CAPTAIN ROBERT E. LEE AND THE LAVA-BEDS
 THE Mexican War, brief as was its period of operations in the field, was marked by many deeds
of daring, and also was the scene of the first service in the field of various officers
who afterward became prominent in the Civil War. Chief among these were the two great
leaders on the opposite sides, General Lee and General Grant. Lee's services in the
campaign which Scott conducted against the city of Mexico were especially brilliant, and
are likely to be less familiar to the reader than any incident drawn from his well-known
record in the Civil War. The most striking among them was his midnight crossing of the
lava-fields before Contreras.
On the 19th of August, 1847, Scott's army lay in and around San Augustin, a place situated
on a branch of the main road running south from the city of Mexico. This road divided into
two at Churubusco, the other branch running near Contreras. Between these two roads and a
ridge of hills south of San Augustin extended a triangular region known as the Pedregal,
and about as ugly a place to cross as any ground could well be.
It was made up of a vast spread of volcanic
 rock and scoriae, rent and broken into a thousand forms, and with sharp ridges and deep
fissures, making it very difficult for foot-soldiers to get over, and quite impassable for
cavalry or artillery. It was like a sea of hardened lava, with no signs of vegetation
except a few clumps of bushes and dwarf trees that found footing in the rocks. The only
road across it was a difficult, crooked, and barely passable pathway, little better than a
mule track, leading from San Augustin to the main road from the city of Mexico.
On the plateau beyond this sterile region the Mexicans had gathered in force. Just beyond
it General Valencia lay intrenched, with his fine division of about six thousand men and
twenty-four guns, commanding the approach from San Augustin. A mile or more north of
Contreras lay General Santa Anna, his force holding the main city road.
Such was the situation of the respective armies at the date given, with the Pedregal
separating them. Captain Lee, who had already done excellent engineering service at Vera
Cruz and Cerro Gordo, assisted by Lieutenants Beauregard and Tower of the engineers, had
carefully reconnoitred the position of the enemy, and on the morning of the 19th the
advance from San Augustin began, Captain Lee accompanying the troops in their arduous
passage across the Pedregal. One of those present thus describes the exploit:
"Late in the morning of the 19th the brigade of which my regiment was a part (Riley's) was
 out from San Augustin in the direction of Contreras. We soon struck a region over which it
was said no horses could go, and men only with difficulty. No road was available; my
regiment was in advance, my company leading, and its point of direction was a church-spire
at or near Contreras. Taking the lead, we soon struck the Pedregal, a field of volcanic
rock like boiling scoria suddenly solidified, pathless, precipitous, and generally
compelling rapid gait in order to spring from point to point of rock, on which two feet
could not rest and which cut through our shoes. A fall on this sharp material would have
seriously cut and injured one, whilst the effort to climb some of it cut the hands.
"Just before reaching the main road from Contreras to the city of Mexico we reached a
watery ravine, the sides of which were nearly perpendicular, up which I had to be pushed
and then to pull others. On looking back over this bed of lava or scoria, I saw the
troops, much scattered, picking their way very slowly; while of my own company, some
eighty or ninety strong, only five men crossed with me or during some twenty minutes
"With these five I examined the country beyond, and struck upon the small guard of a
paymaster's park, which, from the character of the country over which we had passed, was
deemed perfectly safe from capture. My men gained a paymaster's chest well filled with
bags of silver dollars, and the firing and fuss we made both frightened the guard with the
belief that the
infer-  nals were upon them and made our men hasten to our support.
"Before sundown all of Riley's, and I believe of Cadwallader's, Smith's, and Pierce's
brigades, were over, and by nine o' clock a council of war, presided over by Persifer
Smith and counselled by Captain R. E. Lee, was held at the church. I have always
understood that what was devised and finally determined upon was suggested by Captain Lee;
at all events, the council was closed by his saying that he desired to return to General
Scott with the decision of General Smith, and that, as it was late, the decision must be
given as soon as possible, since General Scott wished him to return in time to give
directions for co-operation.
During the council, and for hours after, the rain fell in torrents, whilst the darkness
was so intense that one could move only by groping. To illustrate: my company again led
the way to gain the Mexican rear, and when, after two hours of motion, light broke
sufficiently to enable us to see a companion a few feet off, we had not moved four hundred
yards, and the only persons present were half a dozen officers and one guide."
Much is said of the perils of war and of the courage necessary to face them. But who would
not rather face a firing-line of infantry in full daylight than to venture alone in such a
dark and stormy night as was this upon such a perilous and threatening region as the
Pedregal, in which a misstep in the darkness would surely lead to wounds and
per-  haps to death. Its crossing, under such conditions, might well be deemed impossible, had
not Captain Lee succeeded, borne up by his strong sense of duty, in this daring
General Scott, who was very anxious to know the position of the advance forces, had sent
out seven officers about sundown with instructions to the troops at Contreras, but they
had all returned, completely baffled by the insuperable difficulties of the way. Not a man
except Robert E. Lee had the daring, skill, and persistence to cross this region of
volcanic knife-blades on that night of rain and gloom.
The writer above quoted from says, "History gives him the credit of having succeeded, but
it has always seemed incredible to me when I recollect the distance amid darkness and
storm, and the dangers of the Pedregal which he must have traversed. Scarcely a step could
be taken without danger of death ; but that to him, a true soldier, was the willing risk
of duty in a good cause."
General Scott adds his testimony to this by saying, after mentioning the failure of the
officers sent out by him, "But the gallant and indefatigable Captain Lee, of the
engineers, who has been constantly with the operating forces, is just in from Shields,
Smith, Cadwallader, etc., to report, and to request that a powerful diversion be made
against the centre of the intrenched camp to-morrow morning."
Scott subsequently gave the following testimony
 to the same effect: "Captain Lee, engineers, came to me from the hamlet (Contreras) with a
message from Brigadier-General Smith, about midnight. He, having passed over the difficult
ground by daylight, found it just possible to return to San Augustin in the
dark,—the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any
individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign."
This praise is certainly not misapplied, when we remember that Lee passed over miles of
the kind of ground above described in a pitch-dark night, without light or companion, with
no guide but the wind as it drove the pelting rain against his face, or an occasional
flash of lightning, and with the danger of falling into the hands of Valencia or Santa
Anna if he should happen to stray to the right or the left. It is doubtful if another man
in the army would have succeeded in such an enterprise, if any one had had the courage to
attempt it. It took a man of the caliber which Robert E. Lee afterward proved himself to
possess to perform such a deed of daring.
We may briefly describe Lee's connection with the subsequent events. He bore an important
part in the operations against the Mexicans, guiding the troops when they set out about
three o'clock in the morning on a tedious march through darkness, rain, and mud; an
elevation in the rear of the enemy's forces being gained about sunrise. An assault was at
once made on the surprised Mexicans, their entrenchments were stormed, and in seventeen
minutes after the charge began they were in full flight and
 the American flag was floating proudly above their works.
Thus ended the battle of Contreras. Captain Lee was next sent to reconnoitre the well
fortified stronghold of Coyacan, while another reconnaissance was made towards Churubusco,
one mile distant. After Lee had completed his task, he was ordered to conduct Pierce's
brigade by a third road, to a point from which an attack could be made on the enemy's
right and rear. Shields was ordered to follow Pierce closely and take command of the left
The battle soon raged violently along the whole line. Shields, in his exposed position,
was hard pressed and in danger of being crushed by overwhelming forces. In this alarming
situation Captain Lee made his way to General Scott to report the impending disaster, and
led back two troops of the Second Dragoons and the Rifles to the support of the left wing.
The affair ended in the repulse of the enemy and 'victory for the Americans. Soon after a
third victory was won at the Moline del Rey.
Scott's army was now rapidly approaching the city of Mexico, the central point of all
these operations, and the engineer officers, Captain Lee, Lieutenant Beauregard, and
others, were kept bus in reconnaissances, which they performed with daring and success.
Then quickly followed the boldest and most spectacular exploit of the war, the brilliant
charge up the steep heights of Chapultepec, a hill that bristled with walls, mines, and
 whose summit was crowned with a powerful fortress, swarming with confident defenders.
Up this hill went the American infantry like so many panthers, bounding impetuously onward
in face of the hot fire from the Mexican works, scaling crags, clambering up declivities,
all with a fiery valor and intrepidity which nothing could check, until the heights were
carried, the works scaled, and the enemy put to flight. In this charge, one of the most
brilliant in American history, Captain Lee took an active part, till he was disabled by a
severe wound and loss of blood. General Scott again speaks of his service here in
complimentary words, saying that he was "as distinguished for felicitous execution as for
science and daring," and also stating that "Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also
bore important orders from me, until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights'
sleep at the batteries."
Scott, indeed, had an exalted opinion of Lee's remarkable military abilities, and Hon.
Reverdy Johnson has stated that he "had heard General Scott more than once say that his
success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E.
Lee." In later years Scott said, "Lee is the greatest military genius in America."
Lee's services were not left without reward. He received successively the brevet rank of
major, lieutenant-colonel, and colonel, the latter for his service at Chapultepec. The
victory at this point was
 the culminating event of the war. Shortly afterward the Mexican capital was occupied, and
the Mexicans soon gave up the contest as hopeless. A new Cortez was in their streets, who
was not to be got rid of except at a heavy sacrifice.
As to how Lee occupied himself during this period, we may quote an anecdote coming from
"After the fall of Mexico, when the American army was enjoying the ease and relaxation
which it had bought by toil and blood, a brilliant assembly of officers sat over their
wine discussing the operations of the capture and indulging hopes of a speedy return to
the United States.
"One among them rose to propose the health of the Captain of Engineers who had found a way
for the army into the city, and then it was remarked that Captain Lee was absent. Magruder
was despatched to bring him to the hall, and, departing on his mission, at last found the
object of his search in a remote room of the palace, busy on a map. Magruder accosted him
and reproached him for his absence. The earnest worker looked up from his labors with the
calm, mild gaze which was so characteristic of the man, and, pointing to his instruments,
shook his head.
"'But,' said Magruder, in his impetuous way, 'this is mere drudgery. Make somebody else do
it, and come with me.'
"'No,' was the reply; 'no, I am but doing my duty.'"
 This is very significant of Lee's subsequent character, in which the demands of duty
always outweighed any thought of pleasure or relaxation, and in which his remarkable
ability as an engineer was of inestimable advantage to the cause he served.