Did Robert E. Lee Own Slaves?

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.

Be Safe.

World War I Memorial Arch Defaced

A World War I Memorial in New Orleans has been defaced. Three other statues were also recently defaced in New Orleans. But, the other three had some connection, however distant, to the Confederate States of America. See news reports here. The assault on the World War I memorial did not attract news interest from any news source. BLM appears to have inspired the assaults.

The George Washington statue in New Orleans – outside the main library – was also defaced by BLM. See WWL news report here.

“Lee to the Rear!”

In the annals of military warfare, it was so extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in a Battle known as the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically attempt to lead a charge themselves. It just is not done. The commanding general has to keep the entire battle in mind. He has to forecast chess moves three or four moves in advance. He must respond to aides hurrying back and forth with urgent messages seeking aid, warning of supply shortages, and he must press recalcitrant commanders. The heat of battle is “prime time” for a commanding general. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, he knew the moment was dire. He knew too that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We must drive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after the horse used by Gen. Washington during the American revolution. Gen. Washington was Gen. Lee’s step-grandfather.

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co. “L” of the Texas Brigade. Co. “L” came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. That principle is a sacred duty. It stays with you all your life. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.” They were assuming the responsibility for the success of this charge. They were saying, “sir, we got this.” They were not just assuring him they would ensure the success of this charge, they were insisting. They were telling their boss, “no,” in terms that did not allow for negotiation.

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, one probably never made to a general of Robert E. Lee’s caliber. Napoleon’s soldiers respected the general, but they did not love him. I am happy to say my soldiers generally liked me. But, I am very doubtful they would have insisted I minimize risk. It just isn’t done.  

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army. In the Confederate army, assaulting the general’s horse in other circumstances would have resulted in lashes or worse.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

See more about the Battle of the Wilderness here.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.