Un Vaincu/Chapter 4
The years that followed the Mexican War were as usefully spent as the previous ones. In charge of building Fort Calhoun, Colonel Lee was, in 1852, elected President of West Point, of which, as you remember, he had been an excellent pupil. The level of studies rose during the three years under his directorship, and one might have thought that progress in science had been the main concern of the new director when, in reality, his concern had extended to whatever could be good and useful for the cadets.
Convinced that bonds of trust and personal affection would be beneficial for them, he looked for means to bring the pupils closer to him. He had the impression that the young men were sometimes embarrassed at coming to see him during the hours of the day when their absence from common exercises could be noticed. He imrnediately changed entirely the program of his days so as to reserve the first hours in the morning for them. Even in winter he began his audiences at 6:00 a.m. and often gave up breakfast so as not to dismiss anybody. His solicitude brought excellent results, and many young men attribute to his firm and friendly talks, with their vitalizing influence on them, the decision they made and kept, to be men of duty.
At the same time, Colonel Lee was rebuilding the school′s indoor arena , and undertook a major enterprise -- the beautiful road which, cut into pure rock, goes down from the promontory on which the school is built, to the banks of the Hudson.
Nominated in 1855 as Commander of a Cavalry Regiment, he left for Texas, a territory newly detached from Mexico, to protect it′s frontier against the Indians. The results of the recent war had been practically nil. The Mexican government′s promises remained unfulfilled, and it had become obvious that the Americans could only count on themselves to protect their nationals.
The United States government was, and is still obliged, to maintain all along the zone occupied by the Indians, a line of separate Forts rather like our blockhouses in Algeria, each one of which is manned by a Detail of regular soldiers. The crude walls of these small Forts, made of tree trunks, serve as shelters for the families of settlers when they are threatened and eventually have to sustain real sieges. Sometimes those small garrisons are called to help isolated houses submitted to an attack. Often, they arrive too late and can only witness the murders or destructions already committed.
Among the Indian tribes having taken refuge along the frontier of Texas, the most famous and most powerful was the Comanches. Better than the Pawnees or the Apaches, with whom they had often associated in looting, the Comanches had managed to preserve their war customs as well as their traditions of respect for the Chiefs, of contempt for death, traditions which had, in the past, made the strength of their savage tribe.
The Comanches, at the time Colonel Lee was in charge of restraining them, could still muster ten thousand seasoned horsemen. For a single Regiment, divided into Platoons, extended over a long distance, such adversaries were not to be disdained. Colonel Lee was not one of those men who hurry to outlaw people or things they do not understand. Before using force, before committing those hideous massacres of which one has too many examples, he tried a pacific campaign among the Comanches and spared no effort to attract the Chiefs and establish with them an atmosphere of friendship capable, on specific occasions, of preventing bloody encounters, the memory of which only stirred up hate.
Scorning the greatest perils, for the Indian guile would not avoid committing a profitable murder, so long as it was possible, the Colonel visited, one after the other, the principal campsites of his Comanche neighbors. As a token of peace and trust, he never came but with a light escort. Often even with only one servant, he joined, at considerable distances, caravans of Chiefs with whom he intended to smoke the peace pipe, according to tradition.
The astonishment caused by his daring was, without doubt, what saved him. Soon, among the Indians, he passed for a man protected by the great spirit. Marvelous stories were told from clearing to clearing about the new white chief, and his name acquired all the popularity attainable in a savage country.
The dealings which had taken place until that time between the American command and the Comanche changed completely. So much so, that no revolt took place while Colonel Lee remained in Texas. His military actions were limited to watching over the vagrant Indians who belonged to no tribe and looted indifferently friend or foe.
However, the system adopted by Colonel Lee turned out to present disadvantages for himself. His visits to the Indian Chiefs were scrupulously reciprocated, as he certainly wanted it to be. But, he had not taken into account the requirements of Comanche politeness. One of the articles of its code, not yet printed, requires that any person to whom a visit is made, must not leave his visitor, even for the shortest time. And the Comanche arrived at day-break and left only at sunset. Another rule is that the person visited offers his visitor a gift that the latter really likes. The visitor must never ask for it, but to help his host in guessing what it would be, he keeps his eyes obstinately fixed on that object, with a patience really Indian, from morning to evening if necessary.
Not satisfied with coming chemselves, one after the other, to pay the Colonel their interested court, the Comanche Chiefs did not need a long time to imagine using their wives for their new type of persecution. It became fashionable for the squaws to spend whole days in the tent of the white chief. Squatting gravely on their heels, these ladies remained completely silent, but their presence obliged the Colonel to remain in the room and to notice that each pair of soft and brilliant black eyes was looking fixedly at a different object which he had to end up by giving if he wanted to preserve the atmosphere of friendship he considered so important.
Instructed by experience, the Colonel finally got to subtract from visibility, everything except the four wooden partitions of his reception room. But, he did not gain as much as one might think. The attention of the Indian women concentrated on the Colonel himself, and finally, not a single piece of his clothing escaped being silently, but eloquently, demanded. His boots, particularly, provoked ardent covetousness. It was not rare to see two or three women fix their eyes on them. If the Colonel stood up, went right or left giving orders, those eyes would obstinately follow his feet, and the Colonel could not escape, in the end, taking off his shoes and offering them. Only then did he recover possession of his domicile.
A few short expeditions interrupted the monotony of that existence.
“I have just returned from my expedition into the Comanche country ; had a long trip of forty days…” he says in one of his letters. “The main column, which I accompanied, travelled eight hundred miles. We visited the head-waters of the Wichita and Brazos rivers… and swept down the valleys of the Conehn, the Colorado,…” etc., etc. “We could find no Indians, and all the traces of them were old. The country had been fired in many places, and in some places it was still burning and abandoned…”
“The weather was intensely hot, and as we had no tents, we had the full benefit of the sun…”
“Camp Cooper, August 4th, 1856… The sun was fiery hot. The atmosphere like the blast from a hot-air furnace, the water salt…”
On August 25, he writes again, “I received to-day notice (through my spies) that a party of Comanches who have been on a marauding expedition to Mexico… are endeavoring to get around our camp on their way north, and are some fifteen miles below. They have separated into gangs of six, eight, and ten, to escape detection. I am in the act of sending out a company of cavalry to endeavor to catch them… I should go myself but for my forced journey to the Rio Grande…”
Such a military service must have held few attractive moments, and it is easy to understand how much Arlington and its inhabitants must have been missed by him who was separated from them.
“Fort Brown, Texas, December, 1856.”… The time is approaching, dear M----, when I trust that many of you will be assembled around the family hearth of dear Arlington to celebrate another Christmas. Though absent, my heart will be in the midst of you. I shall enjoy in imagination and memory all that is going on. May nothing occur to mar or cloud the family fireside, and may each one be able to look with pride and pleasure to their deeds of the past year, and with confidence and hope to that in prospect. I can do nothing but love and pray for you all.”…
“…I am able to give you but little news, as nothing of interest transpires here, and I rarely see any one outside the garrison. My daily walks are alone, up and down the banks of the river, and my pleasure is derived from my own thoughts and from the sight of the flowers and animals I meet with there”…
“We get plenty of papers, but all of old dates. Things seem to be going on an usual in the States. Mr. Buchanan, it appears, is to be our next President. I hope he will be able to extinguish fanaticism North and South, cultivate love for the country and Union, and restore harmony between the different sections.”…
And some time after he resumes, “I hope you all had a joyous Christmas at Arlington, and that it may be long and often repeated. I thought of you and wished to be with you. Mine was gratefully but silently passed. I endeavored to find some presents for the children in the garrison, and succeeded better than I anticipated. The stores were very barren, but by including them the week beforehand in my daily walks, I picked up something for all.”
We have already said that the Forts were simple block houses, protecting only a small number of soldiers. Those block houses were also very far apart. It was not always easy to obtain, at the proper moment, the presence of the only Chaplain of the regiment, so officers were sometimes obliged to take his place in his ministry.
We are in the month of June. Colonel Lee is at Camp Cooper. “The thermometer ranges above 100 degrees ; but the sickness among the men is on the decrease, though there has been another death among the children. He was as handsome a little boy as I ever saw -- the son of one of our sergeants, about a year old ; I was admiring his appearance the day before he was taken ill. Last Thursday his little waxen form was committed to the earth. His father came to me, the tears flowing down his cheeks, and asked me to read the funeral service over his body, which I did at the grave for the second time in my life. I hope I shall not be called on again, for, though I believe it is far better for the child to be called by its Heavenly Creator into His presence in its purity and innocence, unpolluted by sin and uncontaminated by the vices of the world, still it so wrings a parent′s heart with anguish that it is painful to see.”
One has noticed, through all the different periods of Colonel Lee′s life, the strange charm he exerted on children. Hardly had they seen him than they pressed around him, listening to his slightest words, gave him their hearts, and did not forget him. The letter we have just read explains this exceptional attraction. The man who wrote it loved children. He loved them wich predilection. That affection was felt by them and returned to him.
- That Fort, meant to protect the entry of the Port of Baltimore, had to be built on piles, and is one of the most remarkable pieces of work existing in America. (This opinion was expressed in 1875.)
- Written in 1875.