September 23, 2017


The Myth of Robert E. Lee And The "Good" Slave Owner : According to the Lost Cause mythology ginned up after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was a benevolent slave owner who really fought for states' rights. His slaves said otherwise. (GLENN DAVID BRASHER, 09.23.17, Daily Beast)

[H]istorians have lately noted the experiences of African Americans who were the legal property of Lee's father in law, George Parke Custis (George Washington's step-grandson), who died in 1857. As executor of Custis's last will, Robert E. Lee was charged with freeing the bondsmen within five years. Yet some of the enslaved insisted they were to be freed upon their master's death, causing a conflict with Lee that resulted in a failed escape attempt from Arlington plantation by three of the enslaved. Under Lee's order to "lay it on well," each of the rebels endured up to 50 lashes and suffered excruciating pain as the wounds were bathed in brine. Lee also broke with Custis and Washington family tradition, separating most of the enslaved families under his control.

So much for the image of Lee as a "good master."

Telling an even more dishonorable story are the wartime diaries and letters written by United States soldiers and newspaper reporters who interacted with African Americans enslaved by Lee and his family. Besides Arlington, Custis' will also dealt with two other plantations, one of which was in New Kent County, Virginia, known as White House (George and Martha Washington were married there). Robert E. Lee's son, William H.F. "Rooney" Lee was to inherit the plantation upon his mother's death, but he went ahead and moved there in 1859, taking control of its operations. This included managing close to 100 of the approximately 200 enslaved peoples that his father now legally possessed. By the start of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee had yet to free them as the Custis will dictated.

During the war's 1862 Peninsula Campaign, United States troops temporarily occupied White House plantation, with General George McClellan establishing his headquarters at the site because it lay astride a railroad running directly to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Thus, Northerners came in close contact there with the plantation's enslaved community.

A remarkably clear picture emerges of the life and sentiments of the peoples enslaved by Robert E. Lee and his family, based on their experiences as immediately recorded by soldiers and newspaper reporters. Such primary sources further challenge the depiction of Lee as a paternalistic slaveholder, completely dispelling the postwar creation of the "faithful slave" element of the Lost Cause.

Posted by at September 23, 2017 7:25 PM