Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Captain Robert E. Lee and the Lava-Beds

The Mexican War, brief as was its period of operations in the field, was marked by many deeds of daring, and also was the scene of the first service in the field of various officers who afterward became prominent in the Civil War. Chief among these were the two great leaders on the opposite sides, General Lee and General Grant. Lee's services in the campaign which Scott conducted against the city of Mexico were especially brilliant, and are likely to be less familiar to the reader than any incident drawn from his well-known record in the Civil War. The most striking among them was his midnight crossing of the lava-fields before Contreras.

On the 19th of August, 1847, Scott's army lay in and around San Augustin, a place situated on a branch of the main road running south from the city of Mexico. This road divided into two at Churubusco, the other branch running near Contreras. Between these two roads and a ridge of hills south of San Augustin extended a triangular region known as the Pedregal, and about as ugly a place to cross as any ground could well be.

It was made up of a vast spread of volcanic rock and scoriae, rent and broken into a thousand forms, and with sharp ridges and deep fissures, making it very difficult for foot-soldiers to get over, and quite impassable for cavalry or artillery. It was like a sea of hardened lava, with no signs of vegetation except a few clumps of bushes and dwarf trees that found footing in the rocks. The only road across it was a difficult, crooked, and barely passable pathway, little better than a mule track, leading from San Augustin to the main road from the city of Mexico.

On the plateau beyond this sterile region the Mexicans had gathered in force. Just beyond it General Valencia lay intrenched, with his fine division of about six thousand men and twenty-four guns, commanding the approach from San Augustin. A mile or more north of Contreras lay General Santa Anna, his force holding the main city road.

Such was the situation of the respective armies at the date given, with the Pedregal separating them. Captain Lee, who had already done excellent engineering service at Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo, assisted by Lieutenants Beauregard and Tower of the engineers, had carefully reconnoitred the position of the enemy, and on the morning of the 19th the advance from San Augustin began, Captain Lee accompanying the troops in their arduous passage across the Pedregal. One of those present thus describes the exploit:

"Late in the morning of the 19th the brigade of which my regiment was a part (Riley's) was sent out from San Augustin in the direction of Contreras. We soon struck a region over which it was said no horses could go, and men only with difficulty. No road was available; my regiment was in advance, my company leading, and its point of direction was a church-spire at or near Contreras. Taking the lead, we soon struck the Pedregal, a field of volcanic rock like boiling scoria suddenly solidified, pathless, precipitous, and generally compelling rapid gait in order to spring from point to point of rock, on which two feet could not rest and which cut through our shoes. A fall on this sharp material would have seriously cut and injured one, whilst the effort to climb some of it cut the hands.

"Just before reaching the main road from Contreras to the city of Mexico we reached a watery ravine, the sides of which were nearly perpendicular, up which I had to be pushed and then to pull others. On looking back over this bed of lava or scoria, I saw the troops, much scattered, picking their way very slowly; while of my own company, some eighty or ninety strong, only five men crossed with me or during some twenty minutes after.

"With these five I examined the country beyond, and struck upon the small guard of a paymaster's park, which, from the character of the country over which we had passed, was deemed perfectly safe from capture. My men gained a paymaster's chest well filled with bags of silver dollars, and the firing and fuss we made both frightened the guard with the belief that the infernals were upon them and made our men hasten to our support.

"Before sundown all of Riley's, and I believe of Cadwallader's, Smith's, and Pierce's brigades, were over, and by nine o' clock a council of war, presided over by Persifer Smith and counselled by Captain R. E. Lee, was held at the church. I have always understood that what was devised and finally determined upon was suggested by Captain Lee; at all events, the council was closed by his saying that he desired to return to General Scott with the decision of General Smith, and that, as it was late, the decision must be given as soon as possible, since General Scott wished him to return in time to give directions for co-operation.

During the council, and for hours after, the rain fell in torrents, whilst the darkness was so intense that one could move only by groping. To illustrate: my company again led the way to gain the Mexican rear, and when, after two hours of motion, light broke sufficiently to enable us to see a companion a few feet off, we had not moved four hundred yards, and the only persons present were half a dozen officers and one guide."

Much is said of the perils of war and of the courage necessary to face them. But who would not rather face a firing-line of infantry in full daylight than to venture alone in such a dark and stormy night as was this upon such a perilous and threatening region as the Pedregal, in which a misstep in the darkness would surely lead to wounds and perhaps to death. Its crossing, under such conditions, might well be deemed impossible, had not Captain Lee succeeded, borne up by his strong sense of duty, in this daring enterprise.

General Scott, who was very anxious to know the position of the advance forces, had sent out seven officers about sundown with instructions to the troops at Contreras, but they had all returned, completely baffled by the insuperable difficulties of the way. Not a man except Robert E. Lee had the daring, skill, and persistence to cross this region of volcanic knife-blades on that night of rain and gloom.

The writer above quoted from says, "History gives him the credit of having succeeded, but it has always seemed incredible to me when I recollect the distance amid darkness and storm, and the dangers of the Pedregal which he must have traversed. Scarcely a step could be taken without danger of death ; but that to him, a true soldier, was the willing risk of duty in a good cause."

General Scott adds his testimony to this by saying, after mentioning the failure of the officers sent out by him, "But the gallant and indefatigable Captain Lee, of the engineers, who has been constantly with the operating forces, is just in from Shields, Smith, Cadwallader, etc., to report, and to request that a powerful diversion be made against the centre of the intrenched camp to-morrow morning."

Scott subsequently gave the following testimony to the same effect: "Captain Lee, engineers, came to me from the hamlet (Contreras) with a message from Brigadier-General Smith, about midnight. He, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible to return to San Augustin in the dark,—the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign."

This praise is certainly not misapplied, when we remember that Lee passed over miles of the kind of ground above described in a pitch-dark night, without light or companion, with no guide but the wind as it drove the pelting rain against his face, or an occasional flash of lightning, and with the danger of falling into the hands of Valencia or Santa Anna if he should happen to stray to the right or the left. It is doubtful if another man in the army would have succeeded in such an enterprise, if any one had had the courage to attempt it. It took a man of the caliber which Robert E. Lee afterward proved himself to possess to perform such a deed of daring.

We may briefly describe Lee's connection with the subsequent events. He bore an important part in the operations against the Mexicans, guiding the troops when they set out about three o'clock in the morning on a tedious march through darkness, rain, and mud; an elevation in the rear of the enemy's forces being gained about sunrise. An assault was at once made on the surprised Mexicans, their entrenchments were stormed, and in seventeen minutes after the charge began they were in full flight and the American flag was floating proudly above their works.

Thus ended the battle of Contreras. Captain Lee was next sent to reconnoitre the well fortified stronghold of Coyacan, while another reconnaissance was made towards Churubusco, one mile distant. After Lee had completed his task, he was ordered to conduct Pierce's brigade by a third road, to a point from which an attack could be made on the enemy's right and rear. Shields was ordered to follow Pierce closely and take command of the left wing.

The battle soon raged violently along the whole line. Shields, in his exposed position, was hard pressed and in danger of being crushed by overwhelming forces. In this alarming situation Captain Lee made his way to General Scott to report the impending disaster, and led back two troops of the Second Dragoons and the Rifles to the support of the left wing. The affair ended in the repulse of the enemy and 'victory for the Americans. Soon after a third victory was won at the Moline del Rey.

Scott's army was now rapidly approaching the city of Mexico, the central point of all these operations, and the engineer officers, Captain Lee, Lieutenant Beauregard, and others, were kept bus in reconnaissances, which they performed with daring and success. Then quickly followed the boldest and most spectacular exploit of the war, the brilliant charge up the steep heights of Chapultepec, a hill that bristled with walls, mines, and batteries, and whose summit was crowned with a powerful fortress, swarming with confident defenders.

Up this hill went the American infantry like so many panthers, bounding impetuously onward in face of the hot fire from the Mexican works, scaling crags, clambering up declivities, all with a fiery valor and intrepidity which nothing could check, until the heights were carried, the works scaled, and the enemy put to flight. In this charge, one of the most brilliant in American history, Captain Lee took an active part, till he was disabled by a severe wound and loss of blood. General Scott again speaks of his service here in complimentary words, saying that he was "as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring," and also stating that "Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me, until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries."

Scott, indeed, had an exalted opinion of Lee's remarkable military abilities, and Hon. Reverdy Johnson has stated that he "had heard General Scott more than once say that his success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee." In later years Scott said, "Lee is the greatest military genius in America."

Lee's services were not left without reward. He received successively the brevet rank of major, lieutenant-colonel, and colonel, the latter for his service at Chapultepec. The victory at this point was the culminating event of the war. Shortly afterward the Mexican capital was occupied, and the Mexicans soon gave up the contest as hopeless. A new Cortez was in their streets, who was not to be got rid of except at a heavy sacrifice.

As to how Lee occupied himself during this period, we may quote an anecdote coming from General Magruder.

"After the fall of Mexico, when the American army was enjoying the ease and relaxation which it had bought by toil and blood, a brilliant assembly of officers sat over their wine discussing the operations of the capture and indulging hopes of a speedy return to the United States.

"One among them rose to propose the health of the Captain of Engineers who had found a way for the army into the city, and then it was remarked that Captain Lee was absent. Magruder was despatched to bring him to the hall, and, departing on his mission, at last found the object of his search in a remote room of the palace, busy on a map. Magruder accosted him and reproached him for his absence. The earnest worker looked up from his labors with the calm, mild gaze which was so characteristic of the man, and, pointing to his instruments, shook his head.

"'But,' said Magruder, in his impetuous way, 'this is mere drudgery. Make somebody else do it, and come with me.'

"'No,' was the reply; 'no, I am but doing my duty.'"

This is very significant of Lee's subsequent character, in which the demands of duty always outweighed any thought of pleasure or relaxation, and in which his remarkable ability as an engineer was of inestimable advantage to the cause he served.