The Atlantic magazine published an article in 2017 stating Robert E. Lee was not the “kindly” man history has recorded. As one piece of evidence, it pointed to his harsh treatment of “his” slaves. It is true that then Lieut.-Col. Lee inherited slaves from his father-in-law. His father-in-law was George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington. See the Atlantic article here.
George W. P. Custis named Lee as the executor of his will. George W.P. Custis also freed his slaves in his will. But, Mr. Custis, while a kind man, left his plantations and farms in bad shape. He left one home, Arlington plantation, to LTC Lee and his wife. He also left many personal items formerly owned by George Washington to his daughter and son-in-law.
As the executor, LTC Lee felt duty-bound to make Mr. Custis’ bequests good. But, to keep the home together, he first had to generate income. To generate income, he had to keep the enslaved humans a little longer. The terms of the will required LTC Lee to free Mr. Custis’ slaves within five years. LTC Lee had to take leave from the Army. That leave became longer and longer as the Lieut.-Colonel struggled with the challenge of managing three plantations and returning them to profitability soon enough to honor his father-in-law’s wishes. In March, 1858, Custis’ creditors were owed $10,000, a huge sum for the time.
As one would expect, the slaves gradually learned they were supposed to be freed. They were not happy to still be enslaved. Two men, probably abolitionists from nearby Washington City (now known as Washington, D.C.), were lurking about one of Mr. Custis’ homes encouraging the slaves to leave. Three of the male slaves escaped. They were captured and tossed in jail. The slaves called to passersby to help them, insisting they should be freed. LTC Lee sent them to Richmond to be leased out and generate some income.
In 1859, two other slaves escaped. Lee, the novice planter, had them captured and again sent them elsewhere to generate income.
LTC Lee did not support slavery. But, neither did he oppose it. As a career military officer, his views on most subjects were generally centrist. In 1858-1959, he was simply trying to effectuate the wishes of his beloved father-in-law. By 1858, LTC Lee was a career military officer. He was not comfortable playing the role of a planter. In letters to his sons, he complained about the difficulty of managing slaves. It was not the same as commanding free white men.
It is not likely he had the Custis slaves whipped. Lee generally avoided confrontation. It is more likely he would deal with difficult slaves by sending them elsewhere. That does not make him a kind man by 21st century standards. Sending an enslaved man 60 miles from his home was its own punishment. But, it does suggest the Atlantic article lacks certainty.
Pres. Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Three days before that event, then Gen. Lee finally freed the Custis slaves, barely within the five year deadline. He freed all the Custis slaves, even the ones who had long since been “leased out” in nearby cities. He freed the slaves who were then living in Union occupied territory. He knew they would probably not need freedom papers, but just in case, the General issued them papers all the same.
Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery. Not because he thought it was unfair or abusive of the black man, but because of what it did to the white man. When he executed the papers freeing the Custis slaves, he listed 170 persons by name for all three plantation farms. He sought to make sure he overlooked no one regardless of where they were in late 1862. Soon after, he hired his personal servant, Perry, and his personal cook, George at $8.20 per month. He indicated to them that he hoped they would be able to “lay up” some of their pay for their future.
By 1860, LTC Lee returned to active service in San Antonio Texas. And, in the end, all of Mr. Custis’ creditors were paid, except for one, Robert E. Lee.
Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1997), pp. 176-179, 183-184, 272-274.