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.

The Mexicans stubbornly, though unsuccessfully, resisted the American army as it pushed toward their capital, and in the battles which ensued Lee was so active that his gallant conduct was praised in almost every dispatch of his Chief, who subsequently attributed much of his success "to the skill and valor of Robert E. Lee," whom he did not hesitate to describe as "the greatest military genius in America." Continuous praise from such a source would have been more than sufficient to turn the average officer's head, but Lee continued to perform his duties without showing the least sign of vanity or conceit. Quiet, thoughtful, quick to take advantage of any opportunity, but greedy of neither honors nor personal distinction of any kind, he won the admiration of his comrades as well as the confidence of his superiors, and his promotion, first to the rank of major and then to that of lieutenant-colonel, was universally approved.

Meanwhile, Grant had been acquitting himself with high credit in all the work which fell to his share. He was in no position to render service of anything like the importance of Lee's, but he did what he was ordered to do and did it well, being brevetted a first lieutenant for conspicuous gallantry at the battle of Molino del Rey, September 8, 1847. Again, on September 13, in the fighting around Chapultepec, where Lee, though wounded, remained in the saddle until he fell fainting from his horse, Grant gained considerable distinction by his quick action in relieving a dangerous pressure on part of the American lines by posting a small gun in the belfry of a church and galling the enemy with his deadly accurate fire. It was characteristic of the man that when complimented upon this achievement and told that a second gun would be sent to him, Grant merely saluted. He might, with truth, have informed his commanding officer that the belfry could not accommodate another gun, but it was not his habit to talk when there was no need of it, or to question the wisdom of his superior officer. He, therefore, quietly accepted the praise and the superfluous gun and, returning to his post, resumed his excellent service. This and other similar conduct won him further promotion, and on September 14, 1847, when the Americans marched triumphantly into the Mexican capital, he was brevetted a captain.

The war practically ended with this event and within a year Grant was married to Miss Julia Dent and stationed at Sackett's Harbor, New York, while Lee was assigned to the defenses of Baltimore, not far from his old home.