The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living. — Karl Marx

Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes




The Captured Capital

It was the captured capital. Across the square, blazing in the heat of the sun, stepped a group of young officers heading for the palace gates. They were laughing and joking together, and evidently they were in great good-humor. It seemed hard to suppose that only a few weeks before these same young fellows had passed through flame and fire and faced death in many shapes to reach their goal. Now their only thought was getting away. It was October. How much longer they would have to stay they did not know, but home was what they talked about and dreamed of. One of the younger officers was strolling along with his hands thrust deep in his trousers-pocket and his tunic opened. His boots and even his shoulders and cap were covered with a film of gray dust.

"Better go and shift into your other uniform, Grant," suggested one of the young men whom we recognize as Lieutenant McClellan.

"The general won't be there, and I've just come from a long ride," was the response. "I think they will pardon me."

"You mean that you will risk it at any rate," put in another. "But, mind you, Colonel Lee is as much a stickler for the proprieties as the general himself."

"Is Colonel Lee going to be there?" asked the one addressed as Grant, suddenly.

"He's presiding officer," said the one who had first spoken. "I'd rather get a blow-out from the old gentleman than a reproving look from him."

"So would I," replied young Grant; "but it's too late now. I'll have to risk it."

He buttoned up his tunic and made some attempt at straightening his attire as he entered the room in the office of the city administration building where Colonel Robert E. Lee was sitting. Yes, he was colonel now; he had received three promotions for bravery on the field and usefulness in council. It was a strange thing with him that, once away from the excitement and danger of conflict, Lee could so suddenly drop into the careful and painstaking engineer, self-exacting and studiously conscientious; but he was observant of the conduct of others, also, and was ready to give praise where praise was due, and to be outspoken if occasion demanded it.

It was not exactly a court-martial that the young officers were going to attend merely a court of inquiry that General Scott wished to hold. He had intrusted Lee with the rather disagreeable duty of reproving some of the younger men for some slight laxity of military duty. Lee's words were short and his questions were few, but yet not one of the subalterns left the room without having felt that peculiar impression that a stern but a just mind makes upon others when exercising the prerogative of rank and office in offering reproof or censure.

Before Grant had left, Lee called to him and quietly spoke to him in an aside.

"Mr. Grant," said he, "I should like to call your attention to the fact that an officer's dress should, so far as is possible, be consistent with the duty that he assumes. In the field and in active service, concessions have to be made, and exigencies often arrive that govern not only our actions but also influence our appearances. However, at such a meeting as this, when practically in barracks, there is no excuse for untidiness and carelessness—I wish to call your attention to regulations. That is all, sir; you may go."

Young Lieutenant Grant saluted and left the room. Years afterwards the memory of these words came to him perhaps at a certain moment, of which we shall tell later in the story. Grant, once when speaking of Lee with admiration, praising his qualities both as a man and as a soldier, referred to him as "austere." Lee was not austere. He had that dignity that comes of exactness of life—he made no slovenly or faulty strokes with pen or sword, and yet he never gave out the idea of self-repression. He was spontaneous and natural in the enjoyment of his pleasures and in the expression of his sympathies. All of his letters at this time showed (now that the actual fighting was over) that his one desire was to return home and to see the family from which he had so long been separated. But the gratification of this wish was long deferred. Weeks ran on into months, and every moment of his busy life was filled with detail work.

It would take too much time and too much space to describe the condition of affairs in the city of Mexico and at home in the United States just at this period. General Scott had many enemies, both in the army and in political circles. There was not only jealousy, but party feeling involved, and many bitter moments did the conqueror of Mexico endure, and not always in silence. He kept his own council generally and asked for no sympathy from those about him; yet, at the same time, occasionally his temper got the better of him. But he never showed, even at this time, anything but kindly gentleness towards Lee. As had been proved time and again (and was to be shown before long in a strangely dramatic manner), Scott had almost the affection of a father or elder brother for his assistant chief of engineers. They were both Virginians; neither believed in slavery; and, while Scott did not have Lee's deeply religious temperament, they thought alike upon many subjects. Lee was always loyal to his friends, and in him General Scott found a champion at a time when he needed one.

This is rather a long digression, yet it is necessary, in view of what happened within a few short years after the Mexican War was over, to explain the close friendship that existed between the son of Light Horse Harry and the hero of Lundy's Lane.

It was said by those who were jealous of him that Scott usually assumed the credit for everything that he possibly could, but no general in despatches ever did more justice to a subordinate than Scott did to Lee, and, if the truth be told, to all his officers.

The bitter disappointments of receiving no answers to numerous communications and requests that he had addressed to the home government no doubt embittered General Scott's temper, and the discontent among the rank and file at their enforced stay in Mexico became more pronounced; yet with Lee he had no trouble. In him Scott found only a conscientious and faithful subordinate, anxious to relieve him as much as possible of the worries of his position.

Scott wrote of these troublesome and exacting times as follows:

"The war of masses ended with the capture of the enemy's capital. The war of detail, including the occupation of the country and the collection of revenue, requires a large additional force."

In fact, that task was actually harder than marching and fighting. There were innumerable little skirmishes with the predatory bands of guerrilleros out in the mountains; the city, however, was as quiet and as well ordered as if war had never been in the vicinity. But the army had to be supported and the country governed at the same time. At last the celebrated treaty of peace was signed on February 2, 1848, between Mexico and the United States, and on the 18th Scott turned over the command of the army to Major-General Butler, and soon afterwards returned home to the United States. Lee did not leave until May. It was a time when everybody who had a connection with the war was thinking of rewards and emoluments, but Lee had neither complaints on his own account nor ambitions further than those of carrying out his duties to the best of his abilities. His thoughts were more for others than for himself. Just before he left Mexico he expressed himself strongly upon the subject of Scott's having to suffer the ignominy of appearing before a court-martial, for it was true that, owing to the treatment of one of his subordinates who had great political power, the hero of one of the most remarkable campaigns of all history was compelled to answer charges which were subsequently found to have no foundation other than in the slanderous tales that emanated from his political and military enemies.

"I have nothing to fear for General Scott," wrote Lee, "if the whole truth be known, though the whole country will have suffered by his suspension." Then going on to speak of Scott's skill and science that had crushed the enemy and conquered a peace, Lee also gives praise to many others, and adds these words: "I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance on my account, or any concern about the distribution of favors. I know how these things are rewarded at Washington, and how the President will be besieged by clamorous claimants. I do not wish to be numbered among them. Such as he can conscientiously bestow I should gratefully receive, and have no doubt that they will exceed my deserts."

Whether these rewards were commensurate with his services it is not for us to judge, but the value of what he had performed (in the doing of what he only considered as his duty) was recognized by every officer who lived through the campaign. After his return to the United States, General Scott, with almost a prophecy on his lips, spoke as follows:

"The success of the army in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted courage of Robert E. Lee," and he stated as positively his belief that Lee was "the greatest military genius in America, and if the opportunity offered he would show himself to be the foremost captain of his time."