Un Vaincu/Chapter 3
It is common knowledge how the merciless progress of civilization pushed back the Indians -- first occupants of the country -- to the far-off extremities of America
The land which their laziness left uncultivated and which, for them, was but a space appropriate for hunting, revealed its richness to the settlers coming from Europe. Established at first on the Atlantic Coast, then along the rivers, the pioneers advanced into the heart of the country as their numbers increased. Wherever the white men penetrated, wherever their axe opened the primal forests, wide clearings were soon cultivated, and the weak, yet ferocious tribes of Redskins, divided and incapable of uniting, even for their own defense, were fatally condemned to disappear. How much blood has been shed in those obscure fights, no one knows. Both sides fought for their lives, and it seems that the Indian, slain in front of his ancestors′ graves, and the European, scalped on the threshold of the house he was building for his children, deserve the same compassion.
The successive victories that the settlers owed principally to their superior armament secured possession of the land, and the savages were finally relegated to the lost wilderness of the far west. The remnants of their various tribes, joined together in a common misfortune, became a sort of miserable population, hostile to work, and reduced for their living to seize by looting the product of other people′s work.
Remarkable riders, the Indians would escape from their campsites in small groups, cover in a single night enormous distances, surprise isolated settlers, set fire to their farms, herd the cattle away, slaughter men, women, and children, and be back amidst their own people before the news of their attack had reached those who could have pursued them.
Wherever the proximity of the Mexican border allowed Indian gangs to take refuge, they escaped repression. Soon, a great number of Indians settled in the Mexican territory, and safe from punishment, intensified their destructions. It became completely impossible for the Europeans to live along the extended frontier of Mexico. Like a flight of vultures, the looting Comanches, Apache, Pawnees, et cetera, swooped down on the clearings in the forests, and, loaded with the spoils they had robbed from the settlers, returned to the shelter given by the flag that protected them. Many a time did the U. S. Government try to obtain from Mexico a more thorough control of its border, or reparation for the loss sustained. The promises made -- promises that were, perhaps, difficult to honor -- were always broken. So much so, that in 1847, the U. S. declared war on Mexico.
There is always something painful in seeing a powerful nation attack a weak one, and Captain Lee was among those who would have preferred the Union government to display a still greater patience. War being declared, he could only be -- and was -- a soldier.
It was the first time since the Washington days that an American army was embarking on a campaign. The nation kept a close watch over its preparation, with an interest easy to conceive. It was hoped that the result of the expedition would be worthy of a great people. But the nation, more trade than military-minded, was prone to entertain a small army and, at first, did not accept the necessary sacrifices that it later imposed on itself with such generous eagerness.
Eight thousand men were concentrated under the command of General Scott. Captain Lee was in command of the engineering. Mustered first at Brazos, on the southern coast of Texas, this little army crossed the Gulf of Mexico and landed near Vera Cruz. The preliminary works under the responsibility of our Captain were speedily accomplished, and the town soon surrendered itself.
Then began the real difficulties. The army was marching towards Mexico City, and the invaded nation mustered all its means to make the assailants pay dearly for their presumption in choosing the most direct route to the capital.
Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Cherubesco, became the bloody stages of a march beset with difficulties. Not trusting the natural obstacles of the land, the Mexicans had fortified all the mountain passes. They had to be conquered -- one after the other -- by sheer fighting. Under the enemy's fire, Captain Lee had to lay out, then build, the roads capable of bearing his powerful artillery. Already there, he revealed his sharp military judgement that was to place him among the greatest military men of our time.
After the battle of Cerro Gordo, the army entered the mountainous region where the Mexican General Valentia had taken refuge. His positions were not known, and it was important to get information about them. Captain Lee, with a few of his officers and a group of his best soldiers, went off to get the lay of the land . They climbed the hills, reached a desolate plateau which they crossed with innumerable obstacles and difficulties, until they were confronted with a wall of blocks of lava. The party managed to climb those rocks and discovered with stupefaction that as far as their view could reach, those rocks crisscrossed over a land destitute of any vegetation. They could not discover the slightest sign of a trail. On the whole surface of the plateau, there was nothing but sharp needle points or cutting ridges, and it was impossible, even with field glasses, to discover the end of this jumble.
They realized they were in a volcanic desert, called Pedrigale, mentioned on a few maps. Captain Lee and a handful of resolute men couldn’t reconcile themselves to return to their camp without having pushed their exploration further.
Sliding down a block of lava, climbing on one another’s backs to ascend another, they advanced at the cost of considerable fatigue. A few meters from their starting point, there were only five explorers left -- their companions having decided to reverse their steps. Those five did not let themselves be demoralized by a most excusable defection, and continued their strange expedition.
Coming to the part of the desert where distances between the blocks were shorter, they began jumping from one to another, but this presented its own type of danger, the top of a rock being barely wide enough to allow two feet to rest on it at the same time, and a fall on those sharp ridges being dangerous and painful.
After several hours of this kind of gymnastics -- for one cannot call the crossing of the Pedrigale a march -- Captain Lee and his companions reached its extremity. It was not too soon. They were exhausted, and a storm -- one of those Mexican storms which overthrow nature completely -- burst over their heads. Looking for a shelter under a rock, one of the party saw, at a very small distance, a Mexican sentinel carelessly guarding what seemed to be a powder magazine. Still other clues lead Captain Lee to surmise that more troops must be nearby and feel in total security. They could reasonably consider that the Pedrigale was, by itself, a strong enough defense against any attack. He proposed to his companions to return across the Pedrigale and inform General Scott of their discovery.
The four officers considered they were too exhausted to repeat such an exploit. The storm was in its full strength, night was falling, the dangers they had escaped with such difficulty would be ten-fold in the obscurity, the rain, and the wind. To start at this time was courting death, or at least losing oneself and remaining until daytime in this maze of rocks, incapable therefore of being of any use to General Scott.
Captain Lee informed them of his resolution to carry the news immediately. He would go alone, and would try the next day to bring the army by a less perilous road. His companions exclaimed that he was inviting death if he crossed that desert by night with such a storm, and beseeched him to wait for daytime, as he would certainly, in spite of all his strength and skill, lose himself. But Captain Lee felt how important it was for the General to be informed, as soon as possible, of the presence of the Mexican Corps, and compelling his exhausted limbs to serve his energetic will, he headed into the rocky plateau.
One can imagine what such an expedition turned out to be. Guided in the obscurity only by the direction of the wind, if the storm had ceased, the Captain would have remained lost in the middle of that chaos. Fortunately, the wind held on with the same violence, and Robert Lee reached Scott′s encampments soon enough to enable adapting the plans to the information he was bringing. The same day, the U. S. Army attacked, by surprise, Valentia′s army, won the victory of Contreras, and thus opened the road to Mexico.
Many years after, whenever General Scott was asked which had been, in his opinion, the most beautiful deed accomplished during the war, he always answered, “Lee′s crossing the Pedrigale”.
A few days after the battle of Contreras, the Battle of Chapultepec took place at the very gates of Mexico. There, a dying bullet hit Robert Lee right in his chest. The shock was so strong that he lost consciousness and remained, a long time, lying on the ground without giving any sign of life. His superb white mare, Creole, whose beauty and deeds had been made famous in all the army, remained faithfully next to his master′s body. Jim, the Captain′s ordinance, seeing from a distance Creole immobile and without a rider, fearing an accident, rushed up. His efforts to bring back to life his wounded master seeming fruitless, the poor man thought he was dying.
Meanwhile, the City of Mexico made its submission, and the army was making haste to take possession of it. The companies, one after the other, were marching past the place where Captain Lee had fallen, and each soldier, seeing the beautiful and so well known white horse standing near the body while Jim was crying beside it, learned what loss the army had just suffered and expressed their concern. “Poor Lee,” said some, “he certainly didn′t spare himself much.” Others would exclaim, “To die with the last shot, just when peace is reached, what bad luck.” And the troops marched on.
Meanwhile, the victim had regained consciousness, but not the strength to make the slightest movement. He could hear vaguely those reflections, and remained apparently paralyzed. General Scott and his staff were last to march by. “Ah, my dear comrade -- my brave Lee,” he exclaimed, “what a tragic event. Gentlemen, you behold there, lost for our fatherland, the greatest military genius of America.” And the General, hat in hand, bowed with deep emotion. At that very moment, the Captain was regaining consciousness and was able to reassure his Chief. A few days after, he was resuming his service.
The U. S. Army was obliged to occupy Mexico until the peace treaty was ratified. The hostility of the inhabitants made the sojourn in town very dangerous for the Americans, who where not numerous enough to maintain order in all the parts of the city at the same time. Several soldiers on guard were stabbed, and several officers, scouring the town, were hit or abducted, without any of the culprits being discovered.
One day, Captain Lee was going through a narrow street in a secluded section of the town. He was riding, as usual, Creole, and his orderly, Jim, was following him, when suddenly a shot was fired and a bullet grazed his hair. He stopped short, looked around quickly. A slight wisp of smoke showed him from which window the shot had been fired. Pulling out his watch, he handed it to Jim and ordered him to wait on the spot, with the horses, for exactly 15 minutes. “If I haven′t reappeared within that time,” he added, “I will have been killed.” Go then, and report to General Scott ; and, throwing him his bridle, he disappeared into the dark entry of the house. The 15 minutes lapsed, and the Captain did not return. He had climbed the stairs to the floor corresponding to the smoke without meeting a soul ; but arriving there, he found himself in a big room, in the midst of frightened women who were swearing in Mexican that they had seen nobody. That nobody, besides themselves, lived in the house. With great difficulty, the Captain untangled himself, and thrusting open a door, in front of which the women happened to huddle together, he entered a den of bandits, armed to the teeth. Alone, in the middle of a dozen men, with his usual intrepid calm, he obliged them all to show their guns. Two of them had just been fired. Without hesitation, and making use of the authority his tall height and his natural resolute bearing gave him, he took hold of the two owners and obliged them to follow him, without any of their comrades daring to defend them. The women were a more serious obstacle to clear. In spite of them, he managed to bring his prisoners downstairs and found in the street, poor Jim, who, still on horseback and his eyes on the watch, was conscious it marked five minutes more than the time allocated, but could not bring himself to lose all hope of seeing his master again.
The Mexicans were court-marshaled, but Robert Lee had not wanted to be a supplier to the executioner, and he saw to it that they were liberated when the army left. He then returned to Arlington, having been promoted, at the end of the campaign, to the rank of Colonel.