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April 13th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Robert E. Lee turns down Houston’s secret offer

This Week in Texas History: A column

Still wearing the Union blue, Col. Robert E. Lee took charge of an isolated outpost on the Texas frontier on April 12, 1856.

As a member of Virginia’s most illustrious family, life did not demand that Lee pull himself up by his bootstraps. He did, however, take full advantage of the doors his famous surname and proud heritage opened and blazed his own path to glory.

First in a long line of famous Lees was Thomas, who served as royal governor of Virginia during colonial days. When a fire destroyed his mansion, none other than the Queen of England footed the bill for a suitable replacement.

Several kinsmen were influential soldier-statesmen in the American Revolution. Light-Horse Harry Lee, father of the general-to-be, gave the British fits as a daring cavalryman and was later elected governor of Virginia.

By marriage Robert E. Lee linked his distinguished family tree with the Custis clan. His father-in-law was the adopted son of George Washington.

Lee was a brilliant student at West Point graduating second in his class. At age 22 he began a 30-year career in the United States Army.

Sent to Texas in 1846 to defend the newest state, Lee became chief of staff for Gen. Winfield Scott. His battlefield exploits in the Mexican War won three promotions in a single year advancing him in rank from captain to colonel.

During the peaceful interlude that followed the conquest of Mexico, Lee’s duties were more mundane. In 1852 he was back at the U.S. Military Academy, this time as superintendent, until orders came in 1855 for a second Texas tour.

For years West Texans had implored the federal government to keep its pre-annexation promise to protect them from hostile Indians, but their pleas fell on deaf congressional ears. The lawmakers’ tardy response was better than nothing but not by much. Washington could spare only 2,800 soldiers to patrol 1,200 miles of Lone Star frontier.

A central figure in this tiny task force, Col. Lee arrived at Camp Cooper in April 1856. The makeshift installation north of present-day Albany was an island in a vast Comanche sea.

Lee logged many more miles presiding over the court-martials of military misfits than chasing red renegades. A year and a half later, the death of a close relative called him home to Virginia.

Radical abolitionist John Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Lee directed the counterattack that crushed the suicidal scheme to incite a slave insurrection and turned the survivors over for trial. Although Brown’s mad plot perished with him on the gallows, his execution further polarized a dangerously divided nation.

A troubled Lee spent the last tumultuous months before the sectional split in the Lone Star State. Returning to San Antonio in the spring of 1860, he did his best to follow a normal routine in spite of the mounting tension.

Lee was far from a secessionist firebrand. He confided to his family in the closing weeks of 1860, “I can anticipate no greater calamity than the dissolution of the Union.” But his ultimate duty was clearly defined. “If a disruption takes place, I shall go in sorrow with my people and share in the misery of my native state.”

Those sad words had the tragic ring of prophecy.

Meanwhile, an old hero tried to solicit the skeptical colonel’s support for a desperate high-stakes gamble.An embattled Unionist searching for some way to save Texas from the clutches of the Confederacy, Gov. Sam Houston shared with Lee a secret plan to conquer Mexico.

The sensational disclosure carried with it an historic invitation for the Virginian to lead the expedition. Lee politely but firmly turned down the offer and added only if Houston were president and his commander-in-chief would the proposal merit his serious consideration.

In February 1861, two weeks after a Texas convention endorsed secession, Gen. Winfield Scott urgently summoned Lee to Washington. He declined command of the northern forces in the coming conflict and resigned from the U.S. Army two months later when Virginia left the Union.

Not until 1975 was Robert E. Lee’s citizenship restored, 105 years too late for the universally respected recipient.

Nevertheless, he rose above the blood-soaked bitterness of those times and refused to brood over his post-war persecution.

Lee devoted his twilight years to a small Virginia college, which he served as president. To the end he encouraged fellow southerners to put the Civil War behind them and always advised with solemn sincerity, “Make your sons Americans.”

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

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