Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes
"Hope we will soon be moving out of this, Captain Lee; it is getting pretty warm," observed a young officer in the uniform of a second lieutenant of engineers, as he came into the headquarters office and met his superior standing by the doorway. "They say the yellow fever will soon begin to work along the coast. It will be a bad thing to have here in Vera Cruz; as it is, I begin to notice a difference in the troops. Inaction tells on men more than hard work."
Captain Lee listened to these sage remarks from his subaltern, without a smile.
"It won't be long, Mr. McClellan," he replied. "Our horses are coming in now, and a very fair lot they are." As he spoke he looked out under the awning at a number of horses and mules that were being driven down the wide, dusty street. It was a fortunate thing for the American army that Scott's early policy was one of conciliation of the inhabitants, for the greater portion of his draught animals were being purchased, and paid for in gold, from the Mexicans themselves. It would have been no task at all for the people of the neighborhood to have driven their cattle, mules, and horses up into the mountains; but the general's wise plans had prevented this, and his appeal to their cupidity overcame their feelings of patriotism. The story of how this came about would make a separate chapter, for which there is no room, in this telling. But Scott had trusted implicitly to the honesty of an American contractor, a resident of Vera Cruz, and through him had opened up communications with the natives, placing in his hands at times almost the entire funds of the paymaster's department. But to return from our digression.
"When do you think we shall be going forward?" asked the young officer of Lee, this time dropping all beating about the bush.
"In about three days," was the reply. "And no one will be more delighted to leave Vera Cruz behind him than will General Scott."
It was the fashion among some of the younger officers still to grumble at the slowness and carefulness of "Old Fuss and Feathers," as they had nicknamed their gigantic leader. But it was not long before they had grown to depend upon him almost with the reliance of young children in a wise parent of whom, by-the-way, they stood somewhat in awe.
After a few minutes more conversation the subaltern departed and Lee was left standing there alone. The young man's name was George B. McClellan, and little did Lee think that before many years were to pass that jaunty young fellow of the inquisitive temper would be leading an invading army into his own native State. This was March 6th, and in exactly three days the vanguard of the American army was marching out of Vera Cruz along what was known as the Jalapa road, that led towards the mountains whose crest cut the skyline to the northwest. Much to his chagrin, it may be well supposed, Lieutenant McClellan had been left behind at first, with the garrison.
As we before mentioned, this campaign was a school in which many soldiers whose names afterwards became inscribed on the country's roll of fame gained their first taste of war and gave evidence of military powers. It may be well to mention some of those with whom Lee came into almost daily contact. There was his friend Beauregard. Young Lieutenant Grant, then twenty-five years of age, brave, self-reliant, and fertile in resource, was in the 4th Infantry. George Gordon Meade was in the Engineering Department, on the staff of General Patterson at Vera Cruz, and was a great friend of Lee. There was. Irwin McDowell, subsequently the first commander of the Army of the Potomac. There was George H. Thomas, second lieutenant of the 3d-Artillery; Winfield Scott Hancock, then but twenty-three years old and a lieutenant of the 6th Infantry; Joseph Hooker, on the staff of General Smith; Albert Sidney Johnston, of the Texas Rifles, and Joseph E. Johnston, of the Voltigeurs; Braxton Bragg, of the Light Artillery; Lieutenants Early and Sedgwick, the first a dragoon, the second in the artillery; Ambrose P. Hill and Daniel J. Hill, young lieutenants. And, lastly, Pope and Magruder and Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson) and Ambrose E. Burnside, who joined the army while on its march.
Fitzhugh Lee, in his life of his uncle, referring to the officers of the Mexican War, says: "Little did these young fellows, who marched, bivouacked, fought, and bled side by side on the burning sands of old Mexico, imagine that in less than two decades McDowell would be training his guns on Johnston and Beauregard at first Manassas, while McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, and Grant would each in turn test the prowess of Lee; nor did their old commander, Scott, dream he was training these young men in practical strategy, grand tactics, and the science of war, in order that they might direct the information thus acquired against one another."
But during this time they were destined to win their spurs in a common cause.
The second division of regulars, under General Twiggs, first to leave the city, led the army up the wide road towards the hills. Scouts brought back the information that Santa Anna himself, with a large force of Mexican troops, held the pass of Cerro Gordo, between the National Bridge and Jalapa. The numbers posted there could not well be ascertained; rumor had it they were between two thousand and thirteen thousand, which was a wide margin. The Mexican outposts were known to be posted at Plan del Rio—in fact, some of General Twiggs's scouts had exchanged shots with the advance-guard on the 10th. The general, as soon as he had looked over the ground, sent for Lee. The latter had already ridden out with young Lieutenant Beauregard, a long way ahead of the army. To tell the truth, the report that the young officers brought back was not encouraging. The Mexicans seemed, with a great deal of engineering skill, to have taken advantage of every point where nature had been ready to assist them. First there was a deep river over which the main road crossed on a single narrow bridge, and almost directly from the western bank rose the steep hills through which the road wound through narrow gorges to the top. With the naked eye Lee could make out line upon line of earthworks rising one above the other, and at the top of the highest point, where the road came out on the plateau above, there was a strong, Spanish built castle and stone tower. It was fortunate that Lee had been with the advance, for General Twiggs, when he had first reconnoitred the position, which he had done from a long distance, determined to take it by storm. Lee did his best to dissuade him, and General Patterson, coming up with the volunteers,' who were following close behind the second division, joined with him, and they finally dissuaded Twiggs from the attempt. When Scott arrived he no sooner had looked over the ground than he concurred in the opinion of his juniors. No army could have stormed those heights from in front. As soon as Lee had joined him; Scott rode forward, and, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun that was just dipping below the hills, shook his head. The light prevented him from seeing all in detail, but Lee carefully pointed out where the entrenchments were and where the heavy batteries were placed. As the sun sank lower the whole of the line of hills was silhouetted against the sky.
"Look, general!" cried Lee, suddenly. "The big hill on the left is higher than all but the one with the tower on top—higher, I should judge, by some forty or fifty feet. There lies the key to the position."
"But it will be impossible to get guns up there without a road, and, as I understand it, the way to Jalapa is straight through the hollow and at the base of the tower," returned Scott.
"True, general," Lee replied. "If we ever get up on the hill yonder it will not be along the Jalapa road."
Suddenly the temptation for adventure and the recollection of his long scouting trip, while under General Wool, came to him.
"Give me one companion, and leave for two days, general, and I will find out what I can and make report. It may be possible to cross the river either below or above the bridge, and it may still be further possible to get guns to the top of those enfilading hills; at all events, sir, give me permission to go and see."
General Scott looked at him quizzically. "I'd hate to lose you, captain," he said; "but if you think you can do it, you may go. Whom will you take with you?"
"Beauregard," Lee replied. "He and I were riding beyond the outposts this morning. We shall start as soon as night has fallen, and go on foot."
Lee left to look up Beauregard, and General Scott, half-regretting that he had given him permission to undertake the perilous journey, turned and rode back to where his staff was waiting. He said nothing to them of his conversation with his engineer. The army was moving up in sections. Although it was the 11th of the month, the heavier guns had not yet started from Vera Cruz. Orders were sent back to hurry them on. Some of the hot-heads began to prophesy that the general intended to lay siege to the whole mountain-range.
Not a soul knew of the departure of the two young officers; although they had the counter-sign they slipped out of camp past their own sentries, and soon were proceeding cautiously along the bank of the river away from the bridge. Neither carried any arms, except two small pistols in their belts, but each had a stout pole about eight feet long. At a place where he had noticed in the morning that the bank appeared to be somewhat shelving, Lee stepped down cautiously to the water's edge. Although it was pitch dark he soon perceived that he had stumbled upon a ford that probably had been discontinued since the erection of the stone bridge, or used only when the latter was out of repair. Sounding with his pole he stepped boldly into the stream. Beauregard followed him. To their surprise and delight they found that the water, after it reached their waists, grew shallower, and soon they were climbing the farther bank, where they stopped to put on their boots that they had carried over their shoulders while wading. They pressed straight onward, keeping their direction as well as they could by looking back at their own campfires, now some three miles away. But they had not gone more than a few hundred yards when they ran against what appeared to be a solid wall of masonry. Lee longed to strike a light from his tinder-box, but was afraid, for he knew that not far away to the left must be the lowest line of Mexican entrenchments. Feeling carefully along the surface of the rocks, he discovered that it was not a stone wall, but the corner of the precipitous cliff that he had noticed shouldered out from the first range of hills.
Lee's retentive memory and natural sense of direction now stood him in good stead. He remembered that there was a little arroyo or valley formed by a watercourse to the right, and that the bank of the river sloped gently upward there, where the rains had brought down the loose stones and earth. Still feeling along the wall, and going carefully, he soon perceived he was, beyond doubt, at the entrance to this little gorge or chasm. In a few moments he was certain of it, for he could now see that the sky had brightened overhead and a few stars dimly shone through the clouds where before there was nothing but the overhanging brows of the hills. Lee caught his companion by the arm and they stood there listening.
At any moment they might run into a Mexican sentry now, for it was unreasonable to suppose that the enemy would not be watching on a night like this, that seemed made for a surprise. After a whispered consultation, Lee and Beauregard determined to part company for the time, and each continue a separate line of investigation. The younger officer was to proceed up the river-bank and find if the level ground over which they had first passed continued, and if it was possible to take artillery in that direction without first removing obstructions and preparing the way. Lee intended to proceed up the dried watercourse until he could go no farther, and then, if possible, climb the hill to the left, the one that he had decided with General Scott overtopped Cerro Gordo and the pass and was almost as high as the Spanish castle on the hill.
It had been settled between Beauregard and himself that they would not depend upon each other, and if they failed in the meeting each was to take care of himself as best he could. Beauregard was to report, at all events, at camp by daylight of the next day. Lee' determined, if circumstances warranted it and he could find a safe hiding-place, to continue his observations by daylight. He had brought with him, tucked in his loose blouse, some dried beef and hard bread, and also, strapped between his shoulders, a large canteen filled with water. At great risk to his shins and knees he stumbled on, listening now and then with his heart beating, for more than once he thought he had heard the neighing of horses or voices of men quite close to him.
As the walls of the cliff against the side of which he was walking seemed to be growing steeper and steeper, he crossed over to the other side, and, as the best of luck would have it, he now found himself opposite a crack no wider than a man's body, that stretched sideways up the hill like a broken chimney. On all fours he crept into the crevice, and, crawling and hauling himself upward, it seemed to him that he had gone some four or five hundred feet when all at once the crack narrowed so that he could progress no farther and apparently he had come to the end of his way in that direction. Looking out, he could see nothing above or below him; it was so dark he could hardly tell the difference between lying there with his eyes shut or open. Dislodging a little stone he dropped it over the side, but listen his best he heard nothing, so he imagined that he must have gone very high indeed, and wondered if the crevice had led him around the bulging shoulder of the hill to the farther side. If this were so he would now be looking down on the Jalapa road and would be almost immediately above the line of Mexican fortifications that swept out, like vineyard terraces, from each side of the highway. He loosened a larger stone than the first and cautiously dropped it, and, in order to ascertain the height, he counted quickly the beating of his pulse to mark the seconds in the calculation. But nothing happened. He heard no sound. It was uncanny! Cautiously leaning out he peered forward, and as he did so his hand dropped slightly and not six inches below him touched soft sand and grass, and feeling with his fingers he found there the last stone that he had dropped. Where was he? He could not tell. But that the ground outside was solid he easily found out, and by feeling cautiously with his hands and feet he decided that it was not a ledge or shoulder of the hill, but a wide, open spot. And yet for the life of him he could not remember having seen such a place when he had searched the hillsides with his glass the day before. Suddenly his fingers touched something that he at first thought was a bit of bark or wood, but as they closed upon it he rose from his knees with a feeling part of fear and part of joy. He held in his hand a worn Mexican sandal, such as the peons wear. And now, bending down again, he found that he was in one of those mountain-paths up which the arrieros or mule-trains used to make their way. It was used, perhaps, as a short cut from the main road to the plateau.
But the signs of man's presence, although it might prove the footing more secure, did not in the least detract from his danger. He now perceived that the mule-path must lead down into the same hollow from which he had made his climb, but must have started from the opposite side from which he had. In crawling through the cleft, while actually working upward, he had practically doubled on his track around the end of the gorge. But this, of course, he did not know at the time. Going forward carefully and, when in doubt, feeling with his hands before him, for he had left his stick in the hollow, he proceeded for nearly a quarter of a mile. The way was narrow, and on one side dropped some distance, but it still climbed upward. At a place where he was feeling his way cautiously before proceeding he stumbled into something that made him start. But an instant later his new discovery put him much at ease. There, across the path, lay the skeleton of a mule or horse; it was undisturbed and quite filled the narrow way. The bones were dry, and it had evidently been there some months undisturbed, since it had been picked clean by the vultures. If any one had gone down the pathway recently they could not have failed to have disturbed the skeleton, unless he had chosen to purposely avoid it, for which there would have been no reason.
It was beginning to show signs of dawn in the eastern sky, and Lee, crawling into a hollow, waited for the light to broaden. A slight mist swept up out of the valley as the sun rose and the white clouds swirled about him. When at last they drifted higher and he could see clearly he started in surprise. Directly in front was the high hill nearest the river, and to his surprise and joy he found that it was apparently unfortified. Farther to the west, on the second eminence, was a Spanish battery of twelve pieces; two small forts flanked it, and almost directly above, 200 feet higher, was the round, stone tower and the masonry wall before which the wide road to Jalapa wound into the plain. They guarded it like sentries at a gateway, and just as he watched, a bugle rang loud and clear, and to the top of the staff crept the flag of Mexico. But, joy—oh, joy! When Lee turned in the other direction his heart leaped. There he could see the distant houses of the road to Jalapa, and while the nearer end of the pass was hidden by the frowning stone fortress, over the plateau he could see it winding towards the town, and taking out his small telescope he could make out small clouds of dust rising from the hoofs of a little band of horsemen trotting out towards the watch-tower. The road upon which he stood had been left unguarded. For the life of him at first he could not see the reason, for although it was rough and in bad condition very little work would have made it serviceable for horses or even for artillery. As it was, it was fairly safe for infantry. Taking out his notebook he hastily made sketches and a little plan of the forts. Then, using great caution so as not to be seen, he worked himself out of the hollow, and crawling on all fours looked over the edge of the road. And now he saw plainly the reason for the Mexicans' apparent lack of caution. The road had once crossed a deep gorge or chasm at a time when it was either spanned by a bridge or the place it now occupied was solid ground, for it ended abruptly, and from where it stopped was inaccessible without the aid of long ladders.
Looking back up the hill he perceived that he was hidden from sight of everything but the top that he had just left. Way to the east, across the river, he could see the camp of the Americans, from four to five miles distant, while by simply climbing a few feet to his right above the ledge he could look down into the valley that was crossed with the lines of entrenchments. The value of his secret burst upon him as the discovery of some foundation of science must have burst upon the ancients, with an almost overwhelming heart-lift. Five hundred men could work upon the road that he had traversed without discovery, if they made no noise, unless some one strolled out on the tops of the spur. And if they once could gain the top the whole of the Mexicans' highest position was outflanked. The castle itself might easily be carried. If the movement was driven home quickly the attacking force might reach the Jalapa road between it and the town before it could be stopped. Most any man would have been satisfied with the knowledge that he had gained, and would only have thought of getting back with it at once; but not so with Lee. As a boy he had never "half learned "anything; as a man he had never been satisfied with only partly understanding; there was much to lose by haste—there was much to gain by caution and careful observation. He now saw the crevice or crack by which he had made his way to the top, and he marvelled that he had followed it safely, for it had apparently dwindled away to nothing at places, and he distinctly recollected moments the night before when a leg or an arm had swung from out beneath him and he had seemed to keep himself in the little, sloping trough merely by the force of thought and prayer. He did not relish the idea of having to descend by the same passage, even in daylight, but another surprise awaited him. He found that the old road while ending abruptly on one side had years and years before continued straight ahead, and following it he saw that in his judgment a path could be dug through the crumbling rock down to the meadow. So far so good.
But now an important discovery! Looking up the high hill directly in front of him, the one that had been unfortified on account of its supposed inaccessibility, Lee judged it possible to get guns up there on the eastern slope. In his mind's eye he began to plan a method. He even got out his notebook and made some calculations. It was while doing this that he became aware that he was hungry, and taking out his provender that had been wrapped in a stout canvas bag he fell to eating ravenously.