Chapter VII. Captain Lee at the Front

Astonishing as General Taylor's success had been, the authorities at Washington decided, largely for political reasons, to appoint a new commander, and three months after the battle of Monterey, General Winfield Scott, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States army, was ordered to the seat of the war.

It would be impossible to imagine two officers more utterly different than Taylor and Scott, but each in his own way exerted a profound influence upon the careers of Grant and Lee. Taylor was a rough, uncultivated man, fearless, shrewd and entirely capable, but with nothing to suggest the soldier in his appearance, dress or dignity. On the contrary, he usually appeared sitting slouchily on some woe-begone old animal, his long legs dangling on one side of the saddle, the bridle rein looped over his arm and a straw hat on his head, more like a ploughman than an officer of high rank. Indeed, he seldom donned a uniform of any description, and his only known appearance in full dress occurred during an official meeting with an admiral, when, out of regard for naval etiquette, he attired himself in his finest array. But this effort at politeness was not calculated to encourage him, for the admiral, knowing his host's objection to uniforms, had been careful to leave his on his ship and appeared in civilian attire.

Scott, on the other hand, was a fussy and rather pompous individual, who delighted in brass buttons and gold lace and invariably presented a magnificent appearance. But, like Taylor, he was an excellent officer and thoroughly competent to handle an army in the field. He was, moreover, entirely familiar with the material of which the American army was composed, and his first move on assuming command was to order practically all the regular United States troops and their officers to join him near Vera Cruz, leaving Taylor virtually nothing but volunteer regiments. The Fourth Infantry accordingly parted with its old commander and reported to Scott, where it was assigned to the division of General Worth, and for the first time Grant met many of the men with and against whom he was to be thrown during the Civil War.

It was certainly a remarkable body of officers that Scott gathered about him at the outset of his campaign, for it included such men as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, McClellan, Joseph Johnson, Jubal Early, A. P. Hill, Meade, Beauregard, Hooker, Longstreet, Hancock, Thomas and, last but not least, Ulysses Grant and Robert Lee. Lee had arrived in Mexico soon after the battle of Monterey, but he had no opportunity for distinction until the spring of 1847, when preparations were begun for the siege of Vera Cruz. He had, however, already demonstrated his ability as an engineer, and with Lieutenant Beauregard who, fourteen years later, commanded the attack on Fort Sumter, he was entrusted with posting the American batteries at Vera Cruz. This he did to such advantage that they made short work of the city which fell into the invaders' hands, March 29, 1847, after a week's siege. Scott was quick to recognize the merit of officers, and Lee was straightway attached to his personal staff, with the result that when the army began its forward movement most of the difficult and delicate work was confided to his care.

Scott's object was the capture of the City of Mexico, the capital of the Republic, and against this stronghold he moved with energy and skill. At Cerro Gordo the Mexicans opposed him with considerable force, but maneuvers, suggested by Lee, enabled him to outflank the enemy and drive them, without much trouble, from his path. Again at Contreras a check occurred, part of the army having advanced over a well-nigh impassable country and lost touch with the Commander-in-Chief. One after another seven officers were dispatched to carry the necessary orders, but all returned without effecting their purpose. But at midnight, in the midst of a torrential storm Lee arrived from the front, having overcome all difficulties - an achievement which Scott subsequently described as "the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge, pending the campaign."

But Lee was more than merely brave and daring. He was thorough. When work was entrusted to his care he performed it personally, never relying on others further than was absolutely necessary, and never resting satisfied until he was certain that he had accomplished his task. On one of his most important reconnoissances he rode into the interior of the country at night to locate the position of the enemy, and after he had proceeded a considerable distance his guide informed him that if he went any further he would be a prisoner, for the whole Mexican army lay directly in his path. He, accordingly, advanced more cautiously, but the guide again begged him to halt, declaring that he could already see the enemies' tents lying on the hillside below. Peering through the darkness in the direction indicated, Lee discovered what appeared to be an encampment of many thousand men, and for the moment he was tempted to accept his companion's conclusion that this was the main force of the Mexicans. Second thoughts, however, convinced him that he ought not to make a report based upon the eyes of the guide, and, despite the man's frightened protests, he decided to stay where he was and see the situation for himself by daylight. But, before the morning fairly dawned, it was apparent that the supposed army of Mexicans was nothing but a huge flock of sheep and, galloping back with the news that the road was clear, he led a troop of cavalry forward and located the enemy posted many miles away in an entirely different position.