I brought the big horse to a whispering stop in the red Texas dust alongside the cabin on the San Saba River. The cabin was bathed in a rosy glow from the June twilight trickling through the grove of grizzled oak trees surrounding it. A sweltering breeze rustled the tree leaves and a bird’s beak was thumping against a tree trunk somewhere in the canopy as I stepped out into the dry Texas heat. Down in the green grasses along the river bank, a bull frog was blenching muffled croaks and across the river two brown mares were standing shock-still in grass up to their knees, craning their long necks to see who was intruding. I went around the Lincoln and climbed the steps to the cabin’s plank porch. That morning before sunrise I had flown out of Los Angeles and, reaching San Antonio in the afternoon, had driven one hundred and forty miles, through Fredericksburg and Fort Mason and the San Saba Hills, to the cabin on the edge of the great American prairie.
I had been kicking the big Lincolns up and down the old country roads since 1985, through Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, pursuing the enigma of General Lee, and now the roads had brought me to the San Saba and the end.
The banks of the San Saba River was where the Comanches might have set their lodge poles 150 years ago. Before 1840, the Comanche people were 20,000 strong and by grouping themselves into tribes, they dominated the territory of the Great Plains from the headwaters of the Missouri to the Rio Grande. The tribes were broken down into semi-autonomous clans which lived on the great bison herd that grazed on the grasses of the Plains. In the searing heat of the summers, the herd gravitated toward the cooler climate of the high plains in the Dakotas. In the fall, when the arctic winds swept into the plains, it migrated south across the Red, Brazos and Colorado rivers, to the reaches of the San Saba hills at the Southern edge of the Great Plains.
The bands of the Pehnahterkuh (wasp) and Penateka (honey eaters) Comanche which followed the bison herd the farthest south, traditionally established their winter camps along the banks of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River about 100 miles north of the San Saba. By the 1850's, when the Comanches' control of the Plains territory had been broken by the power of the whites, their warrior ranks were thinned almost to the point of extinction by the horrible diseases the white immigrants brought with them onto the Plains. The survivors spilt into two camps: the aggressive majority made their base north of the Brazo on the Red River and continued to strike at the whites. The passive minority—the band led by the chieftain Ketumsee—kept their camp in the valley of the Clear Fork.
Later, as the whites intensified their efforts to eradicate those Comanches still roaming free on the Plains, Ketumsee's band moved further south to the area between the Colorado and the San Saba, and still later made its camp south of the San Saba hills along Comanche creek which joins the Llano just below Fort Mason, at the edge of the Balcones Scarp
Until the mustangs of the Conquistadors appeared on the Plains in the 16th Century, the land of the Comanches was limited to a corridor along the Platte River in eastern Wyoming where they lived an essentially sedentary life. When they mastered the power of the horse, however, the Comanche spread across the entire expanse of the Great Plains. Out there, on the immense prairie beyond the San Saba cabin, hundreds of years back in time, the red men used the power of the horse to coalesce into a political society which spread its dominance across the vast region of the Plains to the southern edges where the desert began.
In the beginning of the 17th Century, the Spanish Crown send soldiers and Franciscans north from Mexico toward the edge of the Plains to establish missions, which could be used as a base of operations to establish a trade route between the Spanish towns south of the Rio Grande and the French, who had established towns a thousand miles distant in the region east of the Mississippi. To accomplish this, the Franciscans built four missions within supporting distance of each other along the banks of the San Antonio River, and the soldiers built a fort which they called Presido San Antonio de Bejar.
In 1757, the Spanish crown attempted to subjugate the Comanche by establishing an outpost on the San Saba River 140 miles north of its stronghold of San Antonio. Franciscan fathers from the four missions surrounding the Presidio of San Antonio were sent to the headwaters of the San Saba. Once there the Franciscans constructed a fort and log mission. The following spring two thousand mounted Comanche warriors, with streaks of black marking their faces, came storming down upon the mission and killed the Franciscans. Two years later, the Spanish assembled a force of six hundred men, composed of Apache, Mexican militia and soldiers, and sent it north from San Antonio to avenge the massacre of the Franciscans. At the Red River the expedition came upon a mass of Indians waiting behind breastworks with a mounted force in reserve. Unnerved by the strength opposed to them and the isolation of their position, the Spanish forces fled back to San Antonio.
In 1779, a Spanish officer, Don Juan Bautista de Anza, assembled a regiment size force in New Mexico, and marched north from Santa Fe toward the Red River. Again the Comanche assembled a resisting force behind the Red River to meet the Spanish threat; but instead of confronting the Comanches head-on, de Anza circled far to the north to strike directly at their encampments located deep on the Northern plains east of the Rockies. His successes resulted in a truce in which the Comanches adopted the policy of trade with the New Mexico Spaniards:in exchange for the privilege of traveling through Comancheria to the Mississippi, the Spaniards kept their settlements south of Taos and peace reigned in the province of New Mexico. But not in Texas. The Comanche continued to relentlessly attack the Spaniards in the Texas territory by riding down from the Prairie and around San Antonio, to depreciate the rancheros situated below San Antonio on the Gulf Coast.
The strategic situation between the two cultures remained unchanged until 1810, when Father Miguel Hidalgo initiated Mexico's revolution against the rule of the Spanish Crown. After several years of warfare between the Mexicans and the Spanish forces, the Mexicans established a new government in Mexico. In January 1824, the United States of Mexico was established under a constitution which organized the separate Spanish provinces of Texas and Coahuila into one state—Estado de Coahuila y Tejas—with Saltillo as its capital.
As these political events were playing out, Moses Austin came from Missouri to San Antonio. Austin petitioned the Spanish governor for a permit to settle 300 families in the central hill country. Austin's idea was to personally finance the settlement of the immigrants on the land and take profit by obtaining land grants as consideration from the Mexican government for bringing immigrants into Texas. Others quickly followed Austin's example and obtained similar grants to bring families into the province. By 1824, the National legislature in Mexico City passed the Act for Colonization, which provided that the governor of the state of Coahuila and Texas could appoint agents for the purpose of bringing families to Texas to settle in the region northeast of the Neces River; in exchange the agents would receive personal grants of land. Soon, Europeans and Americans were pouring into the land of the Comanches.
By 1833, Stephen Austin, Moses's son, claimed the paper right to colonize an area between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, from their mouths to their headwaters. This area was the winter range of the Comanches. With Austin's help, Green DeWitt was granted the authority to bring in four hundred families into the area between San Antonio and Austin's colony. The Mexican government placed over 75,000 acres in escrow for DeWitt, title to 25% of the acreage to be delivered to him upon proof that a hundred families were settled in the territory. Between 1833 and 1840, Austin's right to colonize portions of this area passed through several hands until two Germans, Fischer and Mueller, transferred colonization rights regarding the hill country north of San Antonio to German nationals who established a company to finance the immigrants' passage from Europe to Texas.
When the first of the German immigrants to occupy the land were slaughtered by the Comanches, the company was turned over to new leadership which obtained tracts of land closer to San Antonio. After their line of communication with San Antonio was secure, these German immigrants successfully established the town of Fredericksburg which they located in the southern borderland of Comancheria.
By the mid-1840s, after the immigrants had revolted from Mexican control and established the Republic of Texas, the white population around Fredericksburg had become so concentrated that they began to creep north of the Llano toward the San Saba hills, spurs of the Gaudalupe Mountains, to edge of the Great Plains. Later, when the Republic of Texas joined the Union as a state, the U. S. Army established Fort Mason in 1851 and the whites quickly established a settlement next to it and began to push their farms and ranches further north toward the San Saba River. In 1858, Mason County was established with the county seat located at Fort Mason.
By then, the resistance of the Comanches against the encroachment of the whites into their winter camp grounds began to rapidly crumble. de Anza's successes at stabilizing the New Mexico frontier, in the 1790's, was duplicated in Texas when a paramilitary force known as the "Texas Rangers" was established in the 1840s. Taking advantage of Colt's new "six-shooter," the rangers adopted the tactic of meeting the Indians' charge head-on; face to face with the Comanches, in a swirling mass of men and horses, the rangers could thumb the hammers of their pistols just as fast as the Comanches, hanging under the necks of their galloping horses, could loose arrows from their bowstrings.
The rangers quickly recognized, however, that disrupting Comanche war parties did not diminish the will of the Comanche clans to organize new excursions into Texas. Following de Anza's example in New Mexico, the rangers were soon attacking and killing Comanche women and children left alone in the encampments behind the Colorado while the warriors were marauding against settlements south of San Antonio. As the decade of the 1840s passed, the pressure of the rangers, compounded by the increasing numbers of white immigrants in Texas who brought with them American technology and the biological terror of epidemic diseases, relentlessly diminished the power of the Comanche to retain their control of their traditional hunting ranges.
In March 1840, the Comanche bands along the Colorado authorized their chiefs to propose to the government of the new Republic of Texas that a peace conference be held. The government invited the Comanche bands to San Antonio under a flag of truce. The government representatives demanded that, as a sign of good faith, the Comanche leaders bring to San Antonio all of the white women and children they had captured over the years and held as slaves. Expecting the negotiation over the white slaves to consume much time and ceremony, the Comanche war chiefs came to San Antonio with their families.
When the Comanche chiefs arrived in San Antonio, twenty lodges were set up in the plaza in the center of the small adobe town. The Comanches entered the plaza with one white captive, sixteen year old Matilda Lockhart. She and her three year old sister had been carried away two years earlier. The Lockhart girl had been sexually assaulted by warriors and tortured by the Comanche women who held torches to her face and body; they had burnt off Lockhart's nose to the bone. Lockhart told the Texans that many more white women and children were held captives by the bands in their encampments beyond San Antonio. When the peace conference opened in a building on the plaza, the Texans had determined to hold the Comanche chiefs hostage if they would not immediately release the captives. Mook-war-ruh, the chief chosen by the bands as their spokesman, began to explain the list of items the bands would accept in consideration for the release of the captives. His speech was cut off quickly by the Republic of Texas officials who told the chiefs they were prisoners. When the chiefs realized armed soldiers were stationed outside the room at the open windows and others were attempting to enter the room, they began to chant the Comanche war hoop of rah, rah, rah. . . and scrambled to their feet, rushing at the soldiers crowding in the doorway. As the chiefs struggled to break through the doorway into the open, the soldiers discharged their muskets pointblank into their faces, while the chiefs released their bowstrings, driving the shafts of their arrows feather deep into the bodies of the soldiers.
Most of the Comanches and several of the soldiers and white bystanders were killed in the council room fight.
Several chiefs escaped into the plaza outside where their families were gathered. As they emerged, the Comanche women and children attempted to support the chiefs by grabbing weapons and striking at white bystanders, but more soldiers appeared from the back streets of the old Spanish town and shot them down. The soldiers killed thirty-three Comanche men, women and children. When the comanche survivors reached their encampment north of San Antonio, the people in the village began to shout and scream for an immediate retaliation. The absence of their war chiefs, however, left the remaining warriors, about 400 strong, in a state of confusion. They rushed to the suburbs of San Antonio and blocked its exits but they were unwilling to venture into the narrow streets to attack the defenders who had barricaded themselves in the main plaza.
The situation remained at a stand-off for several weeks. The indians controlled the perimeter of the town, but were unwilling to risk an offensive operation to storm the Texans holed up inside. The Texans were unwilling to attempt to defeat the Indians by offensive action outside the town. During this period the two sides grudgingly exchanged hostages, but the situation remained explosive. Finally, the Pehnahterkuh began an apparent withdrawal toward the Colorado; but the Pehnahterkuh warriors held councils with the other bands as they moved north. In these councils, the Peneteka war chief, Pochanaw-quoip, emerged as an acceptable coalition leader who all the bands would follow in an retaliatory effort against the Texans.
The strategic problem the Comanches faced, in launching a strike at the Texans, was clear. Returning to San Antonio and fighting the whites in the streets of the town was out of the question because what gave the Comanches parity with the Texans in a battle, was their skill at light cavalry tactics, not skill at hand-to-hand combat.
A consideration of the topography of South Texas made it plain to Pochanaw-quoip what course of action he should propose to the warriors. On the east side of San Antonio lay DeWitt's colony bordering the Guadalupe River and Austin's main colony northeast of it, straddling the Colorado. Below DeWitt's colony, at Lavaca Bay on the Gulf coast, one hundred miles south of San Antonio, there was a supply depot that the assembled bands could reach in several days' march. Along the line of the march, the 400 warriors present could sweep through the countryside, seizing horses and mules and killing or taking captive as many of the whites as possible. Once the depot was looted and burned, the band could return directly north with the horse herd and captured materiel through DeWitt's colony, to the Colorado.
In August, 1840, the remnants of the Pehnahterkuh and Penateka bands moved down from the San Saba Hills and around the four missions of San Antonio and set out on the road to Galiod moving southeastward toward the Gulf of Mexico. Everything in the path of the Comanche Army was destroyed. The Comanche warriors swept up thousands of horses and many mules as the Army moved south. Reaching the vicinity of Goliad, they turned eastward and killed and took captives as they passed through the outskirts of the town of Victoria. The Indian force continued east to Linns' Landing at Lavaca Bay, the supply depot for San Antonio, and looted and burned the place. The captured mules were loaded with bolts of cloth, cooking utensils, firearms, ammunition and precious metals; then the Comanches formed column to start north toward the sanctuary above the Colorado.
Pochanaw-quoip didn't need to read a map to calculate which route north provided the best opportunity for a successful escape from Texas. He had no reason to doubt that once the warriors began their strike, the alarm would be spread and the Texans would attempt to block the Comanches' movement toward the upper reaches of the Colorado by concentrating in front of their line of march in the prairie somewhere near the road leading from San Antonio to Austin's colony. To the West, the Gaudalupe Mountains came close to San Antonio. Comanche raiding parties had traditionally passed through these mountains to raid the Spanish villages in Coahuila south of the Neces River. But to move west to the Neces River and then north along the Comanche Trace through the pass in the Guadalupe Mountains required the long indian column to traverse many more miles to reach safety than would be required if the column moved directly north from the Gulf.
The Comanche warrior ordinarily could ride at a gallop one hundred miles without stopping; switching on the run from one of the ponies in his string to another. But the Comanche horsemen, encumbered with camp followers and supplies, could not easily move rapidly north if they wished to retain the materiel seized at Lavaca Bay. The practical thing for them to do, Pachanaw-quoip recognized, was to push their column directly north toward the Colorado and by breaking up into small groups, avoid a blocking force moving east from San Antonio to intersect the Indians' line of march.
No sooner had Pachanaw-quoip issued the order for the Comanche Army to move north, but militia from DeWitt's colony appeared on the flanks of the column. Shadowed by the militia, the Comanches tramped north in a billowing cloud of choking dust. Messengers were sent to San Antonio and Austin's colony with the news of the Indians' line of march. With the population of San Antonio at 1,000 and Austin's colony at 300, the whites could muster only 100 men to concentrate in the Comanches' front.
Three days later, on August 11, 1840, Texas soldiers and local militias met the red men in a dismounted position behind a creek and opened rifle fire. The Comanches quickly formed a defensive perimeter anchored by a clump of woods on the right flank while their dust-choked column continued moving north. After a few volleys across the lines, the Comanche warriors withdrew through the woods, mounted their horses and galloped off with the Texans in hot pursuit. The Comanche column then broke up into small groups which scattered in the maze of thickets that sprinkled the prairie, each rider controlling a string of several horses and pack mules. The warriors bringing up the rear counter-charged the whites, slowing the pursuit, which allowed the rest of the band, with the women and captives, to escape through the thickets. The Texans suffered 1 dead and 8 wounded and claimed 40 Indians were killed. Only one dead body of a Comanche warrior was found, however.
After the withdrawal of Pochanaw-quoip's band across the Colorado, all of the Comanche bands moved further north and eventually crossed the Red River boundary of Texas into the Louisiana Territory of the United States. By the 1840's, the division of the Louisiana Territory into sections had resulted in the admission of the states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri in the Union. The U. S. Congress had not yet attempted to organize the region north of the Platte, but the region south of the Platte and west of the Mississippi had been organized into sections for use by the Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws who were forcibly removed from their homelands east of the Mississippi. These lands were in northwestern Arkansas territory lying on the White and Arkansas Rivers. A narrow tract as an outlet indefinitely west was left unoccupied.
Similarly, the Creeks were forced from their lands in Georgia and Alabama and moved into the region between the Red and Canadian Rivers. In 1831, the Seneca Indian band and some Shawnees, living in Ohio, were moved into land lying west of Missouri and north of the Cherokees. In 1844, the Seminoles arrived in the region from Florida. The tribes of the Delawares, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Pottawatomie, Munsee, Chippewa, Wea, Piankesha, Peoria and Kaskasia also were forced from the east to settle in the region along the Platte River. Later, the Otoe, Missouri, Omaha, Mianis, Sacs, Fox and Pawnee tribes were forced to accept tracts in the region.
After their exodus from Texas in 1840, the remnants of the Comanche tribes roamed between the Rockies and the indian territory of the subjugated Eastern tribes until 1846 when their war chiefs signed a treaty with the United States at Council Springs near the Brazos River.
The treaty stipulated that the Comanches were prohibited from trading with anyone not licensed by the United States, that they release all captive whites and negroes and that they cease all depredations against the whites, but its terms said nothing about the issue of the Comanches' ownership of the vast tract of land the tribe had dominated since the time of the Conquistadors.
After signing the treaty, the majority of the Comanches returned to the traditional nomadic life of the Plains while a small minority, led by the chieftain Ketumsee, attempted to settle permanently in the valley of the Clear Fork on the Brazos in North Texas.
Ketumsee's effort was doomed to fail. A hundred thousand white immigrants were moving westward over the Oregon Trail, southward on the Santa Fe Trail, and hordes of prospectors were rushing into the Rockies, the resulting pressure on resources squeezing the Comanches into oblivion.
Suddenly, I was startled from my thoughts of the Comanches by something rustling through the sage brush behind the cabin. Going inside, I crossed the room to a window and, looking out, saw a group of mule deer slowly moving through the oak trees, nibbling at the brown grasses. Their heads shot up as I appeared at the window and they fixed their eyes on me. Neither of us moved. We watched each other for a time and then, satisfied I was harmless, the deer dipped their heads to the ground again.
When I again reached the cabin porch, the last purple rays of the setting sun were fading into a blackness spreading across the prairie toward cabin. The branches of the oak trees formed a gray lattice work against the sky. I lit a few candles that I found in the kitchen cabinets and placed them, along with a plate and utensils, on the little round table on the porch. Beside the cabin, I found a barbecue pit with a butane burner, got it going, and decided a steak, baked potato and a little wine and cheese would make a good evening end after the long day. Soon I was sitting cross-legged on the chair, a towel across my lap, cutting into a thick Texas beef steak.
All of a sudden, the oscillating sounds of grasshoppers broke the heavy silence the birds had left behind when the dusk stopped their songs. The wave of sound seemed to sweep back and forth across the clearing, then down the sloping river bank and back again, all the while increasing in volume until it registered the beat of millions and millions of little wings frantically rubbing in unison in the Texas heat; stringing out a melody as sweet and sensual as that of Ravel’s Bolero. Off in the distance somewhere in the fields on the far bank of the shallow river, a hound dog began a baleful howl.
The steak finished, the night closing in now around the little cabin, I lit a Fruentes cigar, poured Benedictine into a tumbler glass and, leaning the chair back against the wall, let my mind slip back to the story of the Comanches and General Lee.
Bobby Lee and Ketumsee, the Comanche chief, had met once, not far from the little grove of oak trees that amplified for my solitary entertainment, the grasshoppers' whining composition. Each man belonged to a political society in which he was a member of the master class. When they met, in the spring of 1856, the power of Ketumsee's class had been long since crushed by the irrepressible force of the new Americans. The power of Robert Lee's class soon would be.
After the United States annexed Texas, in December 1845, the U.S. Army established a cordon of forts on the southern perimeter of Comancheria. With the center at Fort Mason, the cordon ran from Fort Belknap, high on the Salt Fork of the Brazos, to Phantom Hill, on the Clear Fork, then to Fort Chadborn near the headwaters of the Colorado, then to Fort McKavett, 50 miles south on the San Saba, and to Fort Terrett on the headwaters of the Llano. Between Fort Phantom Hill and Fort Belknap, Camp Cooper was set up on the Clear Fork to monitor the lodges of Ketumsee's Comanche band strung along its banks.
The purpose of the cordon was twofold: it provided the Army with the means to interdict the routes the Northern Comanche used to come down into Texas and kill the white immigrants who had settled on the outlying lands around San Antonio, and it provided protection to the Comanches who drifted back toward the San Saba hills and attempted to establish a peaceful, permanent presence in the region.
On March 3, 1855, at the request of Jefferson Davis, who was then Secretary of War in Fillmore's administration, Congress authorized the organization of two new regiments of light Calvary. One of these, the Second Cavalry, was assigned to operate out of the cordon of forts girdling Comancheria and Lee became its lieutenant colonel.
When the Second Calvary was established, Robert E. Lee was completing a three year stint as Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. In 1855, he was 48 years old. He had begun his army career 30 years earlier, in 1825, when he entered the Army as an 18 year old cadet at West Point. At his graduation from West Point, in 1829, Bobby Lee ranked at the top of his class in civil engineering and mathematics and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Engineers. Between 1829 and 1846, his assigned duties were limited to fortification and surveying work at Savannah, Hampton Roads, Washington, St. Louis and New York. In 1846, when the United States warred with Mexico over the annexation of Texas, he served for six months as an engineer on the headquarters staffs of General Wool and General Scott. When the war ended, in 1847, Lee returned to the Engineering Department at Washington where he remained until he was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1852.
Instead of capping his long military career as an engineering officer, with the position of West Point Superintendent, and retiring from the Army to his wife's home at Arlington on the bluffs of the Potomac overlooking Washington city, Lee accepted Jefferson Davis's offer of a commission as Lt. Colonel of the Second Calvary.
The Second Calvary regiment was formed at Jefferson Barracks in April of 1855 and it marched from St. Louis to Texas, in October 1855, with its Colonel, Albert Sidney Johnson. Johnson had been Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas but had returned to active service in the U.S. Army when Texas was admitted into the Union in 1850. When the regiment reached Texas, in January 1856, it established its headquarters at Fort Mason. Lee followed in February 1856.
Soon after Lee arrived at Fort Mason, he organized a column of two companies of soldiers for an expedition to the Brazos River, where the Texas State government had established a reservation for the Comanches. Delaware Indians accompanied the column as scouts. The column traveled up the military road in the San Saba hills, and north through the rolling hills and shallow mesquite valleys which step upward in elevation toward the Colorado and then it moved on across the prairie 100 miles to the valley of the Clear Fork, about 30 miles from its junction with the Brazos.
When Lee’s cavalry column reached the valley, the floor was covered with grass and wild flowers. The floor sloped gently upward from the meandering stream flowing through it, toward grey limestone palisades. Thick stands of pecan and black walnut trees crowned the steep clay banks of the stream, providing timber suitable for fuel and building purposes. Along the left bank, Indian lodges were scattered across the floor of the valley and beyond the lodges, hundreds of horses grazed over the rich grassy slopes. Smoke spiraled upwards from cooking fires set in front of the lodges. Warriors lounged about the lodges in twos and threes, while the women carried on their domestic chores and the children ran down the lanes between the lodges with their dogs.
The column of horse soldiers came to a halt on the right bank of the stream, several miles down the valley from the Indian camp. While the troopers unloaded the supplies and material from the wagons, the officers staked the outlines of the camp. By the end of the day, four rows of tents had been erected for the troopers and one row for the officers which was placed perpendicular to the troopers' tents. Lee's tent was set up by itself some distance behind the officers' tent row. The tent was furnished with an iron camp bed, a small desk, chair and washstand. The horses were tethered at a tree line behind Officer's Row. The camp was known as Camp Cooper after Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant General of the Army.
The following day, General Lee rode to meet the Comanche chieftain Ketumsee. By 1856, the tribe of the Southern Comanches had been reduced to about 2000 people divided into two bands led by Ketumsee and Senaco. Ketumsee's band totaled about 500, 75 of which were warriors. Senaco's band remained out on the prairie north of the Red River, following the old way of life. Frequently, groups of his warriors would pass west of the Clear Fork on raids towards the Rio Grande. The purpose of establishing Camp Cooper between Fort Belkamp on the Brazos and Fort Chadborn on the Colorado was to provide a quick reaction force to intercept Senaco's raiding parties and to protect Ketumsee's band from attacks by white settlers who were staking out farms and ranches in the region.
When Lee reached the Comanche camp he rode directly through the village to Ketumsee's lodge, which was marked with bright yellow pictographs and set apart some distance from the other lodges. Narrow hipped and broad shouldered, General Lee sat straight and square in the saddle with his legs, barely bent at the knees, extending straight down to the stirrups. The reins were held in his left hand and his right arm hung loosely down. He wore a dark blue jacket, discolored by the sweat of many blistering days on the march north from the San Saba, and pale blue pants, with a yellow band down the sides, tucked into the flaps of his black cavalry boots. He carried a short sword in a scabbard on his left side fixed to his belt and a Navy Colt revolver in a holster on his right. A tan broad-brimmed hat bearing the crossed-saber insignia of the U.S. Calvary covered his jet black hair and partially shaded his round face, which was clean shaven except for a black mustache that covered his upper lip, drooping slightly beyond the corners of his mouth. He had bushy black eyebrows accentuating his dark brown eyes, a wide temple and a roman nose.
The Comanche chieftain was standing outside the lodge entrance with his six buckskin clad wives as Lee approached. Like Lee, Ketumsee was a fine looking man, about 55 years of age. He stood over six feet tall and was powerfully built in the upper body, intelligent and very serious in appearance with a dark bronze complexion. A long tail of braided buffalo hair hung down from a bunch of eagle feathers fastened to the crown of his head. He wore a checkered, green cotton shirt tucked into brown corduroy leggings with a breech cloth and buckskin moccasins. A long ornately carved pipe was cradled in his left arm. Ketumsee raised his right hand in greeting as the blue-coated commander reined his horse to a halt in front of the lodge.
Lee swung smoothly down from his saddle, letting the reins trail on the ground, and stepped toward Ketumsee; their eyes met as the tall Comanche strode forward and embraced him, touching cheeks.
At Ketumsee's invitation, General Lee entered the lodge and sat down with the Comanche chief on a thick pile of buffalo skins which were spread over the ground. More robes and animal skins were piled along the perimeter of the lodge. A short bow and quiver of arrows, a long steel-tipped lance with a round ornamented shield covered with raw buffalo hide and a war club hung from the lodge poles on leather straps. Embers glowed in a small pit lined with stones in the center of the lodge. Squatting on the buffalo robes, Ketumsee drew in silence a slender stick of wood from a bundle lying next to his knees and pressed it into the embers until the sap flamed; then he touched it to the bowl of his pipe and sucked at the stem. Exhaling a thick cloud of gray smoke at the feet of his visitor, the red man passed the pipe to Lee who accepted it with a stiff grimace.
Lee was to the manor born. He thought the Indian race was subhuman, worthless and uninteresting. Passing the pipe back impatiently, he spoke first. In an imperious tone, he told Ketumsee that as the commander of the troopers stationed at Camp Cooper, he expected Ketumsee to keep his warriors on the reservation and encourage them to learn how to farm and raise cattle, and to leave the wild life of the Comanche behind them; if they caused no trouble, the American Government would continue to provide supplies until they became self-sufficient, but if they were found off the reservation the soldiers at Camp Cooper would punish them.
Locking eyes with his visitor in the shadowy light of the lodge, Ketumsee thought of the time not so long before when his warriors, in coalition with the other Comanche bands, would have known the moment the column of yellow-legged soldiers left Fort Mason, and attacked it before it reached the Colorado 100 miles south of the Clear Fork. Then, the Comanche warriors were the lords of the immense domain which stretched from the Platte to the Rio Grande, dictating who came onto the Southern plains and who did not. Now, the army behind this blue-coated officer sitting in Ketumsee’s tent was pushing the Comanche nation toward oblivion.
Ketumsee sat impassively while General Lee made his speech. When he was finished, after a long pause of silence, Ketumsee answered it. Ketumsee recalled his meetings with other American soldiers, like Colonel R. B. Marcy who explored through Texas in 1854, and with Jim Neighbors, the U.S. Government agent, who persuaded Ketumsee to bring his band permanently to the land Texas reserved for the Comanche on the Clear Fork. Ketumsee had agreed with the government agent to keep his people permanently in the Valley because he believed that the Comanches' wild way of life was doomed: the buffalo herd from which the tribe drew its strength was being rapidly destroyed in its summer ranges by the whites; the deer and antelope were rapidly disappearing; strange, deadly diseases were decimating the population of the tribe and behind the guns of the blue-coat soldiers, the whites were invading Comanche lands from very direction on the compass.
Even while Lee sat in Ketumsee's lodge, the land surrounding the valley of the Clear Fork was being staked by land companies for sale to immigrants who were arriving in hordes at Fort Belknap. The alternatives left to the Comanches, Ketumsee saw, were two: attack and kill as many whites as possible before the American soldiers were able to penetrate the deep northern zones of the high Plains and destroy the people in their lodges, or be confined somewhere under guard by the American Army and live at its will.
Neither choice was good. The northern Plains tribes, like the Sioux and Cheyennes, might live free through another generation, but by 1856 the Comanches already were so tightly boxed in by the Americans that sustained resistance was impossible. Peaceful coexistence was equally impossible. The perennial summer drought in Texas would make farming impossible; the Americans would supply only the bare minimum of meat and supplies necessary to keep the people alive, and when the white settlers ran out of other lands to occupy the Army would move the Comanches at will to increasingly desolate spots.
After saying these things, Ketumsee grunted and leaned forward to peruse Lee's face. What made Lee the master of the moment and Ketumsee the slave? Lee lived in a tent. He had people to wash, brush and saddle his horse; cook his meals and clean his cloths. The government provided his sustenance. Ketumsee lived in a lodge covered with animal skins. His wives took care of his horses, cooked his meals, put up and took down the lodge poles and shealting. Nature provided his sustenance. Ketumsee commanded as many warriors as Lee commanded soldiers. Whatever Lee learned from white men's books, Ketumsee learned as much from the sun, moon and stars.
Ketumsee's piercing gaze dropped slowly from Lee's face, to measure against his own the breath of Lee's shoulders and the strength of his arms. In hand to hand combat, Ketumsee was certain he could break through Lee's defenses and crush his skull with one blow of the war club hanging from the lodge pole, or parry Lee's silly sword with his lance and drive it with one thrust into Lee's heart. The only difference between them, which Ketumsee was bound to respect, was the advantage that guns provide.
Recognizing in Ketumsee's speech and manner disdain for his presence, Lee abruptly rose to his feet. His conference with Ketumsee was over. He waited for Ketumsee to stand up and then he removed himself from the lodge and mounted his horse. Spurring the horse in a wheel in front of the lodge, he saluted the Comanche Chieftain and cantered out of the Indian village.
Returning to Camp Cooper and his tent behind Officers Row, General Lee passed the monotonous months by scouting the Plains for signs of Indian war parties but he did not find any. In the fall of 1856, he was relieved from duty at Camp Cooper and assigned to court martial duty. General Lee traveled throughout South Texas from one army post to another for seven months until, in April of 1857, he returned to his tent at Camp Cooper. Shortly thereafter, Albert Sidney Johnston, who commanded the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, was ordered to take charge of an Army expedition going to Utah territory to assert United States authority over the Mormons who occupied the region of the Great Salt Lake. With command of the regiment falling to him, Lee moved from Camp Cooper to Fort Mason. In October 1857, however, news reached him that his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, had died and General Lee obtained a leave of absence and returned to Washington.
The next morning, I was up at dawn and drove to Fort Mason. When I reached the south end of the town, I turned the Lincoln onto a one lane road which leads up to the crest of a ridge line where the grounds of the old fort are located. Nothing remains as evidence of the old fort today except a replica of the regimental commander's quarters. It is a small building with four square rooms with a veranda which sits on the north side of the hill.
I walked through the open passageway between the rooms to the veranda and scanned the surrounding terrain through binoculars. Over the rooftops of the buildings around the town square, I could see the white gravel road I had used to drive through the San Saba Hills as it breaks over the highest of the hills and swings down along Comanchecreek toward the north end of town. 150 years have passed since the fort was an active Calvary station, but the hot, white sky and the dry creeks and stubby trees scattered across the steps of the hills in front of me gave a sense of the harsh loneliness of a soldier's life.
General Lee was a man who preferred to live alone. If he was in a city he tended to visit with the ladies in the mornings, but when other men would socialize around a hotel bar in the afternoons, he would pass the time alone in his room. If he was in the wilderness, when other men would come together to play cards and talk politics, General Lee would get in the saddle and ride for hours down the trails, or he would go inside his tent and sit at his camp desk and read. He was a man that believed a disastrous change in circumstance might occur in the breath of time it takes to snap one's fingers. He did not worry about things he could not change, but was content to use the means put under his control to accomplish what he could according to his private notions of what was right and just.
Sitting at his camp desk in his tent on the prairie, writing his letters to his wife, Mary, General Lee might have pondered deeply the ways and means of solving the problem of slavery and, like the politicians and the preachers of his time, perhaps couldn't see any peaceful way for the Nation to get rid of it.
The Africans of the 1850's were indispensable to the economic prosperity of the Slave states: their labor produced the whole amount of the domestic product of the South of which cotton, rice and tobacco amounted to more than half of the exports of the United States. The contingent value of their future labor made them the subject of legal collateral for bank loans and mortgages and the means of transferring wealth from one generation to another. The evils of slavery fostered in them physical, moral and intellectual habits which, in the minds of the whole people of the United States at the time, disqualified them from the possession of the civil rights enjoyed by everyone else. If they were to be suddenly emancipated, without compensation to their owners, a great source of capital would vanish and the economic stability of the South would collapse. Once emancipated how were the Africans to live? How were the whites to live?
By 1857, the people of the South felt deeply in their hearts the aggressions of the people of the North, whose conduct showed them to be mean-spirited hypocrites bent on destroying the prosperity of the South. The people of the Free states refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law enacted by Congress as part of the supreme law of the land; saying, in effect, to the African slaves: "This law is no law, it is your right to resist it to the death." The people of the Free States heaped invective and ridicule upon the people of the South, while at the same time they refused to accept the migration of free Africans into their communities; assigning those few who seeped into their states to live as outcasts in the dark and obscure recesses of their cities. They deprived the few Africans they tolerated in their midst, of the right to vote, the right to assemble, the right to associate, the right to speak freely and the right to share equally in the municipal services of the community.
Most destructive to the relations between the sections, not once in the entire history of the debates in the Senate, made by the great men of the Age, did any senator stand up and say that the existence of slavery in the South was a national social problem, to be solved by the Congress establishing the means to maintain the economy of the South while its labor force was disrupted by emancipation, and by the people of the North sharing mutually in the process of integrating the freed Africans into the whole social and political life of the Nation.
Instead, the message the people of the South received from the rantings of the Black Republicans and the Abolitionist press was that after emancipation destroyed the economy of the South, the people of the North meant to bottle up the freed Africans in the South and leave it to reconstruct the fabric of its social and economic life alone. Sitting alone in his tent, or taking solitary rides on the plains, General Lee’s mind must certainly have turned to the futility of the union continuing and his thoughts to the coming war.
The sun was on its downward course when I left the shelter of the veranda and turned the Lincoln back toward the prairie. Rolling down state highway 386, I came onto 71 at the edge of Mason County and reached the turnoff to the country road that led to the cabin on the San Saba. As I turned onto the gravel river road I saw a sign for the village of Voca, Texas, and followed the dirt road it pointed to, leading off toward the northwest and the open prairie.
Voca turned out to be an intersection on the prairie with several weathered frame houses with junk rusting in their yards. Beyond the houses, down a white gravel path, I saw a black man on a mowing machine in a graveyard. When I entered the grounds I could see that it held less than fifty graves, some marked with modest headstones, others with concrete bricks marked as "unknown." The surnames on the stones showed that the decedents were limited to a handful of families and with the majority of the graves, the dates of death fell in the decade of the 1880's. The "unknowns" were probably from an earlier time when they met their death while just passing by. I searched up and down the four short ranks of stones, but could find no evidence of the remains of anyone who had lived and died on the prairie before 1880. The Comanche buried their dead in pits on the peaks of the mountains and hills on the fringes of the prairie, but were did the early settlers of the Texas hill country bury theirs?
I walked back across the grass lawn of the tiny prairie cemetery, past the row of graves with their unknown occupants to the white Lincoln. Grasshoppers scattered in every direction with each foot fall. The black man had finished his work and had wheeled his mower machine away from the cemetery, down a faint track in the grass to a shed some distance away.
We had waved and smiled at each other when I had stepped aside to let him pass between the unknown graves. I stood for a moment leaning on the open car door in the glare of the sun, deep in its downward arc, and looked back over my shoulder at the cemetery stones. Does it really matter, I thought, who the unknown people were buried there? They were probably all white men and women and children whose parents were born in Tennessee or Missouri and came westward in wagons to Texas to farm alone on the prairie. The people rose with the first morning light, worked hard at their chores day after day through the seasons, and went to their beds at sundown usually satisfied. I looked around at the flat treeless, empty land that stretched away in all directions to the horizon and felt the bliss of isolation which the pioneers walked hundreds of miles to reach. Out here a hundred years ago there was nothing to disturb domestic tranquility except an Indian or two.
General Lee returned to Texas, in February 1860. He was under orders from General Scott to assume temporary command of the Military Department of Texas. He reached San Antonio on February 21, 1860 and rented a room in Mrs. Phillips's boardinghouse located on the Plaza near the Alamo. He was to remain in Texas almost one year to the day.
When he was not engaged in military duties, which took him on missions during the year to different points along the Rio Grande, General Lee spent his time alone either in his room or walking along the San Antonio river or horseback riding in the countryside. Everyone around him, whether civilian or army officer, sensed an aloofness in his introverted demeanor which discouraged them from attempting to gain his friendship. General Lee had good reason to appear publicly in San Antonio with a grave, cold dignity. The conduct of the politicians, daily reported in the newspapers he read, made plain the disintegrating stability of the country. When politicians cannot settle the people's disputes, soldiers do. Everybody around him wanted to know what he would do when the time for the soldiers came.
At the time of Lee’s return to Texas, Brigadier general David E. Twiggs, was living at New Orleans ostensibly on leave of absence, but effectively retired from active duty because of his advanced age and very poor health. Twiggs, a Georgian, was one of only four general officers of the line on the Army's roster at that time. John Wool, a Northerner of advanced age, and William Hardee, a Southerner, were two of the others. Wool and Hardee were also brigadier generals but they were junior to Twiggs in rank. The fourth general officer was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the country's most celebrated general after Washington at that time.
Like Wool and Hardee, Twiggs became a brigadier general as a consequence of his service in the war with Mexico. In 1846, as a colonel of the Dragoons, Twiggs led Zachary Taylor's Army on its advance from North Texas to the Rio Grande and commanded the right wing during the Army's successful battle with Santa Ana's forces at Palo Alto. After Santa Ana withdrew from Taylor's front and marched to confront General Scott who had landed an army at Vera Cruz on the Gulf coast, Twiggs was promoted to brigadier general. At that time he transferred to General Scott's Army and led the right wing on its advance around Santa Ana's left flank at a mountain pass near the town of Cerro Gordo. During the subsequent battles around Mexico City, Twiggs commanded Scott's left wing at Contreras and Churubusco and he led the attack which resulted in the capture of the city. When the Army withdrew from Mexico after Santa Ana's capitulation, Twiggs commanded the Department of the West with headquarters in St. Louis. When the department was divided, in 1857, General Twiggs took command of the new Department of Texas where he remained until he took his leave of absence and retired to New Orleans, in 1859. He died in early 1862.
By 1860, General Scott had been on active duty in the United States Army longer than any other officer on the roster. He was 74 years old and, like Twiggs, in poor health. Born on a farm in the tidewater region of Virginia, General Scott entered the Army in 1808 with the rank of captain, and quickly rose to become the youngest of the Army's three brigadier-generals in 1814. Severely wounded in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Lundy's Lane, Scott recovered to become a major-general, in 1816. After marrying into the Mayo family of Richmond, Virginia, Scott was given command of the Third Department which covered the northeastern seaboard and he removed his family to New York City. In addition to the War of 1812, Scott also commanded armed forces in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars and the war with Mexico. In 1841, Scott became general-in-chief of the Army. In 1852, he was nominated for President by the Whig Party on an anti-slavery platform but lost the election to Franklin Pierce.
Shortly before Lincoln's election as President, on November 6, 1860, Twiggs reported to Scott that he was ready to resume active duty. On November 13th, Captain A.C. Meyers, an assistant quartermaster stationed at New Orleans, wrote to Twiggs to inform him that General Scott had ordered him to return to the command of the Department of Texas. Meyers's letter to Twiggs reads,
"General, here is your order to command in Texas. Secession seems to progress. Georgia has raised the colonial flag. We must have trouble."
Meyers enclosed with his letter special order No. 133 dated November 7th, issued by Lt. Colonel Lorenzo Thomas, acting as an assistant adjutant general on the Headquarters staff of General Scott which was located in New York City at that time. The special order reads,
"Having reported for duty, Bvt. Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs will proceed without delay to San Antonio and resume the command of the Department of Texas.
By Order of Lt.General Winfield Scott."
A letter General Lee wrote on November 24th to his son, Custis, who was stationed at Washington, shows that, after Twiggs received Special Order No. 133, he informed Lee he was returning to duty. In his letter, Lee said,
". . . I am looking daily for the arrival of General Twiggs, a letter from whom was received a week since saying he was about returning to resume the command of the Department. I shall soon be turning my face to the Comanche country, but to what point I cannot say till the arrival of General Twiggs."
When General Twiggs appeared at San Antonio Barracks and relieved General Lee of the command of the Department, his first action was to order General Lee to proceed to Fort Mason and assume command of the 2nd Calvary Regiment. Twiggs's second action was to begin to bombard General Scott with letters asking what was to be done with the Federal Government's public property when Texas seceded.
The day after Twigg's return to San Antonio, General Lee wrote to Custis Lee and said,
"General Twiggs thinks the Union will be dissolved in six weeks, and that he will then return to New Orleans. If I thought so I would not take the trouble to go to Mason, but return to you now. I hope, however, the wisdom and patriotism of the country will devise some way of saving it, and that a kind Providence has not yet turned away from us."
It is a peculiar circumstance that, just after Lincoln's election as President, General Twiggs returned to active duty and assumed command of the Department of Texas. Twiggs was 70 years old and in poor health when he took his leave of absence, in 1859. General Lee was 53 years old, in excellent health and he had efficiently commanded the Department of Texas for 12 months; by any objective criteria, he was fully capable of carrying out any orders regarding the protection of the Army property and forces when Texas seceded. Furthermore, while Lee and Twiggs were both Southerners to the core and would both follow their States out of the Union, General Scott knew, in November 1860, that Georgia as a Gulf State would secede from the Union months before Virginia and, thus, Lee, in command in Texas, would be far less affected by his status as a Southern man than would Twiggs.
Given the available record, it seems obvious that General Scott's order placing Twiggs in command in Texas was based on political and personal considerations, not military ones. A week before Lincoln's election, Scott had sent a letter to President Buchanan that described the distribution in the United States of the armed forces under his command and it identified several military installations in the South which were not sufficiently garrisoned to repel attack. The letter also disclosed that Scott generally concurred with the view of politicians from the Border States, like Bell, Breckinridge and Crittendon, that under the Constitution the Federal Government possessed no powers which could be used legitimately to coerce a State to adhere to the Union. In Scott's view, the exercise of the war power by the Federal Government against the South could only be justified if the secession of a group of states cut off the territorial connection between the States remaining in the Union.
At the time that General Scott disclosed these views in his letter to Buchanan, Army regulations specified that the Adjutant General of the Army was responsible for maintaining a complete record of communications between the President, the Secretary of War, the General-in-Chief and all department and field commanders. The mechanism employed to maintain the completeness of this record was to assign to an officer on the staff headquarters of each commander in the chain of command, the duty to act as an assistant to the Adjutant General. The officer assigned the duty of acting as an assistant was required to obtain an exact copy of each original order or other communication issued by the headquarters staff and forward it to the Adjutant General in Washington.
Under the ordinary operation of this system of documentation, neither the President nor the Secretary of War ordinarily issued orders of military consequence directly to commanders in the field; instead, they issued instructions to the General-in-Chief and through his staff he issued orders to the officers in the field. In the 1880's, the War Department published a large set of books entitled, Official Records of the Rebellion, which contain all written military communications connected to the Civil War which the Adjutant General's system of documentation preserved. Whether by intention or accident, some communications between the army headquarters staffs and field officers on both sides of the Civil War were not preserved by the system. Neither the original or a copy of General Scott's order returning Twiggs to command of the Department of Texas, for instance, can be found to exist anywhere in the records of the Federal Government.
The impetus for Twiggs's return to duty seems to have been Lincoln's election. In late October or early November, 1860, General Scott became aware that Texas politicians, like Senator Louis Wigfall, were lobbying Secretary of War, John Floyd, to substitute Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston in place of General Lee in the command of the Department of Texas. The only explanation for Wigfall's interest in replacing Lee with Johnston seems to be the fact that Johnston was a citizen of Texas and Lee was not. After Johnston graduated from West Point, in 1826, he resigned from the U.S. Army and immigrated to Texas in the 1830's. In 1836, he was commissioned a brigadier general in the Army of Texas and after Texas won its independence from Mexico, in 1838, he was appointed Secretary of War of the new Republic of Texas. When the United States annexed Texas, in 1849, Johnston obtained a commission in the U.S. Army as a paymaster with the rank of Major. In 1855, he was made colonel of the newly formed 2nd Cavalry. In 1857, Johnston was breveted a brigadier general and made commander of the Department of Utah where he remained until he returned to Washington in the summer of 1860. Given his connections to Texas, Wigfall probably thought that Johnston would be more willing than Lee to accede to a demand by secessionists to give up the property of the Federal Government.
When Colonel Johnston was informed of Floyd's suggestion that he go to Texas, Johnston's reaction was negative. Like most of the soldiers in the Army from either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, he knew that Lincoln's election would probably result in disunion between the States. In the event he accepted the command of the Department of Texas, Johnston's duty as an officer in the United States Army would be to protect and defend the military property of the Federal Government. This duty would bring him into direct conflict with the interest of the Texans to seize the military property of the Army and force out the troops. Johnston's attitude was that his duty as an Army officer trumped his sense of connection to Texas and, therefore, if he accepted the assignment blood would be shed in an attempt to take the Federal property.
Johnston was determined to avoid being placed in a position where he would be duty-bound to forcibly resist an act of aggression made by Texas against the Army. He quickly visited General Scott in New York and requested that he be assigned to duty some place else. After communication with Floyd, Scott issued orders which sent Johnston to California to assume command of the Department of the Pacific.
Sidney Johnston's refusal to take General Lee's place as commander of the Department of Texas, in 1860, forced Secretary of War Floyd and Senator Wigfall to look for another candidate who might be trusted to passively give up the Federal military property in Texas. By a process of elimination, the only likely candidate left was David Twiggs. All the other senior line officers were either sympathetic to the North or were entrenched in important positions they would not willingly give up for the Department of Texas.
Whether it was Floyd and Wigfall or General Scott, who solicited Twiggs to return to active duty, the record does not show. No correspondence exists in the records of the Rebellion which explain how Twiggs came to report for duty. Neither does it contain a copy of Scott's special order 133, ordering the transfer of the department's command from Lee to Twiggs, which was filed and preserved by the Adjutant General's staff in the ordinary course of its work. A copy of Scott's order does exist but it was discovered The only copy of the order in existence is one Colonel Meyers enclosed with his November 6, 1860 letter to Twiggs. Meyers's letter with its enclosure was discovered in a search of the residence in New Orleans, in 1863, which Twiggs lived in prior to his death in 1862.
Scott's personal relationship with General Lee began in 1846 when he worked as an engineer on Scott's headquarters staff in the war with Mexico. During that time Scott bestowed three brevets of rank on Lee for his conspicuous service. Later, during General Lee's years as Superintendent of West Point, Scott spent much social time in his company. From his personal contact with Lee, Scott must have known that as Anderson did at Charleston, Lee would resist attempts to seize the military property of the Department of Texas if he was in command when Texas adopted an ordinance of secession. In a letter to his son, Custis, written the day after Twiggs relieved him of command, General Lee made plain he would react like Anderson did to threats of coercion when he wrote,
"While I wish to do what is right, I am unwilling to do what is wrong, either at the bidding of the South or North."
In deciding to remove Lee from command in Texas, Scott must have calculated, not only how Lee would react to coercion but also the consequences of reaction. The tactical situation confronting General Lee in Texas was very much different from that which Anderson confronted at Charleston. Anderson was in command of about 65 artillerymen in possession of a practically impregnable bastion loaded with heavy guns and surrounded by water. Under Lee's command in Texas, there were 22 companies of infantry, 10 companies of cavalry and 5 companies of artillery stationed in over twenty forts scattered across 1,200 miles of the Texas landscape manning two lines of defense; one guarding against Mexican invasions from the south and the other guarding against Comanche invasions from the north.
In the certain event of the secession of Texas, Scott knew it was ridiculous for the Federal Government to expect that it could garrison the Texas forts. The only rational strategy to adopt would be to concentrate the garrisons as rapidly as possible and march the columns north through Indian Country to the forts in Kansas. Assuming that the garrisons had the means to transport sufficient supplies to sustain themselves on the long march out of Texas, early movement of the Army regulars would probably be successful but Scott knew the Texans would be harassing their columns until the Red River was crossed. Given the political confusion within the Buchanan Administration at the time, however, General Scott could not reasonably have expected his civilian superiors to authorize the Army's early movement out of Texas. Since Lee could not evacuate Texas without orders, Scott had to decide whether or not to force Lee into making an early choice between his duty as an officer in the United States Army and his connection to the South.
As with his handling of Sidney Johnston's request to go to California instead of Texas, General Scott could not ignore the fact that under the circumstances confronting Lee in Texas, the nature of the duty an Army officer owed the United States was far from clear. On March 15, 1855, as he was leaving his position as Superintendent of West Point, General Lee accepted Congress's commission as a Lieutenant-colonel of the line. At that time he executed the following Oath of Allegiance proscribed by the Army Regulations as approved by the Congress of the United States.
I, Robert E. Lee, appointed a Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of Cavalry in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever; and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.
R.E. Lee Bt. Col. U.S.A.
The reason most Americans of Lincoln's time did not expect the politicians in control of the Federal Government to coalesce behind a policy of war against the South was that they did not think of the United States as a single indivisible nation; they thought of the United States as a voluntary union of States; each made up of people who were sovereign in their own right. How then could any one who read the terms of the Oath of Allegiance to the United States reasonably believe that General Lee was obligated to serve them against their enemy when their enemy was his State? Seeing nothing to be gained in forcing Lee to make a choice between defending the interest of the North or the interest of the South, Scott twice in six months used his power to keep Lee neutral.
On the night of February 15, 1861, Ben McCulloch, a famous old Texas Ranger, was camped with 500 men on the banks of the Salado River, five miles northeast of San Antonio on the Austin Road. Several days earlier, agents of the Texas Legislature had commissioned him a colonel in the Texas Militia and he was ordered to seize the Federal Property at San Antonio. At 3:00 a.m., on the 16th, Colonel McCulloch took half his force and marched toward the town, reaching the suburbs at 4:00 a.m. As the eastern sky began to lighten, his men appeared in two and threes on the dusty downtown streets; converging on the intersection of St. Mary's and Houston Streets, they surrounded a cluster of buildings and warehouses where the U.S. Arsenal was located. Soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment were on guard duty on the perimeter of the Arsenal and watched the approach of McCulloch's men, but they barked no warnings and no shots were fired. When it became clear that the soldiers did not intend to resist McCulloch's seizure of the Arsenal grounds, some of his men peeled off from the main body and went down to the Main Plaza and took possession of the Alamo.
Hours later, in the blazing heat of midafternoon, General Lee' appeared from the chaparral in a traveling wagon and entered a dirt street which ran toward San Antonio between rows of neat, square finished houses. The street was packed with hard looking horsemen mounted on strong bodied animals with Spanish saddles. On the curbs of the street and in the doorways of the houses the German townspeople were standing gawking at the packs of moving horsemen. General Lee ignored the looks of the horsemen who suddenly veered their horses to make a quick look at Lee and the interior of the wagon before they peeled back out of the way.
The street widened into the Main Plaza which was filled with Mexicans milling about in a warren of stalls; venders in the stalls were hawking their wares for sale and smells of frying onions and chicken meat wafted across the Plaza from small pit fires being worked by black-haired women squatting under the walls of the Alamo. Going by the battered Baroque facade of the Alamo, General Lee passed through the Plaza and giving his mules a slight shake of the reins, he turned the wagon to the west to roll by a cluster of windowless low walled adobe buildings crowding against the corner of the old mission building. At the far side of the Plaza, General Lee crossed the San Antonio River on a flat wooden bridge and entered the American part of the old town and went down Commerce Street to a side street; half way down the block he brought the mules to a stop in front of the fenced lawn of Mrs. Phillips's boarding house.
A Negro boy dressed in baggy brown trousers and a white flannel shirt jumped up from a bench on the porch and opened the door.
"Mistiss Phillips," the boy hollered through the doorway before bounding down the steps. "Cur'nul Lee es hyar!"
Turning in the seat, General Lee reached into the wagon and hauled out a valise and got down from the wagon, swatted the dust from his uniform with his hat and, leaving the black boy to tend the mules, he climbed the porch steps at the greeting of Mrs. Phillips who had appeared at the door and followed her inside. Several hours later, he reappeared in the street wearing civilian clothes and walked up the sidewalk and crossed Commerce Street and went into a two story stone building with large glass windows. He went down a hallway several doors until he found one with a sign in gilt lettering, "Vance & Co., steamship agent" and went inside. Later in the day, two men came to Mrs. Phillips and trundled a large steamer trunk away on a flat, two-wheel cart for shipment on a steamer bound for New York.
The next day, February 18, General Lee left San Antonio and went in a stagecoach to Indianola where he boarded a packet steamer that steamed up Matagorda Bay and through Cavalo Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. Running close to the curving shoreline of Texas and Louisiana, the steamer made its way northward until it reached the Mississippi delta and slowly edged its way over the bar of the Southwest Pass and steamed through the channel, by the head of the Passes and into the main channel of the Mississippi River and continued on 100 miles to New Orleans. Twenty miles up the river, the steamer passed Plaquemine Bend where the arc of the guns in the casements of two star forts, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip, command the passage of the river for a mile and a half. In the early evening of February 20, the steamer came slowly round Slaughter House Point, bringing into view a mass of low wooden houses with flat roofs, pierced by the domes of the Custom House and City Hall and the church spires of New Orleans.
With great volumes of black smoke tumbling out of the steamboat's chimneys, the captain struck a few strokes on a big bell and swung the steamboat's helm hard over as the starboard paddle wheel slowly stopped turning and then sharply reversed its direction, churning the water to foam. Its head now turned in the stream, the vessel slipped gently through the river eddies toward an empty slot in the line of wharfs that stretched along the river bank as far as the eye could see. A broad stage had been run out over the port bow and an Irish deck hand stood on the end of it and threw a rope toward a gang of black men who came running along the wedges of landing piers jutting out from the wharf. Another deck hand standing against the bulwark of the boat threw a hawser to the men on the piers. The black men seized the ropes and tied them off on stanchions as the steamboat came to rest; then a mad scramble began as groups of laborers worked to secure the stage to the wharf and climb on board to move the luggage of the passengers off the boat.
General Lee, carrying his weathered black leather valise, came off the vessel first. Despite the deepening shadows covering the wharfs, masses of black men were busy at work: black longshoremen with glistening faces were wrestling huge 500 pound bales of cotton off of stacks seven tiers high onto low wheeled wooden carts and trundling them in a dozen different directions toward the steamboats that crammed the wharfs; others were rolling barrels filled with sugar and molasses down gang planks and onto the broad cobblestone street that separated the wharfs from the pack of houses that made up the city; black draymen sat in the seats of their long, flat carts waiting at the curbs to pull up to a line of loading docks piled high with crates and boxes and barrels. Large carriages filled with finely dressed people, some of them black men and women, rumbled back and forth, in and out of the warren of streets. When General Lee reached the head of the wharf, he took in the scene around him with a glance, and stepped off the curb and disappeared into the sea of pedestrians of innumerable shades of color swarming the intersections of the streets. Ten days later, he came home to Arlington.
Joe Ryan Original Works
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
Battle of Gettysburg
General Robert E. Lee
General JEB Stuart
General Jubal Early
General Joseph Hooker
American Civil War Exhibits
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Women in the Civil War