Earlier this summer, comments on one of our Facebook posts sparked a larger conversation about recurring debates about the Civil War. We asked our visitors, social media audiences, and staff to generate a list of the questions or topics about the Civil War that they think are the most misunderstood. In providing answers to these, our goal is to do the research for you, consulting with primary sources, leading historians, and the latest scholarship, and distill it into something you can read quickly over a cup of coffee.
Myth: “Robert E. Lee didn’t own slaves.”
The claim that Robert E. Lee did not own slaves is often paired with the claim that Ulysses S. Grant did own slaves during the Civil War. Both claims serve to distance the Confederacy from its core justification and suggest United States hypocrisy on the matter of race. Both claims are false.
Robert E. Lee personally owned slaves that he inherited upon the death of his mother, Ann Lee, in 1829. (His son, Robert E. Lee Jr., gave the number as three or four families.) Following the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, in 1857, Lee assumed command of 189 enslaved people, working the estates of Arlington, White House, and Romancoke. Custis’ will stipulated that the enslaved people that the Lee family inherited be freed within five years.
Lee, as executor of Custis’ will and supervisor of Custis’ estates, drove his new-found labor force hard to lift those estates from debt. Concerned that the endeavor might take longer than the five years stipulated, Lee petitioned state courts to extend his control of enslaved people.
The Custis bondspeople, aware of their former owner’s intent, resisted Lee’s efforts to enforce stricter work discipline. Resentment resulted in escape attempts. In 1859 Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and their cousin, George Parks, escaped to Maryland where they were captured and returned to Arlington.
In an 1866 account, Norris recalled,
[W]e were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.
State courts in both 1858 and 1862 denied Lee’s petition to indefinitely postpone the emancipation of his wife’s enslaved people and forced him to comply with the conditions of the will. Finally, on December 29, 1862, Lee officially freed the enslaved workers and their families on the estate, coincidentally three days before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
Robert E. Lee owned slaves. He managed even more. When defied, he did not hesitate to use violence typical of the institution of slavery, the cornerstone of the cause for which he chose to fight.
For further reading:
Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2007)