Stop Saying Robert E. Lee Was ‘Against Slavery’

Colonel Robert E. Lee
This man both owned slaves and ordered them beaten. Additionally, he led armies of hundreds of thousands of men with the sole purpose of defending the institution of slavery. I use “colonel”, because that’s the highest rank he attained in the U.S. Army.

Every single time Robert E. Lee is mentioned in the news, some ignorant-of-history conservative will jump in with the claim: “But Robert E. Lee was AGAINST slavery!” Some will even claim that Lee never owned slaves. They will often add that he wasn’t defending slavery when he led the Confederate armies against the nation that trained him at West Point. “He was defending his state of Virginia.”

I’m not sure why conservatives — especially in the South, but it happens in the North too — lean so hard toward supporting the Confederate States of America, while at the same time insisting that they’re not pro-slavery or racist in any way. But they do. And they often do it without facts.

To clear the air:

• Lee Owned Slaves

First, Robert E. Lee owned slaves. Of this there is no question in historians’ minds. It is well documented that he and his wife inherited a plantation full of slaves (“about seventy”) from his wife’s father, George Washington Parke Custis.

Custis mentioned his slaves in his will, clearly saying that the slaves should be “emancipated” — “to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease”. Just prior to that, he added the caveat that first his daughters should be paid the amounts he had apportioned to them, and those of his estates that were in debt should have their debts cleared. After those two items were accomplished, the slaves would be freed. The “five years” was the limit; there was nothing keeping them from being freed earlier.

• Lee Did Not Free His Slaves When He Could Have

Secondly, Lee did not free his slaves when given the opportunity.

Lee was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Texas, when his father-in-law died in October 1857. After trying to hire an overseer for the Curtis plantation — one who “while he will be considerate & kind to the negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty” — but failed to find the right man. Instead, Lee took a leave of absence from the Army and went to Virginia himself to run the place. One of the slaves later explained:

“It was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years.”

A number of them ran away after assuring Lee to his face that they were free men. Lee had them captured and jailed. Then, instead of doing what the Custis will instructed — making payments and then freeing the slaves — Lee sent the jailed slaves to a slave trader and instructed him to find another owner for them.

• Lee Wasn’t Kind To His Slaves

Thirdly, Lee wasn’t kind to his slaves.

When Wesley Norris, along with his sister and a cousin, escaped in 1859. Norris himself later wrote:

“We had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we 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.”

Note that even the overseer refused to perform the punishment; Lee called in someone else to do it.

Historians disagree on how much of that account is true, but broadly agree that (1) the runaway slaves were recaptured and returned, and that (2) at least some of them were punished physically upon Lee’s orders. Too many independent accounts agree on those two details.

• Lee Only Freed Them When He Had To

Lee did eventually free the Custis slaves — on Dec. 29, 1862, two months past the five-year deadline set in the will. And three days before they would have been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

• Source Of The Misinformation?

Where do people get the idea that Lee was “against slavery”? Much of it seems to come from a single letter he wrote to his wife in 1856, in which he included the phrase: “…slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Unfortunately for Lee, he didn’t stop there.

Earlier in the same letter, he had already said of abolitionists that “their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty” and that it could only be accomplished by a civil war. Later in the same letter, he said slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” and that “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race.” Then he waxed poetic about how Jesus would work through the white men to eventually emancipate the slaves, though he noted that it might take as long as “nearly two thousand years” — comparing the process to how long it took for the Gospel to spread through the world.

So it is clear that Lee was, at least in his own mind, accepting that African-descended slaves in the U.S. would eventually be freed. And it seems that he thought it best that they should eventually be freed. But what he most definitely did not want, was for anyone to upset the current applecart. (He even cautioned abolitionists in that same letter: “he must not Create angry feelings in the Master”.)

To be clear, if you say you are for a specific societal change, but do not act to effect that change, and in fact act against that change happening now, you are not actually in favor of that change. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is climate change, civil rights, women’s equality, or any other issue on which progress still needs to be made. If you are actively working to slow or stop the progress, you are not in favor of said progress.

My best guess is that very few people have read this letter, but instead trust the websites and “books” (pamphlets, really) of Confederate apologists who quote only the single phrase.

I would like to think that in the day and age of the internet, anyone met with a powerful claim would hold that claim with a grain of salt until finding the time to research it on their own. But no, people still do as they have always done when met with a claim for the first time; they just go on with their lives. Eventually they see or hear the claim again, and it sounds familiar. By the time they’ve heard the claim multiple times, they are convinced that they first heard it in history class or from a reputable source, and they begin accepting it as fact if not actively passing it on themselves.

• Fighting For Virginia

As for Lee commanding the armies of the Confederacy, it is usually presented as an honorable thing he chose to do: resigning his U.S. Army commission and joining a separatist movement. This comes, I think, from the history lessons in many states suffering under revisionist history books — including Texas. I was taught in high school that Lee “reluctantly” resigned his U.S. Army commission, and only fought for the Confederacy because of his “beloved Virginia”.

Besides, the Confederate apologists will tell you, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery anyway.

I thoroughly refuted that claim three years ago, so I won’t rehash it here. There is no way to understand history without admitting the Civil War was entirely about slavery, at least on the part of the Confederacy.

You don’t “reluctantly” join a cause that you think is “a moral & political evil”. You refuse to join that cause. When someone asks you to join it, you simply refuse. “Sir, your cause is evil, and I want no part of it”, Lee would have said if he had been an upstanding person.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I do recognize that many of the individual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy likely didn’t understand the larger issues of the war — much like soldiers in today’s army are not required to be well-informed about politics or governance. They fought for their homes, for their families who were in harm’s way, and — I assume — for their pride. It is true that many of them were poor white people who did not own slaves, though even poor families in those days often did own at least one — according to the 1860 Census, 32% of white families in the South owned slaves — as high as 49% in Mississippi, so not just the wealthy elite.

But the leaders of the Confederacy were very clear about their purpose and their feelings toward the “inferior black race” — as I documented in my older blog entry. Lee was educated, informed, and connected. He moved in the halls of power and was well aware of the causes of secession, even if the average man on the street wasn’t fully informed.

1 Comment
  1. Anderson Connors says:

    People defending Lee (or anything else Confederate) are just using slang. What it translates to is “I’m a white supremacist”. Fuck them.

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