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  • “War Is a Great Evil”: Robert E. Lee in the War with Mexico
  • Allen C. Guelzo (bio)

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Robert E. Lee and his son, William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, taken c. 1845. Courtesy Virginia Historical Society.

“What Means this War?” demanded the New-York Tribune on May 13, 1846, the day President James K. Polk signed the bill he had asked Congress to provide two days before, an “Act providing for the prosecution of the existing war between the United States and the Republic of Mexico.” The answer given by the Tribune was not encouraging. “It means that, so far as our Government can effect, the laws of Heaven are suspended and those of Hell established in their stead.” It also meant, according to the Tribune writers,

That we are to exhaust our Treasury, multiply Taxes, incur Public Debts, and mortgage the sweat and blood of honest labor for untold years to come. It means security, quiet and gladness are to be driven from Earth and Ocean, and their places usurped by Butchery, Rape, devastation and Horror . . . and the world recede toward the midnight of Barbarism.1

But war with Mexico presented a more self-interested perspective to the gaze of the military professionals of the U.S. Army, and especially to Captain Robert Edward Lee of the Corps of Engineers. In Lee’s mind, the war between the United States and Mexico was to be conceived strictly in terms of what Samuel Watson has called “public nonpartisanship” apart from any personal considerations about the rights or wrongs of the war, or even from political questions about the expansion of slavery or the promotion of Manifest Destiny. Lee’s political profile was a modest one in any [End Page 59] case, tending (like many of the army’s officer professionals) in the Whig direction; the political judgments he did make were usually connected with whether a Democratic administration would look favorably on the professional advancement of Whig-identified officers.2 It would only be in the first weeks of military occupation duties that Lee would begin to entertain fantasies of a racial mandate to stage an annexation and ethnic cleansing of Mexico. Those fantasies disappeared as Lee’s reflections on the war, and the indifference of a Democratic administration to the reward of Whig officers, turned him decisively against annexation and absorption. In the end, the real lessons Lee would take out of the war with Mexico would be limited to military issues—although those would turn out to have long innings in Lee’s subsequent career as the premier commander of the Confederacy’s military.

Robert E. Lee was thirty-nine years old on the day Polk signed the war bill, “a man of remarkable personal beauty and great grace of body . . . while here and there a gray hair streaked with silver the dark locks with which nature had clothed his noble brow.” He had amassed a distinguished record at West Point; dedicated seventeen years of service as a member of the elite “scientific” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and supervised construction and repair of Third-System fortifications at Forts Pulaski (Georgia), Monroe (Virginia), and Hamilton (New York) and the rechanneling the Mississippi River at St. Louis to maintain the “Gateway to the West” as a viable river port., Alongside these professional accomplishments, marriage to Mary Custis, the only child and heir of George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, cemented his place among the elite. Behind these appearances, however, Lee’s career (like many others in the army) had been a stagnant crawl through only two grades, from second lieutenant to captain, and a parsimonious Congress ensured that his pay was barely enough to live on, much less support a family that by 1845 included seven children. “The end of every month licks up my Pay Accts, as clean as David Crockett’s plate,” he complained to his brother, Charles Carter Lee, in 1833; two years later he described his finances as “reduced to a low ebb,” and on the cusp of the U.S.-Mexican War, he was still complaining that “My...


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