Parallel Lives Updated: Marcus Cato and Robert E. Lee
Like Leuctra and Adrianople, Thermopylae was the location of several famous battles, in 480, 279 and 191 BCE since it served as a vital, mountain pass along the eastern coast between Thessaly in the North and Athens. Plutarch in his chapter on Marcus Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, describes Cato’s efforts in 191 to find a mountain path and surprise the troops of the Syrian King Antiochus in the same way the Persian King Xerxes surprised the Spartan troops in 480 BCE:

“Now Antiochus, having occupied with his army the narrow passages about Thermopylae, and added palisades and walls to the natural fortifications of the place, sat down there, thinking he had done enough to divert the war; and the Romans, indeed, seemed wholly to despair of forcing the passage; but Cato, calling to mind the compass and circuit which the Persians had formerly made to come at this place, went forth in the night, taking along with him part of the army. Whilst they were climbing up, the guide, who was a prisoner, missed the way, and wandering up and down by impracticable and precipitous paths, filled the soldiers with fear and despondency. Cato, perceiving the danger, commanded all the rest to halt, and stay where they were, whilst he himself, taking along with him one Lucius Manlius, a most expert man at climbing mountains, went forward with a great deal of labour and danger, in the dark night, and without the least moonshine, among the wild olive-trees and steep craggy rocks, there being nothing but precipices and darkness before their eyes, till they struck into a little pass which they thought might lead down into the enemy's camp. There they put up marks upon some conspicuous peaks which surmount the hill called Callidromon, and, returning again, they led the army along with them to the said marks, till they got into their little path again, and there once made a halt; but when they began to go further, the path deserted them at a precipice, where they were in another strait and fear; nor did they perceive that they were all this while near the enemy. And now the day began to give some light, when they seemed to hear a noise, and presently after to see the Greek trenches and the guard at the foot of the rock.”

Compare this to Douglas Southall Freeman’s account of Captain Robert E. Lee in August 1847 finding a path to a road that would outflank a strong position to the North at San Antonio and Churubusco held by the Mexican Army during the Mexican War. The path was through five to six miles of a lava field south of Mexico City known as the pedregal. He led a force of several hundred soldiers and engineers to widen a mule path through to the western side of the pedregal in order to attack a Mexican garrison at Valencia to the west and then move north and behind the Mexican army that blocked the road on the eastern side of the pedregal at Churubusco. After reaching the western edge, Lee had to go back to tell the commanding General Winfield Scott, whom Lee thought was three miles to the east at Zacatepec (not on the map), the status of the army’s position on the western side.

"It was near eight o'clock when Lee left San Geronimo with a few men and started down the hill toward the pedregal. He had been over that part of the route only once, and it was too densely dark for him to observe any of the landmarks. There was nothing to guide him but his singularly developed sense of direction, and an occasional glimpse of the hill of Zacatepec when the lightning flashed. Groping his was along, step by step, he reached the road and crossed it in safety....
”…Lee plunged into the pedregal. Around great blocks of lava he felt his way, and across crevasses he was forced to jump in the dark. When the lightning showed an abysm over which he could not spring, he had to skirt it, with every risk of losing his direction. There were fully three tortuous miles of this, in unrelieved night. At last, drenched and sore, Lee stumbled to Zacatepec only to find that Scott had returned to San Augustin.
“…Tired legs and bruised feet would have to carry him three miles through the pedregal…Three miles must have seemed thirty, and Lee’s strong body was close to exhaustion when finally he saw dim lights in the houses at San Augustin….
"Seven officers whom Scott had sent out in turn to carry messages to General Smith had all returned without reaching him.... Before the orders could be given two other callers were announced--General Twiggs and General Pillow. These division comanders had started from Zacatepec for San Geronimo during the evening, but had lost their way and had barely escaped falling into the hands of the enemy. "

Around 3 a.m. Lee then led reinforcements back across six miles to San Geronimo on the western edge of the pedregal where US forces were waiting to attack.

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