The American Civil War was the most devastating war in United States history. Over 600,000 Americans lost their lives, and the scars of the conflict remain to this day. The war saw acts of heroism and depravity much like any war; however, as an extra layer of salt in the wounds of war, many of the generals who led both sides knew their opposites.
Not only did the majority of the generals leading the Union and the Rebels graduate from West Point Military Academy, many of them also served in the previous war America fought, the Mexican-American War. Though they may have graduated in different years, several of them met each in Mexico, and along the way they took the lessons of the war to heart in preparation for their next war.
No less a figure than the Rebel’s greatest general, Robert E. Lee, the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee, served during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.
Lee, graduating second in his class at West Point with no demerits, pursued the burgeoning engineering field of the small US Army, and during the war he quickly found himself part of commanding General Winfield Scott’s inner circle of advisers.
Early in the war, a young Captain Lee served under Gen. John E. Wool in Northern Mexico, conducting valuable reconnaissance efforts before the Battle of Buena Vista. In due time, the young Captain would find himself with Major General Winfield Scott.
With the Major General, Lee, like his future counterpart Ulysses S. Grant, marched with the US Army at their landing at Vera Cruz, from whence they would march to Mexico City. Captain Lee was carefully consulted regarding surveys and artillery placement.
He also took careful note of General Scott’s rapid advancing and movement of troops, lessons he would take to heart when he wore his own stars to battle.
At the Battle of Cerro Gordo, April 18, 1847, it was a young Captain Lee who led the team which blazed a trail through the dense growth and attacked the Mexican left flank, maneuvering American artillery onto vital high ground, routing the unprepared Mexicans.
For these actions he received the brevet rank of Major. Faced with a lava field at the Battle of Contreras in August of the same year, Lee used his surveying skills to plot a path around the dangerous natural obstacle.
Lee himself crossed the lava field, known as the Pedregal, on foot during the night to obtain reinforcements, which he guided back through the field to victory.
For this he received the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and Major General Scott remarked of Lee that his actions that day and night were “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign.”
By the end of the war, Lee would find himself a brevet Colonel, proof indeed of Major General Scott’s confidence. Lee also spent a great deal of time mapping and surveying the terrain, skills which served his tactical senses well in future battles.
General Scott himself noted of the young man that he was “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.” Years later, a geriatric Scott would make the case for Lee to side with his old commander. Heeding the old General, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee a command position in the Union Army.
Unfortunately for Scott, Lincoln, and the Union, Virginia seceded the day before. Lee, considering his home country Virginia, despite foreseeing a brutal battle with consequences stretching years beyond the field of battle, donned the Grey of the Rebel cause to fight against the nation he helped double in size less than two decades before.