The Army sent one its best and brightest, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, to command two squadrons of the Second Cavalry at Fort Cooper, located on the Clear Fork of the Brazos in what is now Throckmorton County. Lee had been in Texas in 1846 during the U.S.-Mexican War, but had spent subsequent years as the superintendent of West Point. From what has to be considered a cushy assignment, Lee was sent into an arid and hostile wilderness controlled by Comanches and teeming with rattlesnakes.
Lee had already established himself as an officer and fighter during the Mexican War. General Winfield Scott called him "America's very best soldier." As he forded the Clear Fork and saw the crude and dusty tents and buildings of the fort, he had occasion to reflect, perhaps, on what a great future he had behind him. He was 50 years old and Texas looked like the end of the line.
"My military career is at a dead end," he wrote his wife Mary.
Camp Cooper was established as a Comanche reservation. Though there was no way of knowing it at the time, the camp Cooper roster included men who would go on to lasting fame, mostly in the Civil War: Albert Sydney Johnston, Earl Van Dorn, George Stoneman, John B. Hood and Ranald S. Mackenzie. Mackenzie's stay at Camp Cooper came after the Civil War, but he would earn his place in history as the commander who finally, and with extreme prejudice, vanquished the last of the Comanches.
Had the Comanches decided to attack Fort Cooper, they would have had an easy time of it. The camp was situated on the north bank of the Clear Fork, right up against some low hills, and escape would have been nigh impossible. The Comanches might have enjoyed the murder and mayhem but they probably didn't want the fort itself. The temperatures could reach 120 degrees in the summer, offset of course by brutalizing winters. The Clear Fork water is often lousy with gypsum. It was really not a good place from which to help defend a frontier.
Lee grew into his role just as the harsh beauty of West Texas grew on him. Most importantly to history, Lee was a field commander for the first time. Decisions were his to make and live with. The isolation and harsh conditions helped create a bond between the people stationed there, and some suggest that Texas is where Lee developed part of a deeper human understanding that marks a large part of his legacy. Some of the most touching letters to his wife detail the burial of children and his reading of last rites.
By the time he left Camp Cooper in 1857, Lee considered it "my Texas home." He returned to Texas later and pursued legendary bandit of the Texas-Mexican border Juan Cortina, unsuccessfully. Lee was at Fort Mason in 1861, the winds of the Civil War already blowing, when he was ordered back to Washington; Texas and the rest of the South was already considered "enemy territory." Lee was torn by the conflict, having written, "Secession is nothing but revolution. I wish no other flag than the Star Spangled Banner."
President Lincoln offered Lee a top federal command in April, but Lee had decided he could not take up arms against his home state and accepted instead a Virginia commission. Monumental history soon followed with Lee a principle figure. It's hard to imagine him knocking around West Texas, but the fact that he did almost certainly had a greater impact on that history than what is generally supposed.
Given in his place in a much wider history, it's understandable that Robert E. Lee's time in Texas is sometimes given short shrift by historians. That is not as it should be because the daring field commander of the Confederacy in the Civil War got his first taste of command and deprivation when he was stationed in Texas, battling Comanches, insurrectionists, rattlesnakes and the wilderness. All of this experience would come in handy for Lee during the Civil War.