Lee as a Slaveholder: Reputable Primary Sources?

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
No not really. The will allowed for the selling off of land to fund the granddaughters legacies, but Lee chose to keep the slaves working as long as he possibly could.
That was instructions to General Lee when he took control was to use the slaves to work off debt. It didn’t say sell off the slaves. That was not his instructions.
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
That was instructions to General Lee when he took control was to use the slaves to work off debt. It didn’t say sell off the slaves. That was not his instructions.
I didn't say anything about selling off slaves. The will allowed Lee to sell off land to fund the granddaughters legacies. Lee chose to work the slaves rather than selling off land.
 

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
I didn't say anything about selling off slaves. The will allowed Lee to sell off land to fund the granddaughters legacies. Lee chose to work the slaves rather than selling off land.
That was what he had to do according to the will. It doesn’t make since to sell off the land then he would have to rent out the slaves.
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
That was what he had to do according to the will. It doesn’t make since to sell off the land then he would have to rent out the slaves.
He didn't have to rent out the slaves. He could have freed them. That was the source of the conflict between Lee and the Custis slaves. They thought they were to be freed immediately after Custis died, and Lee wanted to keep them enslaved as long as he possibly could.

In order to come up with the money for the legacies, Lee preferred working the slaves rather than selling off any land.
 
Joined
Mar 25, 2014
No not really. The will allowed for the selling off of land to fund the granddaughters legacies, but Lee chose to keep the slaves working as long as he possibly could.
The land was willed to the Custis' grandsons not to R E Lee; he could not sell it without shorting their inheritance. The will allowed the working of the slaves for up to five years.

The will was not prepared by a lawyer and it rambled and made promises that contradicted each other. That is why Lee went to court to clarify options. It is also why the other three co-executors left Lee holding the bag. The estate had large debts and Arlington was in poor condition. Some of the land did not have clear title. There was not a clear inventory of assets including the slaves.

The will did allow working the slaves for five years and that is the option the court chose to order. Lee had to act as executor for five years for this to be successful. He had to invest his own time which he begrudged and he invested his own money to finance running Arlington. The court also ordered that if there were still debts and legacies at the end of the five years then a portion of White House plantation be sold. It would otherwise have belonged to Lee's second son.

An interesting question would be "What would have happened if Lee chose not to accept the responsibilities of executor?"

The answer would obviously be that the court would have to decide what to liquidate to satisfy the debts and make a determination of which legacies should be honored and in what order. How would the slaves have fared? They were the most liquid asset and their sale would be the easiest to accommodate a settlement. While Custis had promised them freedom it could not come immediately without breaking other obligations in the will. The obligations were not only to his grand children but also to debtors. The slaves would not have a voice or advocate in court and their manumission could not be done without someone to manage the whole mess. If manumission was an easy task Custis could have done it before he died.

Yes the slaves thought that they were to be freed immediately and were unhappy with the delay. There were a number of freed slaves already at Arlington. While Mary Lee's half sister was given a small parcel of land the others would have been made homeless. The slaves would also have to leave the plantations if sold. Someone had to try to make this all work.

Lee made the best of a bad situation. He tried to fulfill a duty to the estates debt holders, inheritors (who were his wife and children) and to the slaves. He made sacrifices and personal choices that he was not happy about. He wanted to return to the army but chose to act as the executor. His primary motivation was most certainly his wife and kids but his various correspondence shows that the felt a responsibility to the slaves as well.
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
The land was willed to the Custis' grandsons not to R E Lee; he could not sell it without shorting their inheritance. The will allowed the working of the slaves for up to five years.

The will was not prepared by a lawyer and it rambled and made promises that contradicted each other. That is why Lee went to court to clarify options. It is also why the other three co-executors left Lee holding the bag. The estate had large debts and Arlington was in poor condition. Some of the land did not have clear title. There was not a clear inventory of assets including the slaves.

The will did allow working the slaves for five years and that is the option the court chose to order. Lee had to act as executor for five years for this to be successful. He had to invest his own time which he begrudged and he invested his own money to finance running Arlington. The court also ordered that if there were still debts and legacies at the end of the five years then a portion of White House plantation be sold. It would otherwise have belonged to Lee's second son.

An interesting question would be "What would have happened if Lee chose not to accept the responsibilities of executor?"

The answer would obviously be that the court would have to decide what to liquidate to satisfy the debts and make a determination of which legacies should be honored and in what order. How would the slaves have fared? They were the most liquid asset and their sale would be the easiest to accommodate a settlement. While Custis had promised them freedom it could not come immediately without breaking other obligations in the will. The obligations were not only to his grand children but also to debtors. The slaves would not have a voice or advocate in court and their manumission could not be done without someone to manage the whole mess. If manumission was an easy task Custis could have done it before he died.

Yes the slaves thought that they were to be freed immediately and were unhappy with the delay. There were a number of freed slaves already at Arlington. While Mary Lee's half sister was given a small parcel of land the others would have been made homeless. The slaves would also have to leave the plantations if sold. Someone had to try to make this all work.

Lee made the best of a bad situation. He tried to fulfill a duty to the estates debt holders, inheritors (who were his wife and children) and to the slaves. He made sacrifices and personal choices that he was not happy about. He wanted to return to the army but chose to act as the executor. His primary motivation was most certainly his wife and kids but his various correspondence shows that the felt a responsibility to the slaves as well.
Here's the will. It seems pretty clear-cut that certain land was to be sold off to pay the grand-daughters legacies.

My estate of Smith's Island, at the capes of Virginia, and in the county of Northampton, I leave to be sold to assist in paying my granddaughters' legacies, to be sold in such manner as may be deemed by my executors most expedient.​
Any and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland, I leave to be sold to aid in paying my granddaughters' legacies.​
Were these all sold off as Custis directed?
 

Quaama

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2020
Location
Port Macquarie, Australia
Here's the will. It seems pretty clear-cut that certain land was to be sold off to pay the grand-daughters legacies.

My estate of Smith's Island, at the capes of Virginia, and in the county of Northampton, I leave to be sold to assist in paying my granddaughters' legacies, to be sold in such manner as may be deemed by my executors most expedient.
Any and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland, I leave to be sold to aid in paying my granddaughters' legacies.​
Were these all sold off as Custis directed?

Yes, it was done in a manner deemed most expedient by the executor.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
In all fairness to Lee, the land that he was to sell was worth (1857 tax rolls assessed value) $8132 while the legacies totaled $40k. I don't know what the ratio of assessed to actual was in 1857 (perhaps @Georgia does). According to the tax books of Stafford County, there was no Custis land in that county in 1857--although Lee's wife Mary is listed as owner of a small farm ("White Oak") at the outbreak of the war. Mr. Custis seems to have the same lack of financial acumen that I do!

Smith Island wasn't sold until 1868--not especially expedient but there it is. He sold it for $9000 which was more than 4 times its 1857 assessed value. If the same kind of ratio holds up for all the salable Custis land, it is still less that the total legacy amount (this excludes White Oak). Lee would still have to come up with another $5k or so.

Incidentally, the enslaved people were not left to the Lee family because they were to be freed within 5 years (apparently Custis gave them the impression them that they would be freed immediately).

One clause not often mentioned was the requirement that inheriting Arlington at the end of the life tenure to Mary Lee required that he (Lee grandson) change his surname to Custis.

In all, it seems that this was a poorly drawn up will which caused no end of problems to all.

Adding to all this, Mary Lee was in very poor health and probably not expected to live all that long (as is often the case, she actually oulived the General). When Mrs. Lee died, Arlington would pass to their son and General Lee would have neither slaves nor property.
 

Quaama

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2020
Location
Port Macquarie, Australia
Do you have evidence the land specified by Custis was sold off first, before any decision was made to keep the blacks enslaved?

No I do not.
The key phrase from the will extract provided is "to be sold in such manner as may be deemed by my executors most expedient" which pretty much leaves the method and timing to the discretion of any executor.
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
In all fairness to Lee, the land that he was to sell was worth (1857 tax rolls assessed value) $8132 while the legacies totaled $40k. I don't know what the ratio of assessed to actual was in 1857 (perhaps @Georgia does). According to the tax books of Stafford County, there was no Custis land in that county in 1857--although Lee's wife Mary is listed as owner of a small farm ("White Oak") at the outbreak of the war. Mr. Custis seems to have the same lack of financial acumen that I do!

Smith Island wasn't sold until 1868--not especially expedient but there it is. He sold it for $9000 which was more than 4 times its 1857 assessed value. If the same kind of ratio holds up for all the salable Custis land, it is still less that the total legacy amount (this excludes White Oak). Lee would still have to come up with another $5k or so.

Incidentally, the enslaved people were not left to the Lee family because they were to be freed within 5 years (apparently Custis gave them the impression them that they would be freed immediately).

One clause not often mentioned was the requirement that inheriting Arlington at the end of the life tenure to Mary Lee required that he (Lee grandson) change his surname to Custis.

In all, it seems that this was a poorly drawn up will which caused no end of problems to all.

Adding to all this, Mary Lee was in very poor health and probably not expected to live all that long (as is often the case, she actually oulived the General). When Mrs. Lee died, Arlington would pass to their son and General Lee would have neither slaves nor property.
Excellent, thanks. Any idea as to the other land Custis designated to be sold to fund the legacies, in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland? Or is that included in the $8100?

Why could he not sell all the designated land for the legacies, and then determine how long he needed to keep the blacks enslaved?
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Excellent, thanks. Any idea as to the other land Custis designated to be sold to fund the legacies, in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland? Or is that included in the $8100?

Why could he not sell all the designated land for the legacies, and then determine how long he needed to keep the blacks enslaved?
It's all included.

He had no choice on how long he could keep the blacks enslaved. The will specified 5 years (although Custis seems to have given the impression to the slaves that it would be immediate). Lee wanted to have discretion to hang on to these people and took the matter to court. He argued that the will was worded to mean that the slaves were to be freed after the legacies were paid but the courts rejected this argument.
 
Joined
Mar 25, 2014
.
Were these all sold off as Custis directed?
Well there's the rub; isn't it? The will said to sell Smith Island and the other properties to pay his legacies. The properties that he said he "may have possessed" turned out to be in many cases nonexistent. Lee searched tax records in the counties named and came up empty or found land with clouded or burdened titles. He was unable to realize much from these sales.

But Custis did own Smith Island outright. Smith Island was a 4,044 acre barrier island that was unimproved and contained wild cattle and a few tenants. It was valued for tax purposes at $2,000 but a major storm in 1851 had devastated the island. The storm cut a channel that divided the island in two...the new severed portion was named Myrtle Island.

Six acres of Smith island was sold to the US in 1859 (Lighthouse??) I don't know if Lee tried to sell the island early on but the Custis will left a $40,000 legacy to the grand daughters being paid with a proposed ~ $2,000 land sale. He also left between $10,000 and $17,000 in debts.

Here's the part of the will calling for manumission:

And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies being clear of debt, 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.

Custis creditors were all paid and the slaves were freed in accordance with the will but did Lee's children get the inheritance promised in the will? Custis Lee was willed Arlington which was confiscated at the start of the war and became a national cemetery. He did eventually get paid $150,000 in 1882 by the US government. Rooney did get the White House but his wife and children died there in 1862 of typhoid. Union troops burned the house in 1862. Rooney eventually moved into Ravenswood which was willed to him by an aunt. Rob inherited Romancoke plantation and lived there after the war.

What about the daughters? It is doubtful that they ever received their $10,000 inheritance.
 
Joined
Mar 25, 2014
What about the daughters? It is doubtful that they ever received their $10,000 inheritance.
The above was a conclusion from a 1937 essay on Lee about his life as a farmer. I hate to argue both sides of an argument but upon further research I guess I am feeling my inner Braxton Bragg.

Lee's December 21, 1862 letter to his wife:

“As regards the servants, those that are hired out can soon be settled. They can be furnished with their free papers and hire themselves out. Those on the farms, I will issue free papers as soon as I can and see that they can get a support. Any who want to leave can do so. The men could no doubt find hires, but what are the women and children to do?

As regards Mr. Collins (the overseer) he must remain and take care of the people until I can dispose of them in some way. I want to do what is right for the people. The estate is indebted to only me now. The legacies and debts have been paid, and I wish to close the whole affair. Whether I can do so during the war I cannot say now."

So maybe the girls got paid. Mea Culpa.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Seems odd that Lee's written words can not be accepted yet the Norris statement (which clearly contains falsehoods) is accepted.
Probably more a sign of the times rather than rigorous academic standards.
Qualifying a source is a judgment call and not of any academic standard. I suspect that Mr. Norris statement may be more acceptable because it fits a pattern of treatment of these unfortunate people. Perhaps the General's statement is less acceptable because he declined to make one.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
All,

The thesis I have chosen for my Masters Course in military philosophy (I am studying American Military History at AMU) contends that General Robert E Lee's moral upbringing and christian faith are mutually inclusive with his military brilliance, and that both were key considerations on both the tactical and strategic level.

I've a professor who undoubtedly holds the converse view, and who claimed quite a bit in reference to Lee being a "brutal and barbaric slave-owner, giving the Virginia Gentleman hand to the whites and the whip hand to people of color"...I have seen this said, and as a Southerner and Lee Admirer have a hard time believing it. Of course, he was a man of his time and I aim to always remain an objective historian, so my question is...

Can anyone here provide me reputable primary sources- not modern SJW foolishness- as to Lee's conduct as a slaveowner? What was his actual owner status? Thanks.

Nick C.

As I see it there are 3 option.
A) No slave where whipped during the time Lee controlled the estate

B) Some slaves was whipped as was common. both on plantations and as punishment for crimes in society in general.

C) Slaves where whipped more then the norm and Lee took a personal interest in it or even delight.


As you know in history we prove a positive. So If your professor is saying that C is the case, than I would argue that it is actually up to him to prove it.

A is hard to prove, but since that would be abnormal, but if no slaves where whipped, this might be something that would have been mentioned in court filings or similar. Both because it is not normal, and that is more likely to be written down, but also because a slave you don't have to whip is a batter slave than one who need the whip to work.

So you could deal with the issue by covering a few of the "best" sources and the, unless you think they prove a or c, simply conclude that whipping slaves was normal and whipping was used in civil society... and then move on.

Also you can argue that it is not even relevant.
How a slaveowner treated his slaves do not tell us anything about how he treat white men or his soldiers.
And even less relevance to his tactical or strategic decision-making.

--------------


To quote a made up British major from the Sharps TV series:
"speaking as a Virginian, I don't like whipping white men"


Anyway, good luck with your master.
 

Texasdude555

Cadet
Joined
Jul 27, 2021
I don't get this on the one hand people discard an eyewitness account of Wesley Norris as being false and in the other its ok to quote newspaper articles if it paints Lee in a favourable light.

Is it me or is their a distinct smell of hypocrisy here.

Like i said before Lee could have debunked the whole myth of him whipping his slaves by going public and denouncing Norris to prove the fact , But he didn't what was he so afraid of if he was innocent surely god would be on his side?.
It is because the Norris account should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Lee scholar Douglas Southall Freeman wrote concerning the Norris- escape incident:

"There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had [these three slaves] or any other Negroes flogged."

There are the early accounts by abolitionist newspapers in 1859 which state Lee did the whipping himself, Norris in 1866 contradicts this by saying he simply ordered it and watched. Did Norris tell the truth? Or, did he exaggerate details of this incident to make Lee falsely appear as a cruel, slave-whipping master? If Norris exaggerated this story, what could have been his motive?

There were multiple attempts to get land at Arlington by the former slaves. After the war, what could have been a motive to exaggerate this story? By then, the Arlington slaves had been free for several years. Author Elizabeth Pryor claims: "Wesley Norris gave his interview after he was freed, when he had nothing to hide, gain, or fear...."

After Robert E. Lee surrendered, his wife "Mary [Lee] lost no time in applying for the return of Arlington" according to author James Perry. Yet, northern vengeance stood in her way. "On May 25, 1865...the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle declared:

n the vicinity of Arlington House...some hundreds of Union heroes murdered by
the orders of Mrs. Lee's husband, or by her husband's troops, are buried. These sacred remains shall not be profaned by...this race of savages and traitors...."

Regardless of such northern feelings, within a year Mary Lee would have competition for the Arlington estate. This competition would not be coming from northerners but from some people she knew very well -- from former Arlington slaves. On April 19, 1866, Ohio's Belmont Chronicle reported: "The Freedmen's Bureau at Washington has given seventeen acres of the Arlington estate to a Mrs. [Syphax]."

In June 1866, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill giving to Maria Syphax, a former slave at the Arlington estate, 17 acres of land, most, if not all of which, had been given to her by the late Mr. Custis in the 1820s.
Still, Maria Syphax would not be Mrs. Lee's only competitor for Arlington acres.


1. The Power of the Pen
Why would a newspaper even publish the Norris story as late as 1866? After all, in one form or another, the Norris runaway-slave story had been published and republished for more than six years; it was an old, well-told event. So, why was it published at this time?
A shrewd politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln knew the importance of public pressure. He once claimed: "[H]e who moulds public sentiment...goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."[42] Wendell Phillips also knew the power that abolitionist periodicals could exert on the public. In early 1866, the National Anti-Slavery Standard published a comment by one public official

about the power of the Standard: "You don't know how every single strong word you utter helps us, and every compromising word weakens us...."



2. The 1866 Plan to Get Land
By March 12, 1866, a group of ex-Arlington slaves had launched a plan to obtain land from the Arlington estate. They petitioned Congress "to divide to each one of them...to their heirs the amount of ten acres of land on this estate."
Yet, before Congress finished ruling on the petition, Norris's account would be published at least four times: by The New-York Daily Tribune on March 26; by Philadelphia's The Daily Evening Telegraph on March 27; by the Cleveland Daily Leader on April 11; by the National Anti-Slavery Standard on April 14.
Since Norris had been free for about two and a half years, why had it taken so long for his story to be published? And, why was it published at this particular time? Was it just a coincidence that Norris's account was published at least four times within a month of the filing of this petition? Or, could the rapid-fire publication of the Norris story, in some of the largest cities in the nation, have been part of a plan -- a plan to falsely accuse Lee and thereby pressure Congress into giving part of Arlington to these former-slaves?
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
"There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had [these three slaves] or any other Negroes flogged."
Whether direct or indirect, whether accurate or not, the primariness of evidence remains. The term "primary evidence" refers to testimony given by someone with immediate knowledge of the incident.
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
Whether direct or indirect, whether accurate or not, the primariness of evidence remains. The term "primary evidence" refers to testimony given by someone with immediate knowledge of the incident.

And there you have one man's word against another. Wesley Norris said it happened, but both times that the charges that he had whipped the slaves appeared in print during his lifetime, Lee denied it.
 
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