the perennial nuisance of court-martial duty. If Lee was not to go to a court, a court would be brought to him. A week after he pulled up the flap of his old tent he was entertaining a court-martial, was its president, in fact, and was embarrassed, besides, to provide decent food for Mrs. George H. Thomas, who accompanied her husband on his journey thither. Said Lee: "The major can fare as I do, but I fear she will fare badly, for my man Kumer is both awkward and unskilled. I can, however, give them plenty of bread and beef, but with the exception of preserved vegetables, fruits, etc., I can give them very little else. I sent yesterday to the settlements below and got a few eggs, some butter, and one old hen. I shall not reflect upon her. . . ."52

The court adjoined, leaving no comment on the diet Camp Cooper provided. Summer came, with heat and sickness. A soldier's child died, and Lee for the first time had to officiate in reading the Episcopal burial service.53 The thermometer went above 100, and there was another death among the children of the camp:

"He was as handsome a little boy as I ever saw — the son of one of the sergeants, about a year old; I was admiring his appearance p376 the day before he was taken ill. Last Thursday his little waxen form was committed to the earth. His father came to me, the tears flowing down his cheeks, and asked me to read the funeral service over his body, which I did at the grave for the second time in my life. I hope I shall not be called on again, for, though I believe that it is far better for the child to be called by its heavenly Creator into his presence in its purity and innocence, unpolluted by sin, and uncontaminated by the vices of this world, still it wrings a parent's heart with anguish that is painful to see. Yet I know it was done in mercy to both — mercy to the child, mercy to the parents. The former has been saved from sin and misery here, and the latter have been given a touching appeal and powerful inducement to prepare for hereafter. May it prove effectual, and may they require no further severe admonition."54

It was quite indicative of Lee's relations with his men that one of them should have asked him to read the burial service. There was already between him and them the fullest understanding. They knew him to be a capable soldier; he saw to it that their rights were fully respected and that justice was done them. In fact, that very reputation for fair dealing sometimes made the men a bit concerned when they were called before him. Once, when a soldier was under examination for some offense, Lee assured him quietly, "You shall have justice." Thereupon the soldier forthrightly answered, "That is what I am afraid of, sir."55

Living among these men and directing their drill, in the midst of the hot weather of the summer of 1857, with the thermometer registering 112 degrees in the coolest tent, Lee received a wild rumor that the Comanches were about to descend on the camp and on the nearby reservation, where their quieter brethren resided. The Indians saddled their ponies and prepared for fight or flight, but Lee refused to believe an attack would materialize, and he was right.56 The camp settled back to more heat and more tedium, but Lee had to set off for the usual court-martial — this time no farther away than Fort Mason.

Although he had no idea that such fortune awaited him when p377 he rode away, Lee was never to see Camp Cooper again. Arriving at Fort Mason in time for the assembly of the court on July 15,57 he had been there only eight days when an express arrived with orders to proceed at once to San Antonio and to take command of the regiment, as Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston had been called to Washington by the War Department.58 Lee left as soon as practicable, reached San Antonio on the 28th, and assumed command the next day. Life was now much more pleasant. San Antonio was not a Washington or a New York, but it was immeasurably a more acceptable post than poor Camp Cooper. Instead of a tent there were quarters, a whole house, indeed, which Lee occupied on August 1, 1857.59 He found friends there, too, among them the family of Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.R. H. Chilton, paymaster, who was to serve later as his chief of staff. The pleasure he had in Major Chilton's two little daughters, Laura and Emmie, was to be, in retrospect, "the purest if not the greatest," Lee had in Texas.60

Life flowed quietly on at San Antonio, with daily duties none too exacting and with pleasures moderate enough. Although Lee had now been in Texas a year and seven months, there seemed to be no prospect of an early summons home. The months stretched out ahead, with no promotion and little opportunity — the familiar story of most of Lee's military career, differing only in setting. Then, on October 21, with no warning, there came news that on October 10 Lee's father-in‑law, G. W. P. Custis, had died at Arlington.61 This meant grief to Mrs. Lee and heavy responsibility besides, for there was no adult male member of the Lee family at Arlington to direct affairs. Custis Lee was on duty in the West. Rooney, who was only twenty, had entered Harvard in 1854 but had left to accept a commission as lieutenant of infantry and was already on the way to Texas.62 Mrs. Lee was alone and sick. There was nothing for Lee to do except to procure immediate leave and to start at once for Virginia. His superiors gave him all possible assistance. His orders to attend a court of inquiry on November 11 were p378 cancelled,63 he was granted a two months' leave of absence, and on October 24, 1857, have left San Antonio for home.64

"In Texas," an anonymous brother officer testified of Lee, ". . . he examined everything thoroughly and continuously, until master of every detail, ever too conscientious to act under imperfect knowledge of any subject submitted to him. And with all his stern sense of duty, he attracted the love, admiration, and confidence of all. The little children always hailed his approach with glee — his sincerity, kindliness of nature, and cordial manners attracting their unreserved confidence."65

He had gained some now experience, of course, during the nineteen months he had been on duty in Texas. He had adjusted himself to camp life, to hard riding, and to rough fare. Physically, he had unconsciously been in training for the desperate years that lay ahead. His leading of the troops taught him little, but his acquaintance with the private soldier's state of mind was invaluable. Then, again, tedious as was his endless court-martial duty, it was instructive. For as he listened to case after case, he understood better than ever before how weak, jealous, indolent, and sensitive men reacted to army life. He saw why they lapsed in their duty, and what were the temptations before which they most often fell. At West Point, during his superintendency, he had seen the current raw material of command; in Texas he had dealt with the worn as well as with the recently finished product.


The Author's Notes:

1 MS. A. G. O., vol. 11, S. O., 64.

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2 Cf. Lee to S. Cooper, MS., April 2, 1855; A. G. O. For Lee's expressions of love for Arlington, see Markie Letters, 42, 45.

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3 Fitz Lee, 56.

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4 Fitz Lee, 52‑53.

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5 Ibid., 53‑54; Long, 74‑75, 77. Fitz Lee later became a lieutenant in the regiment; (1 S. H. S. P., 100).

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6 In the reorganization of the army, when the dragoon and cavalry regiments were given one series of numbers, the 2d Cavalry became the 5th. (Voorhees Richeson: "History of the Fifth Cavalry," U. S. Army Recruiting News, Sept. 15, 1929, p8).

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7 Cullum, 421.

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8 Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 1, 1855; Jones, L. and L., 79.

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9 Lee to Agnes Lee, MS., Aug. 11, 1855. For the interesting letter of which this is an extract, the writer is indebted to John Stewart Bryan of Richmond.

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10 W. P. Johnston: Life of Albert Sidney Johnston, 186.

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11 MS. A. G. O., vol. 11, S. O., 134, July 26, 1855.

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12 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Nov. 5, 1855, Fitz Lee, 57‑58. Cf. Lee to Markie Williams, Sept. 16, 1853: ". . . I can advise no young man to enter the Army. The same application, the same self-denial, the same endurance, in any other profession, will advance him faster and farther" (Markie Letters, 37.)

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13 Fitz Lee, 58; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 34th Cong., vol. 1, part 2, pp4, 131, 144.

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14 MS. A. G. O., vol. 11, S. O., 235.

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15 MS. A. G. O., vol. 11, S. O., 2. The West Point court-martial assembled on Jan. 12, 1856.

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16 Fort Mason, which does not appear on many maps, was north, 20 degrees west from San Antonio, between the Llano and the San Suba Rivers. The best map of the territory is that made in 1857 and published in the Atlas of the Official Records, Plate LIV. This map, however, does not show Camp Cooper.

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17 His movements are recorded in a meagre memorandum diary he kept while in the cavalry. Its principal entries are republished in Mason, 53‑55. It is cited hereafter as Diary, with the page reference to Mason.

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18 Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 12, 1856; Mason, 54.

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19 Elliott MSS., May 24, 1856.

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20 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 25, 1856; Jones, L. and L., 80.

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21 Lee to Mildred Lee, MS., April 23, 1856. For a copy of this unique letter, the writer is indebted to Mrs. C. W. Schaadt, of Richmond, Va.

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22 Elliott MSS., May 24, 1856.

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23 J. B. Hood, Advance and Retreat (cited hereafter as Hood), 7‑8.

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24 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 4, 1856; Mason, 56.

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25 MS. A. G. O., Lee's report of July 24, 1856. There is a brief summary of the expedition in Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 28, 1856; Mason, 55‑56.

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26 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 4, 1856; Mason, 56.

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27 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 11, 1856; Jones, L. and L., 80.

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28 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 25, 1856; Mason, 56‑57.

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29 Diary, in Mason, 57; Lee to Mrs. Lee, Oct. 3, 1856; Jones, L. and L., 81.

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30 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Oct. 24, 1856; Fitz Lee, 62.

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31 MS. A. G. O., March 6, 1856; "Recd. (A. G. O.) Sept. 23, 1856."

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32 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 1, 1856; Jones, L. and L., 81.

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33 The diary (Mason, 57) gave the date as Sept. 30, but as there exist letters from Ringgold Barracks dated as late as Oct. 24 (Fitz Lee, 62), the correct date doubtless was Oct. 30.

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34 Mason, 57.

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35 Jones, 164‑65.

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36 Lee to Mrs. Lee, undated, December, 1856; part in Jones, L. and L., 81‑82, and part in Mason, 58.

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37 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 27, 1856; Jones, L. and L., 83.

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38 There are no references in any of Lee's letters to slaves of his own and until the rediscovery of his will in the records of Rockbridge County, Virginia, it was not positively known that he held any servants in his own name. That document, written in 1846, showed that he then owned a Negro woman Nancy and her children, who were at the White House plantation. He directed that after his death they be "liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage and that of others" (Rockbridge County Will Books, 1870).

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39 So Rooney Lee told Reverend David Macrae; cf. his Americans at Home (cited hereafter as Macrae), 1, 163.

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40 Lee's interview with Reverend John Leyburn, 30 Century Magazine, 167. See infra, Volume IV. Cf. the "Saunders interview" in R. E. Lee, Jr., 231.

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41 President Pierce defended the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and devoted the greater part of his message of Dec. 2, 1856, to an argument against Northern interference with slavery in the South. Richardson: Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 5, 397 ff.

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42 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 27, 1856; Lee MSS., Library of Congress. A very defective version, from which are omitted Lee's most severe references to Northern abolitionists, appeared in Jones, L. and L., 82‑83.

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43 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Jan. 7, 1857; Jones, L. and L., 84.

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44 Lee to Mrs. Lee, MS., Jan. 17, Jan. 24, 1857; Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, MS., Sept. 8, 1857; Duke Univ. MSS.

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45 Diary in Mason, 62; MS. A. G. O., vol. 13, S. O., 17, Feb. 12, 1857.

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46 A letter in Fitz Lee, 66, Feb. 16, 1857, is dated at Fort Brown.

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47 Lee to Annie Lee, March 27, 1857; Fitz Lee, 67.

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48 Ibid., and Lee to Mrs. Lee, Feb. 16, 1857; Fitz Lee, 66.

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49 Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 12, 1857. This letter is wrongly dated April 4, in Jones, L. and L., 84‑85. The correct date is established by Lee's mention of Easter Sunday, which fell on April 12 in 1857.

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50 Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 19, 1857; Jones, L. and L., 85; Mason, 62.

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51 Lee to Mrs. Lee, undated, January, 1857; Mason, 61‑62.

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52 Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 26, 1857; Jones, L. and L., 86.

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53 Lee to unnamed correspondent (probably Mrs. Lee), June 9, 1857; Jones, L. and L., 86.

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54 Lee to unnamed correspondent (probably Mrs. Lee), June 22, 1857; Jones, 375.

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55 Packard, 157.

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56 Lee to Mrs. Lee, June 29, 1857; Mason, 63.

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57 MS. A. G. O., vol. 6, S. O. 89, June 18, 1857.

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58 Diary in Mason, 63.

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59 Ibid., 64. A misprint in this entry made the date on which Lee took command of the regiment appear as Oct. 28. It should be July 28.

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60 Lee to Laura Chilton, MS., Nov. 22, 1869; Chilton Papers, Confederate Museum.

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61 Diary in Mason, 63; Brock, 162.

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62 E. J. Lee, 499.

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63 MS. A. G. O., vol. 13, S. O. 141, Oct. 1, 1857; ibid., vol. 13, S. O. 146, Oct. 12, 1857.

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64 Diary in Mason, 63; Lee to S. Cooper, MS., Nov. 24, 1857; MS. A. G. O.

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65 Mason, 64.


Thayer's Notes:

a Here is an autograph envelope addressed to his wife and his father-in‑law, which a later hand has marked in pencil "Texas 1855". In September 1855, Lee was in Missouri; he was in Texas in September 1856. It is probably the date rather than the place that is wrong: the Sept. 15 postmark would then indicate a Monday, like his other letters to his wife from Texas.


[image ALT: A much worn stamped and postmarked envelope, ragged along the edges, addressed to Mrs. R E Lee, Honble G. W. P. Custis, Arlington House, Alexandria, Virginia.]

Photograph © Richard C. Frajola (Frajola Postal History site) 2002; by kind permission.

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b For this prelude to the War between the States, excellent and very detailed information — 15 of the best primary sources, mostly full-length books — is available at the Kansas Collection at the University of Kansas.

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c For Lee's activities in March 1857, see briefly "Operation Camel. . ." (SWHQ 61:20‑50).


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Page updated: 31 Oct 13