Robert E. Lee's 1858 Letter to the New York Times on His Family's Slaves


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JPK Huson 1863

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#4
A little off thread but in defense of John Washington from in the article, he'd been ignored and turned down by the Federal government and Virginia when asking for help. He'd have sold Mount Vernon to either- was trying to keep it out of the hands of those who'd make Mount Vernonrama of it. Taking hits because the estate was in bad shape embittered the guy.

Really do not wish to cause problems, it did seem clear what G.W. Custis's wishes were. His wife and daughter ensured enslaved at Arlington were taught skills which would set them on their feet, earning a living. Yes, I'll get asked for a source and it's around here somewhere. Since it all had nothing to do with Lee entering the family later, cannot imagine why it gets challenged.
 

Cavalry Charger

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#5
It says in the article that "his will was submitted to the Alexandria County Court for probate on the first day of its session (7 December) after arrival of the executor at Arlington and is there on record in his own handwriting, open to inspection". So, it seems there is access to the will as it was written.


The question for me then becomes whether a verbal expression is sufficient to be binding.


"An oral will, which is also called a nuncupative or deathbed will, is a will that is spoken to witnesses, but not written. Such wills are valid only in a few states and only in very limited and unusual circumstances. The idea is that if someone suddenly becomes ill or in extreme danger, and can’t make a written will, his or her last wishes will be honored.


Is It Legal?

If someone dies without leaving a valid written will, witnesses who heard the deceased person’s last wishes about his or her property may come forward and claim that the person made a valid oral will. It’s an uphill battle, however, to prove that a deceased person’s last words constitute a legally binding will.
"


http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/wills-trusts/oral-spoken-not-written-will-valid.html


Captain Robert E. Lee comments on his father's oversight of business matters:


"One marked characteristic of my father was his habit of attending to all business matters promptly. He was never idle, and what he had to do he performed with care and precision. Mr. Custis, my grandfather, had made him executor of his will, wherein it was directed that all the slaves belonging to the estate should be set free after the expiration of so many years. The time had now arrived, and notwithstanding the exacting duties of his position, the care of his suffering soldiers, and his anxiety about their future, immediate and distant, he proceeded according to the law of the land to carry out the provisions of the will, and had delivered to every one of the servants, where it was possible, their manumission papers. From his letters written at this time I give a few extracts bearing on this subject:


“...As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those in the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like, if I could, to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible. All that choose can leave the State before the war closes....


“...I executed the deed of manumission sent me by Mr. Caskie, and returned it to him. I perceived that John Sawyer and James’s names, among the Arlington people, had been omitted, and inserted them. I fear there are others among the White House lot which I did not discover. As to the attacks of the Northern papers, I do not mind them, and do not think it wise to make the publication you suggest. If all the names of the people at Arlington and on the Pamunkey are not embraced in this deed I have executed, I should like a supplementary deed to be drawn up, containing all those omitted. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them. Those that have been carried away, I hope are free and happy; I cannot get their papers to them, and they do not require them. I will give them if they ever call for them. It will be useless to ask their restitution to manumit them....”


Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee by Captain Robert E. Lee, his son


If we were to look exclusively at the legal issues involved, it seems that Robert E. Lee followed the letter of the law in the circumstances, at least as they were permissible at the time. It doesn't make it any more palatable, and it may be possible to fault him in other matters, but the OP specifically references the will of which he was Executor, so that is what I am focusing on here.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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#6
It says in the article that "his will was submitted to the Alexandria County Court for probate on the first day of its session (7 December) after arrival of the executor at Arlington and is there on record in his own handwriting, open to inspection". So, it seems there is access to the will as it was written.


The question for me then becomes whether a verbal expression is sufficient to be binding.


"An oral will, which is also called a nuncupative or deathbed will, is a will that is spoken to witnesses, but not written. Such wills are valid only in a few states and only in very limited and unusual circumstances. The idea is that if someone suddenly becomes ill or in extreme danger, and can’t make a written will, his or her last wishes will be honored.


Is It Legal?

If someone dies without leaving a valid written will, witnesses who heard the deceased person’s last wishes about his or her property may come forward and claim that the person made a valid oral will. It’s an uphill battle, however, to prove that a deceased person’s last words constitute a legally binding will.
"


http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/wills-trusts/oral-spoken-not-written-will-valid.html


Captain Robert E. Lee comments on his father's oversight of business matters:


"One marked characteristic of my father was his habit of attending to all business matters promptly. He was never idle, and what he had to do he performed with care and precision. Mr. Custis, my grandfather, had made him executor of his will, wherein it was directed that all the slaves belonging to the estate should be set free after the expiration of so many years. The time had now arrived, and notwithstanding the exacting duties of his position, the care of his suffering soldiers, and his anxiety about their future, immediate and distant, he proceeded according to the law of the land to carry out the provisions of the will, and had delivered to every one of the servants, where it was possible, their manumission papers. From his letters written at this time I give a few extracts bearing on this subject:


“...As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those in the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like, if I could, to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible. All that choose can leave the State before the war closes....


“...I executed the deed of manumission sent me by Mr. Caskie, and returned it to him. I perceived that John Sawyer and James’s names, among the Arlington people, had been omitted, and inserted them. I fear there are others among the White House lot which I did not discover. As to the attacks of the Northern papers, I do not mind them, and do not think it wise to make the publication you suggest. If all the names of the people at Arlington and on the Pamunkey are not embraced in this deed I have executed, I should like a supplementary deed to be drawn up, containing all those omitted. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them. Those that have been carried away, I hope are free and happy; I cannot get their papers to them, and they do not require them. I will give them if they ever call for them. It will be useless to ask their restitution to manumit them....”


Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee by Captain Robert E. Lee, his son


If we were to look exclusively at the legal issues involved, it seems that Robert E. Lee followed the letter of the law in the circumstances, at least as they were permissible at the time. It doesn't make it any more palatable, and it may be possible to fault him in other matters, but the OP specifically references the will of which he was Executor, so that is what I am focusing on here.

Well researched, thank you! If we're to look at History clearly it has to be all of it- this famous attack toboot. good to hear what was said, written and done at the time.

It's a little besides the point, if I'm reading this correctly though, for Lee, Jr. to issue papers so long after both White House and Arlington properties were taken under Federal control? He would not have the ability to free those already free through war's movements. White House was destroyed, torched when McClellen withdrew ( we're asked to believe by accident, misunderstanding orders ), scattering the ex-enslaved population to who-knows-where and they reported to Federal troops 200 enslaved had been taken with Mrs. Lee, when she left upon the advance.

Lee Jr. still does not explain his father's decision to interpret his father in law's will, adding those years, you know? The Arlington enslaved had sure been given to understand they were to be freed as a condition of GWP's will, at his death. Northern papers did jump on it. The thing is, the Custis family was a hugely respected, knock down, drag out Southern family- not Northern. High profile, whew. In 2017, Time has eroded who he was and what Arlington meant to the country- it was all " Washington-Custis ". Have an 1858 Harper's spread and interview, quite delightful, on it. Pre-war, pre-Lee's ascended star, illustrates the position this awkward monument to the Revolution had, perched on the James and in our National pride.
 

O' Be Joyful

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Considering the political bent of the Traveller, one might suspect that they had, let us say, an opposing and "peculiar" view as to slavery and abolition. And were not above throwing shade at a slaveholder, esp. a prominent one such as Lee, by "stretching" the truth. From Wiki:

Compared to other papers in Boston in the 1840s, the Traveller was notable for its significantly lower retail price, and for being sold on the street.[1] It supported the views of the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party. Its office was at no.31 State Street (c.1851–1894).[2][3]

 

Pat Young

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#8
Considering the political bent of the Traveller, one might suspect that they had, let us say, an opposing and "peculiar" view as to slavery and abolition. And were not above throwing shade at a slaveholder, esp. a prominent one such as Lee, by "stretching" the truth. From Wiki:

Compared to other papers in Boston in the 1840s, the Traveller was notable for its significantly lower retail price, and for being sold on the street.[1] It supported the views of the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party. Its office was at no.31 State Street (c.1851–1894).[2][3]

Thanks for the background.
 
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#9
If Custis had wanted his slaves freed upon his death, he would have stated so in his will, seems to me. As it is, the Times article has it wrong; the will did not stipulate that they were to be freed in 5 years, it stated and I paraphrase " until the legacies are paid and no later than 5 years" after his death. And Lee did just that, and in the middle of the war no less.

That article from 1857 reeks of yellow journalism. The same for the accounts of his having slaves whipped.
 



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