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Posts tagged Robert E. Lee

How Robert E. Lee’s army treated black soldiers

Robert E. Lee, the statist warrior, is endlessly celebrated at anti-state, anti-war Lewrockwell.com. It has often been claimed (either from ignorance or dishonesty) that the slaver Lee vigorously opposed slavery and (by implication) that the Confederate cause shouldn’t be identified as a war for slavery or white supremacy. Here is how Lee, and the Confederate soldiers under his command, treated black Union soldiers.

Northern emancipation also led, by the beginning of 1863, to the recruitment of black troops into the Union army, nearly two hundred thousand men by the end of the war. While the Confederacy lost irreplaceable white manpower, the enemy army expanded, in considerable measure from the ranks of escaped slaves, who formed the vast majority of that new black Union soldiery–a dramatic Union gain that was at the same time an indisputable Southern loss, both symbolically and materially.

Blacks in arms fighting for their own freedom against their former masters were anathema to slaveholders, violating their deepest belief concerning black inferiority, of the sort Lee expressed, for example, when he discussed the endless dependency of the Custis slaves. White men ought to have sole possession of military weapons and martial honor–the very core of manhood. To enlist and arm black men was indeed to turn the world upside down.

In his few comments on black Union troops, Lee expressed the normal Confederate contempt for them. For example, on September 20, 1863, Lee warned Jefferson Davis about the gathering in Union-occupied Norfolk of negro troops and cavalry, said to be preparing for a raid on the Weldon railroad junction. I do not apprehend that these negro regiments will prove a very formidable body, though unopposed they might do us great damage, Lee concluded. To give another example, on June 26, 1864, Lee proposed to Davis a lightning clandestine attack–what later generations would call a commando raid–into Maryland to free the thousands of Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout. I have understood that most of the garrison at Point Lookout was composed of negroes, Lee argued. I should suppose that the commander of such troops would be poor and feeble. A stubborn resistance, therefore, may not reasonably be expected. A crack company of real and true white Confederate troops ought to be able to achieve the liberation of prisoners who were guarded only by inferior stock. Davis ignored this extremely risky proposal, which was based more on contempt for the black sentinels than on the likelihood of success of a raid so far behind Union lines. Perhaps it was Lee’s racial antipathy that led him to suggest such an audacious plan, one far more characteristic of his thinking before Gettysburg than this late in the war.

Confederate hatred for black troops spilled over most lethally on the issue of treatment of prisoners of war. In several instances, Confederate troops shot down black troops rather than accept their surrender. In the two most fully recorded cases–at Poison Springs, Arkansas, and Fort Pillow, Tennessee–several hundred blacks were slaughtered after throwing down their arms; many instances of killing of smaller groups and of black retaliation went unrecorded in official reports. As for Lee’s army, recent scholarship has described the massacre of black troops attempting to surrender at the battle of the Crater, on the Petersburg front on July 30, 1864, in which many Confederate soldiers participated. As North Carolina major Matthew Love described the scene in a letter to his mother, his regiment refused to take prisoners and such slaughter I have not witnessed upon any battlefield anywhere. Their men were principally negroes and we shot them down until we got near enough and then run them through with the bayonet. … We was not very particular whether we captured or killed them, the only thing we did not like to be pestered burying the heathens. If General Lee knew of this significant incident, he did not respond to it.

The capture of black troops, which occurred more frequently than their murder, led to the breakdown of the prisoner-of-war exchange cartel, which had been a system of returning prisoners rather than imprisoning them. This policy shift, inaugurated by the Confederates, which led to the horrors of Andersonville and Northern prisoner stockades late in the war, injured the South far more than the North, because captured Union soldiers could be otherwise replaced–often by blacks–while the Southern manpower pool was nearing exhaustion. The reason for the breakdown was the Confederate insistence that ex-slaves were not free and equal prisoners. If they had escaped from bondage to join the Union army, they would be returned to it when captured.

In the fall of 1864, Robert E. Lee articulated this policy in an exchange of letters with U. S. Grant. On October 1, Lee wrote grant that with a view of alleviating the sufferings of our soldiers, he proposed an exchange of prisoners to the two armies operating in Virginia, man for man … upon the basis established by the [prior] cartel. Grant immediately inquired about the status of black United States troops. Before further negotiations are had upon the subject I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as white soldiers? Lee responded that I intended to include all captured soldiers of the United States of whatever nation or color. Deserters from our service and negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange. Grant would not accept this, and he told Lee that the United States government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers. This being denied by you in the persons of such men as have escaped from Southern masters induces me to decline making the exchanges you ask. Grant then asked for further clarification from Southern legal officials, and soon Lee made it crystal clear: I have no objection to … exchanging prisoners, man for man, negroes included. Recaptured slaves of Confederate citizens will not be exchanged.

Grant insisted that by becoming Union soldiers, escaped slaves had become persons to be treated equally with all other captured troops. After he had been fully briefed by the Richmond authorities, Lee argued back to Grant, quite to the contrary, that Negro slaves who through compulsion, persuaion, or of their own accord leave their owners and are placed in the military … service of the United States [remain] a species of property. … The capture or abduction of a slave does not impair the right of the owner to such a slave, but that right … attaches to him immediately upon recapture [and] will be restored like other recaptured property to those entitled to them. Lee wrote that he would treat free black Union prisoners just like white men, thus asserting a kind of color blindness. However, as for escaped slaves, the rights of property–the nonpersonhood of black slaves–superseded any consideration of them as Union soldiers. This belief led Lee to employ captured ex-slave Union soldiers in digging trenches around Petersburg, to which Grant responded by putting white Confederate prisoners at the same risk reinforcing his trenches. While arguing that he had not exposed black prisoners to fire, which was not precisely true, Lee withdrew them, without abandoning the proposition that he had every right to use them this way.

In response, Grant then withdrew Confederate prisoners from such dangerous duty, and wrote Lee that

I shall always regret the necessity of retaliating for wrong done our soldiers, but regard it as my duty to protect all persons received into the army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality. … All prisoners of war falling into my hands shall receive the kindest possible treatment … unless I have good authority for believing that any number of our men are being treated otherwise. Then, painful as it may be to me, I shall inflict like treatment on an equal number of Confederate prisoners.

In effect, Lee had conceded that he would not use escaped black Union prisonrs as he used other slaves, but neither would he send them back as prisoners of war: things they had been; things they remained. Because of this impasse, the exchange cartel was never repaired and tens of thousands of prisoners of war, on both sides, mainly white, died of cholera and typhoid fever in hellish prison camps.

–Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), pp. 203-208

You should bear in mind that this was a war fought over independence (declared for no reason in particular), and maybe the tariff, too; certainly not, in any case, over slavery or white supremacy. You should also bear in mind that the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was led by honorable Christian cavaliers, fated to a noble defeat in the face of an overwhelming and rapacious Yankee horde.

Over My Shoulder #16: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is another passage from from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery) of Michael Fellman's The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000) (see also GT 2006-02-24: Over My Shoulder #12). Here’s some more on the Lees, slavery, and the slaves at Arlington. It’s mostly about Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary, but be sure to note Robert’s sanctimonious attempts to dissuade her from even taking the modest step of ransoming a slave from an especially cruel slave-driver. (In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? Well…) It would be interesting to know whether the two white strangers were connected at all with the Norrises’ attempted escape the following year or the anonymous letters to the New York Tribune about their capture (which were, like most 19th century letters to the editor, published anonymously). In any case:

Lee’s views on slavery were considerably influenced by the opinions and activities of his wife and his mother-in-law, both of whom were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, an early form of ambiguous antislavery activism, which sought to free the slaves by sending them back [sic] to Africa. As a young married woman, this project was a commitment of Mary’s heart and nost just her head. She wished to nurture, educate, and catechize the family slaves right away, in preparationfor eventual manumission and export. She wrote her mother in 1831, I hope that we may be able to do something in time for the spiritual benefit of those neglected slaves and for their eventual freedom. Because on these terms liberty meant expulsion of the entire inferior black race with whom whites could never imagine cohabiting on an equal footing, such colonizationism was racist antislavery doctrine.

In her diary for the 1850s, Mary frequently discussed the project. She joined her mother, she wrote, in the hope that one day all their slaves would be able to emigrate to Africa, so that they could carry light & Christianity to that dark heathen country. Nevertheless, admitting to a presentiment that she would not live long enough to carry out this grand scheme, she proposed to try it gradually. She picked her slave William and his family to act as pioneers, a kind of pilot project. And then she stated the larger purpose of the heart that lay behind her social project: What is life worth unless you can accomplish in it something for the benefit of others, especially of those so entirely dependent upon one’s will and pleasure.

Mary’s body servant, Eliza, was another pet project. I have always promised Eliza her freedom to emigrate to Africa in a few years. … If she will go to Africa she can have her freedom, Mary Lee wrote in her diary in 1853. She feared, however, that Eliza might marry here and be unwilling to go, especially if she should marry a free man. In the event, Mary Lee noted in 1860 that Eliza had her freedom and that she now lived in Newport with her husband. Somehow, Eliza had secured her freedom while avoiding being shipped back [sic] to Afirca. Such was the outcome favored by the vast majority of manumitted slaves, whatever the desires of their former masters.

As an interim measure on her slaves’ path to freedom and repatriation, Mary Lee, with the help of her daughters, set up a school for slaves, almost certainly a Sunday school, on the Arlington plantation. This was an unusual move, because the overwhelming majority of slave owners feared rightly that literacy would give slaves acces to seditious abolitionist materials, which would lead them to demand or seize their freedom. In 1819, this concern had led the Virginia legislature to outlaw education for blacks, but several of Virginia’s clergymen continued to encourage Sunday schools, arguing that the gentry class would answer to God, not to the legislature. It is not clear how many slaveholders in addition to the Lees followed this path of circumspect lawbreaking.

At least occasionally, Agnes Lee taught in this school for slaves in the mid-1850s. In her journal, she expressed her attitude and that of her father toward her students. I must put down my pen … & go teach my little scholars. We have a considerable number of ebony mites as Papa calls them & as no one knows as much as another it makes their instruction very tedious. Off to school she went, only to find an empty room. Well! I have gone down, I insist upon teaching them in classes & yet only one of my class ever arrived [in] time so I have employed this odd moment in writing.

Agnes’s pen dripped racial condescension even as she earnestly broke the law. Her view on her pupils’ tardiness reflected the Southern white contempt for slaves’ perceived lack of punctuality (although it must be noted that Northern factory managers had the same complaints about their workers, who also thus resisted discipline and set their own work schedules). The amused phrase ebony mites also demonstrated her father’s doubts about a project in which he disbelieved, although he did nothing to stop it, probably regarding it as harmless. While influenced by Mary’s colonizationist project, he was generally rather skeptical of its value, and sometimes he doubted whether Mary’s do-goodism was a very wise course. In one rather complex case in 1841, Robert attempted to dissuade Mary’s project of buying a slave off an unkind master in order to free him. In judging of results you must endeavour to lay aside your feelings & prejudices & examine the question as thus exposed. In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? What will the effect of the precedent be on the rest [of the slaves and on] your father and his authority? Lee promised that he would comply with her wishes, but he urged her to consider well upon the matter & act for yourself.

After her father’s slaves became hers and Robert’s, Mary hardened her attitude toward them. On February 10, 1858, when Robert was trying to sort out the chaos on the other Custis plantations, Mary wrote an old friend about his efforts in trying to reduce these very complicated affairs into some order: It is very unsatisfactory work for the servants here have been so long accustomed to do little or nothing that they cannot be convinced of the necessity now of exerting themselves, in order to speed up the accomplishment of the promise of freedom in the will. Actually, Mary was being illogical, as the promise had been given unconditionally, albeit for five years down the line. Then Mary continued, unless there is a mighty change wrought in them I do not know what good they will do themselves, but at any rate we shall be relieved from the care of them which will be an immense burden taken from our shoulders. Actual experience in manumission was hardly proving to be the fulfillment of the colonizationist dreams of years past.

Over the next week, Mary continued to brood. On February 17, she wrote to W. G. Webster that two white men had been constantly lurking about with the servants & telling them that they had a right to their freedom immediately & that if they would unite & demand it they would obtain it. Only the merciful hand of a kind Providence … prevented an outbreak. Their freedom is a very questionable advantage to any but ourselves who will be relieved from a host of idle & their useless dependents. Of course, colonization had always promised masters relief from their slaves, but here Mary Lee dropped the charitable aspect of the project–the rationalization that it was intended for the good of blacks–and treated manumission as a racial safety valve for white masters.

Not colonization but her father’s will had freed these slaves, and Mary was retrospectively exasperated with him. My dear father in his usual entire ignorance of the state of his affairs has left provision in his will which it will be almost impossible to fulfill even in double 5 years. Just sending them out of the state, which Virginians freeing their slaves were required to do, would be prohibitively expensive, she believed. She then drew the sarcastic conclusion that we should be most deeply indebted to their kind friends the abolitionists if they would come forward [and purchase their] freedom at once.

It even gave Mary Lee a certain perverse satisfaction to note the virulent racism in Canada, that land of freedom to which thousands of slaves had fled, when she visited some hot springs there in 1860. There are a great number of runaways here, but I have not met with any acquaintances, Mary Lee wrote her daughter Annie. The white people say that before long they will be obliged to make laws to send them all out of Canada, so I see no place for them but Africa. I am told they suffer a great deal here in the long cold winters. After enticing them over here the white people will not let their children go to the same schools or treat them as equals in any way. Amalgamation–interracial marriage–is out of the question tho occasionally a very low white woman marries a black man. Either blacks had to be dominated by kind masters within slavery, or else they had to be returned to Africa. They could never live in equality with whites anywhere in North America, and freedom would bring them only into a condition worse than slavery. The Canadian racism she observed confirmed Mary’s beliefs in white supremacy and black degradation.

As the Civil War approached, given their experiences, both the Lees were disgusted with slavery. At the same time, they were prepared to defend it as the only viable safeguard of white control over blacks until that distant day when the South might be whitened through complete African repatriation [sic].

–Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, ISBN 0679456503. 67–72.

The Humane Slave-driver

Up top of a good post from AllyWorks on some of the idiot arguments favored by slavery apologists, there’s an excellent quote from Eric Miller at blackprof.com (2006-03-04), on something that I’ve been concerned about for a while now:

Similarly, slavery- and segregation-denial seeks to create a counter-myth of America, one that reconstructs the South, the Klan, and the Confederate flags as the culture-blind symbols of a distinct region with its own traditions. Slavery- and segregation-denial is an attempt to rewrite history in a manner that minimizes whites' active or passive participation in the state-sponsored violence that lasted well into the 1960s (some would say much later).

Such a critique makes clear that in celebrating the heroes or symbols of the Confederacy or a variety of other institutions, without acknowledging their racism and the violence that they perpetrated, promoted, or permitted, Justice Parker and his ilk are intent on denying or minimizing acts of extreme violence or genocide.

— Eric Miller, blackprof.com (2006-03-04): Slavery Denial

One popular form of slavery denial is the to single out some historical slave-driver or another, whom we are supposed to like for some other reasons — such as George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee — and to praise them for their inerringly humane treatment of their slaves (or at least, their public advocacy of humane treatment for slaves). For example, here’s the National Park Service on what they teach the young students at the Arlington plantation site, in commemoration of the fiefdom of the Custises and the Lees:

The Custis and Lee families provided their slaves with a rudimentary education, spending money, and specialized medical care. Complex relations between owner and slave are also examined. For her slave Selina Gray, Mary Custis Lee arranged an elaborate wedding ceremony, which was conducted by an Episcopal priest in the same room where Mrs. Lee herself had been married. As students attempt to reconcile the inherently exploitive nature of slavery with examples of humane treatment that existed at Arlington, they begin to realize that some of the questions raised during the program have no answers.

— Karen Byrne, National Park Service: The Power of Place: Using Historic Structures to Teach Children About Slavery

Here’s how Lee himself indignantly replied to charges that he had Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and their cousin George lashed, and their lacerated backs rubbed with brine, after they tried to leave and were recaptured in Maryland:

… this slander ... There is not a word of truth in it. ... No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment.

— Robert E. Lee to E. S. Quirk, Lexington, March 1, 1866, Virginia Historical Society (reprinted in Fellman 2000).

painting: George Washington driving his slaves

Master George, humanely farming

And here’s what WikiPedia made of George Washington’s views on slavery a few days ago. They’re referring to his public advocacy of violent punishments for slaves that were less harsh and unrestrained, less stingy provisions for slaves’ food and shelter, and work-loads for field slaves that were lighter, than what some of his fellow slave-driving whites advocated:

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. Although he advocated humane treatment of his slaves, according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in miserable huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records.

— Washington and slavery, at WikiPedia: George Washington (revision as of 20:23, 18 March 2006)

The problem with this kind of talk is, of course, that the only way to treat slaves humanely is to stop enslaving them. No matter how restrained or unrestrained the punishments used, no matter how aloof or how domineering the style of slave-driving that the slaver adopts, no matter how bountiful or how meagre the rations or the medical care or the opportunities for education, slavery requires physically confining people against their will, forcing them to work without their consent, taking for yourself the profits that they earned by their own sweat and blood, asserting authority over their lives and livelihoods, and using intimidation and physical violence to compel, restrain, or punish those who defy your dictates. That’s what the word slavery means; it means kidnapping, robbery, assault, and tyranny.

Lee, and Washington, and Jefferson, all had it within their power to stop enslaving their slaves. They could be manumitted; and even before they were formally manumitted there was nothing at all to stop slavers from treating them as free farmers, with a right to work on their own tasks according to their own schedule, and free to come and go as they please. It’s an option that they mostly didn’t avail themselves of: Lee avoided doing that for as long as he could legally get away with it. Washington avoided it for his whole life, only offering freedom to his slaves in his will after both his death and Martha’s. Jefferson couldn’t even bring himself to have his will provide for it after his death. Any claim that these men advocated humane treatment of slaves is nothing more and nothing less than a sentimental lie, based on some particularly noxious forms of Moonlight-and-Magnolias nostalgia.

Here’s George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language:

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable.

— George Orwell (1946): Politics and the English Language

I can think of a long list of phrases that merit a co-ordinated jeering campaign, and humane treatment of slaves is as good a candidate as any for the top of the list. It deserves public, explicit contempt; where we see it, we ought to ridicule it, or — depending on the format — excise it.

For example, consider my revision of the WikiPedia article on George Washington:

Revision as of 20:23, 18 March 2006

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. Although he advocated humane treatment of his slaves, according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in miserable huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records. …

Revision as of 21:32, 18 March 2006

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. He publicly advocated milder punishments and lighter workloads for slaves than some of his slaveholding contemporaries, but according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in “miserable” huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records.

— WikiPedia: George Washington, differences between revision 44400066 and revision 44408684

My revision excises the morally bankrupt, slavery-denying myth of humane treatment, and replaces it with a short, unvarnished description that simply spells out the specific practices Washington advocated. Now let’s watch as this change becomes a matter of controversy, and as a couple of other editors object to the use of neutral description over a sentimental, evaluative summary — on Neutral Point of View grounds, no less! Watch as these editors express alarm at how my edits make the sentence 9 words more verbose — and then propose an even longer compromise sentence to replace it, just so that they can make sure that the word humane is still used somewhere to describe Washington’s treatment of his slaves. What does the word humane contribute that’s so important to preserve? (I think I know the answer — but if I’m right about that, then it’s contributing something that’s not part of the purpose of WikiPedia.)

Pushing an agenda? You’re damn right I am. The agenda is giving an unvarnished, objective account of slavery, and the sort of treatment that Washington in particular advocated. That’s WikiPedia’s job; repeating sentimental lies is not.

Nor should it be.

Further reading:

Fair’s fair (or: Refuge of Oppression #1)

I suppose that if I’m going to be issuing public calls for corrections on other people’s articles, I ought to hold my own articles up to the same scrutiny. So here’s some e-mail I received from Nate yesterday, writing from the heart of the Confederacy, apparently in reply to my article GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery (cf. also GT 2006-02-24: Over My Shoulder #12: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee):

Fuck you you fucking yankee son of a bitch you can go strait to hell for all care you dirty lieing son of a bitch. You need to die before any one else is taunt by your motherfucking lies. How dare you call the confedrates as Neo-confderate if that is trying to call me a Nazi then fuck you my Grandfather was a proud southerner and went to france and D-Day and killed hateful Nazi sons of bitches like your Dumb ass. For your fucking info Robert E. Lee didn’t own slaves but Gen. Grant did so get your fucking facts strait before you post shit. I mean you aloud to freedom of spech which I don’t deny you that right but I have freedom of speech too and I’m going to fucking cuss you the fuck out you fucking hateful son of a bitch go to hell. You need a lesson in History before you start critsing my hertage you son of a bitch I hope you get messages like this daily because you need it maybe it will crame some truth into your Dumb ass head.

signed go to hell,
Citizen of the C.S.A.

Well, then. I stand corrected.

In unrelated personal news, my parents are coming up from Yankee Alabama to visit toward the end of this month. Also, there’s been a lot of new additions to the Fair Use Repository since last I mentioned it; for example, check out William Lloyd Garrison’s American Colorphobia, from The Liberator of 11 June 1847.

Over My Shoulder #12: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery of Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000). Of course I’ve written about this before, in GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery. I picked up Fellman’s book as another source to consult over the relevant sections of WikiPedia:Robert E. Lee. The passage contains some new material that I hadn’t been aware of before. It also contains a couple of minor factual errors; see below.

No historian has established how many slaves Lee actually owned before 1857, or how much income he derived from this source. The more general point is that to some extent he was personally involved in slave owning his whole adult life, as was the norm for better-off Southerners, even those who did not own plantations. Unlike many other slaveholders in Baltimore, for example, he did not manumit his personal slaves while he lived in that city and, indeed, recoiled at the thought of losing them. He carried them back with him when he returned to Virginia.

When his father-in-law died, late in 1857, Lee was left with the job of supervising Arlington and the various other Custis estates, perhaps as many as three others. Moreover, the Custis will specified that these slaves be freed by January 1, 1863 {sic–see below –RG}; therefore Lee had the dual tasks of managing these slaves in the interim and then freeing them, immersing him in the contradictions of owning, protecting, and exploiting people of a different and despised race. It was very likely that the Custis slaves knew that they were to be freed, which could have only made Lee’s efforts to succor, discipline, and extract labor from them in the meantime considerably more difficult.

Faced with this set of problems, Lee attempted to hire an overseer. He wrote to his cousin Edward C. Turner, I am no farmer myself & do not expect to be always here. I wish to get an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate & kind to the negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty. Such help was difficult to find or to retain, and despite himself Lee had to take a leave of absence from the army for two years to become a slave manager himself, one who doubtless tried to combine kindness with firmness but whose experience was altogether unhappy. Any illusions he may have had about becoming a great planter, which apparently were at least intermittent, dissipated dramatically as he wrestled with workers who were far less submissive to his authority than were enlisted men in the army. The coordination and discipline central to Lee’s role in the army proved less compatible with his role as manager of slaves than he must have expected.

Sometimes, the carrot and the stick both worked ineffectively. On May 30, 1858, Lee wrote his son Rooney, I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority–refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.–I succeeded in capturing them & lodged them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them. Enlightened masters in the upper South often sent their rebellious slaves to jail, where the sheriff would whip them, presumably dispassionately, rather than apply whippings themselves. Whatever happened in the Alexandria jail after this event, less than two months later Lee sent these three men down under lock and key to the Richmond slave trader William Overton Winston, with instructions to keep them in jail until Winston could hire them out to good & responsible men in Virginia, for a term lasting until December 31, 1862, by which time the Custis will stipulated that they be freed. Lee also noted to Winston, in a rather unusual fashion, I do not wish these men returned here during the usual holy days, but to be retained until called for. He hoped to quarantine his remaining slaves against these three men, to whom the deprivation of the customary Christmas visits would be a rather cruel exile, though well short, of course, of being sold to the cotton fields of the Deep South. At the same time, Lee sent along three women house slaves to Winston, adding, I cannot recommend them for honesty. Lee was packing off the worst malcontents. More generally, as he wrote in exasperation to Rooney, who was managing one of the other Custis estates at the time, so few of the Custis slaves had been broken to hard work in their youth that it would be accidental to fall in with a good one.

This sort of snide commentary about inherent slave dishonesty and laziness was the language with which Lee expressed his racism; anything more vituperative and crudely expressed would have diminished his gentlemanliness. Well-bred men expressed caste superiority with detached irony, not with brutal oaths about niggers.

The following summer, Lee conducted another housecleaning of recalcitrant slaves, hiring out six more to lower Virginia. Two, George Wesley and Mary Norris {sic–see below –RG}, had absconded that spring but had been recaptured in Maryland as they tried to reach freedom in Pennsylvania.

As if this were not problem enough, on June 24, 1859, the New York Tribune published two letters that accused Lee–while calling him heir to the Father of this free country–of cruelty to Wesley and Norris {sic–see below –RG}. They had not proceeded far [north] before their progress was intercepted by some brute in human form, who suspected them to be fugitives. They were transported back, taken in a barn, stripped, and the men [sic] received thirty and nine lashes each [sic], from the hands of the slave-whipper … when he refused to whip the girl … Mr. Lee himself administered the thirty and nine lashes to her. They were then sent to the Richmond jail. Lee did not deign to respond to this public calumny. All he said at that time was to Rooney: The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for the treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy. Remaining in dignified silence then, Lee continued to be agonized by this accusation for the rest of his life. Indeed, in 1866, when the Baltimore American reprinted this old story, Lee replied in a letter that might have been intended for publication, the statement is not true; but I have not thought proper to publish a contradiction, being unwilling to be drawn into a newspaper discussion, believing that those who know me would not credit it; and those who do not, would care nothing about it. With somewhat less aristocratic detachment, Lee wrote privately to E. S. Quirk of San Fransisco about this slander … There is not a word of truth in it. … No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment.

That Lee personally beat Mary Norris seems extremely unlikely, and yet slavery was so violent that it cast all masters in the roles of potential brutes. Stories such as this had been popularized earlier in the 1850s by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and they stung even the most restrained of masters, who understood that kindness alone would have been too indulgent, and corporal punishment (for which Lee substituted the euphemism firmness) was an intrinsic and necessary part of slave discipline. Although it was supposed to be applied only in a calm and rational manner, overtly physical domination of slaves, unchecked by law, was always brutal and potentially savage.

–Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House. 64–67

No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by Robert E. Lee could with truth charge him with bad treatment. Except for having enslaved them.

The letters to the Trib are online at Letter from A Citizen (dated June 21, 1859) and Some Facts That Should Come to Light (dated June 19, 1859). Wesley Norris told his own story in 1866 after the war; it was printed in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on April 14, 1866.

Although Lee acted as if the will provided for him to keep the slaves until the last day of 1862, what Custis’s will actually said was And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies, being clear of debts, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease. (Meaning that at the very latest the slaves should have been manumitted by October 10, 1862, the fifth anniversary of Custis’s death.) Fellman also seems to have misread the primary sources, which state that three slaves tried to leave in 1859 — Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and a cousin whose name I haven’t yet been able to find. Mary and Wesley were the children of Sally Norris. It’s possible that Fellman misread a reference to a George, on the one hand, and Wesley and Mary Norris, on the other; in which case the third might have been George Clarke or George Parks. I’ll let you know if I find out more later.

Further reading

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