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LOCAL News :: Historical Reclamation : Race & Ethnicity : Right Wing

The Real Robert E. Lee

The following is a collection of documentation about Lee's life and principles.
Lee the slave owner

Part of the Lee Myth is that Lee didn’t personally own slaves.

Not true. In late 1857, Lee inherited some 63 enslaved Africans from his father-in-law, G.W.P Curtiss.

Technically, these slaves were the property of Lee’s wife, Mary. However, it would be hard to seriously argue that a white man of property in pre-Civil War Virginia didn’t also own and control his wife’s property. These men, women and children were forced to labor on Lee’s plantation, and were brutally punished by him if they attempted to escape.

Curtiss’ will specified that the slaves were to be freed within five years of his death, which occurred on Oct. 10, 1857. The five-year period was to allow the will’s executors to take care of the legal paperwork for emancipation “in such manner as may to [them] seem most expedient and proper.?

Lee was one of the executors. He did file a “deed of manumission? with the Court of the City of Richmond, but waited until Dec. 29, 1862 – more than five years after Curtiss’ death.

In other words, this man whose apologists claim was opposed to slavery kept these scores of human beings in bondage as long as he legally could, and then some. (A copy of Curtiss’ will is posted at www.nathanielturner.com/willofgeorgewashingtonparkecustis.htm.)

Lee at Harper’s Ferry

In October 1959, just six months before the outbreak of the Civil War, militant abolitionist John Brown led a band of some 20 Black and white freedom fighters in a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va. Their goal was to spark a general uprising throughout the South to end slavery once and for all.

Col. Robert E. Lee let the federal troops sent to put down the rebellion. Most of the abolitionists were killed. Brown was severely wounded and captured. Just weeks later he was put on trial for treason, convicted and executed on Dec. 2. (For Lee’s official report of the battle at Harper’s Ferry, see www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/johnbrown/leereport.html.)

Lee in the Mexican War

By 1846, Lee had been an officer in the U.S. Army for 17 years, but had never seen combat. Then came the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848. The U.S. Government had its eyes on Mexican lands and created a phony incident to justify an invasion. Lee served as an engineer and scout, and then as an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott, the commander of U.S. forces in the war. Mexico lost the war and was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, surrendering nearly half its land, including Texas and what is now California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. (This is why many Mexican immigrants today say, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.?) The war was a disaster for Mexico, but very good for Lee, who gained valuable military experience and a promotion to the rank of colonel.

Lee, in his own words

“Blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. — from a letter to his wife, Dec. 27, 1856

“I have always observed that wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.? — to fellow Virginian Col. Thomas H. Carter, June, 1865

“I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them. ... I think that everyone there would be willing to aid it.? — testifying on race and politics before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17, 1866

“Wherever I have been, [Black people] have been quiet and orderly, not disposed to work, or rather not disposed to any continuous engagement to work, but just very short jobs, to provide them with the immediate means of subsistence. ... They are an amiable, social race. They like their ease and comfort, and, I think, look more to their present than their future.? — ibid

“My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of damagogism [sic], and lead to embarassments [sic] in various ways.? — ibid

Lee’s wife on emancipation

“We are all here dreadfully plundered by the lazy idle negroes who are lounging about the streets doing nothing but looking what they may plunder during the night. … When we get rid of the Freedman’s bureau & can take the law in our hands we may perhaps do better. If they would only take all their pets north it would be happy riddance to all.? — from a letter to her friend Emily Mason, May 20, 1866

Frederick Douglass on Lee

“After Lee’s death in 1870, Frederick Douglass, the former fugitive slave who had become the nation’s most prominent African-American, wrote, ‘We can scarcely take up a newspaper ... that is not filled with nauseating flatteries’ of Lee, from which ‘it would seem ... that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven.’?

— The Smithsonian Magazine, July 2003 (www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2003/july/robertlee.php)



What happened when they tried to escape from Lee’s plantation

Part of the Lee Myth is that Lee was personally opposed to slavery, that he joined the Southern secessionists only because he couldn’t bear to take up arms against his beloved Virginia.

Bull. Lee owned slaves and profited from their exploited labor. And when they tried to escape, he was as brutal as any other slave owner of the time.

This is the testimony of one of those enslaved Africans.

“My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; 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; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; 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. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

Testimony of Wesley Norris (1866); reprinted in “Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies;? edited by John W. Blassingame; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (ISBN 0-8071-0273-3.)

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