The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee: The Testimony of Wesley Norris

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Gentle Readers, we previously talked about Robert E. Lee’s proslavery views some time back. In revisiting the subject, I want to emphasize that even if Lee preached abolitionism to his dying day he did not make Confederate policy. Nor did his views inform the choice to secede, whether for Virginia or anywhere else, or prove influential when the Confederacy wrote its constitution. Lee gained influence over the Confederacy during the war, serving as its ex officio head of state, but reducing the Confederacy to a creature of his mind and wishes profoundly misunderstands the Civil War.

As people do see the Marble Man as the essence of the Confederate States of America, his views on its cause will keep coming up. Tradition, which routinely trumps history, holds that Lee did not own any slaves himself. This may hold true for Lee at some point in the 1850s, but we know he owned people in his own right as late as 1852 and considered buying more in 1860. He also had control over the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law along with Arlington, whose will required their freedom within five years. Lee took almost all that time to get around to it. In the meantime, he functioned as a slaveholder. For most of it, he also lived at Arlington and managed slaves directly. Tradition paints Lee as a generous, lenient enslaver.

Tradition has not met the acquaintance of R.E. Lee. For the most part, Lee’s arrival at Arlington represented a significant decrease in the quality of life for those that he now enslaved. The future general abandoned the Custis and Washington tradition of respecting slave families, hiring slaves out to distant parts of Virginia. Lee chose to interpret Custis’ will so as to require funding the bequests his father-in-law proscribed in advance of releasing any slaves. He ignored the part where Custis said the bequests should come out of sales of land, rather than the labor or lives of slaves. Fairness demands we note that Custis also made a bit of a mess with his will, referring in it to land he might not have owned and not considering how its provisions might interact with Virginia law. But no force of nature made Lee act as he did, even within its confines. He had five years to keep the Custis slaves and what he did to them or, in the case of freedom, declined to do for them in those five years rightly falls on his shoulders.

Lee’s treatment of the slaves, many of whom seem to have believed with some reason that Custis intended them freed at once upon his death, drove some to steal their bodies from the estate. One of them left behind testimony of the affair. I quote it in full:

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.

Lee partisans have insisted that Norris invented all of this. They call him an embittered ex-slave trying to libel the reputation of a great and good man, or else a simpleton used by the abolitionist press to do the same. Norris’ words do come to us through a white reporter and appear in an abolitionist newspaper. However, Elizabeth Brown Pryor looked into the case while researching Reading the Man. As she puts it, “all of its facts are verifiable.”

Let’s walk through that. No one contests Norris’ status as a Custis slave. Lee hired him out, away from friends and family. Shortly before Norris, his sister, and their cousin fled Arlington, Lee answered resistant slaves by “overpower[ing]” them. Lee could have a heavy hand with people he believed of similar worth to his own, as he demonstrated in his years as West Point’s martinet commander. With slaves, he quickly exhausted any tolerance he might have had for challenges to his authority.

While some papers ran exaggerated stories that had Lee seize the whip and lash a girl himself, Norris’ version lacks that detail. Nor does he depart from straight, matter of fact recounting of events. They left Arlington after seventeen months, just as Norris says. He has the right number of slaves at Arlington and correctly names his jailer and place of capture. He probably has the overseer right too, naming him Mr. Gwin when the man rendered it himself as McQuinn. The two names sound similar enough and Norris probably only ever heard it spoken. He similarly omits the Washington from George Washington Parke Custis’ name. we know that Arlington had a whipping post and an eyewitness confirms the use of brine to salt the sounds of Lee’s victims.

Norris even has the constable’s name right. A Dick Williams appears in Lee’s account book, where the general-to-be notes “to Richard Williams, arrest, &c of fugitive slaves-$321.14”. Pryor puts that number in context:

The sum, which did not include transport of the slaves to Hanover County-Lee paid another $50.53 for that-is exceptionally large. We know that Lee’s standard reward for returning runaways was ten dollars per slave. The previous year, Lee’s accounts show that he paid Williams only $57.25 to arrest and detain three other fugitives, and another $37.12 to transport them to Richmond. The costs for the earlier capture had also been inflated by the need to keep them in jail two months. The services rendered by Williams in relation to the Norris party must have been extraordinary to command a fee nearly six times as high as those paid the year before.

Lee’s father-in-law spent his money freely. Lee did not and, given his intense interest in the estate’s finances, likely would not have made an exception here. Williams did something to get all that extra cash. The local constabulary did hire out its services for slave discipline, so the “&c” would reasonably include it. The sort of harsh punishment that a slave overseer refused to apply sounds like the kind of thing one would charge more for. Whether the number of lashes, the brine, or the trouble of having Lee watch as he worked might have inspired Williams to charge more, or Lee to give more in expectation of it. Any other explanation seems less probable and more out of character for Lee.

By the time Norris talked to the paper, he had little to fear from Lee or gain from unfairly tarring him. Slavery, for himself and four million other black Americans, had gone. As he has so many particulars right, I see no fair reason to doubt him except a prior commitment, facts be damned, to Lee’s virtue or the singular perfidy of black Americans.

Lee denied it anyway, albeit in vague and summary terms. He declined to over more than a blanket dismissal. Given Lee knew just what had happened, and what he wrote in his ledger, and what he had in fact done, we can’t credit his denial as we can Norris’ story. He might simply have lied. Pryor relates elsewhere that after the war he undertook an effort to rehabilitate the Confederacy, though it came to little, and encouraged others to do the same with more success. He also told a Congressional committee that he believed in gradual emancipation and always had. The Lee of the 1850s would hardly have agreed, unless we consider upon divine intervention as gradual as the twenty or so years typical of actual, enacted plans of emancipation.

Or Lee might have objected to some small part of the content. Pryor speculates that the version of the story where Lee loses control of himself, seizes the whip, and goes to town himself might have crossed a line. Lee prided himself on self-control. For the word to get out that he had lost his temper, true or not, would demean Lee in his own eyes. Gentlemen did not throw decorum to the winds and take bloody vengeance on inferiors. They employed people of a lower class for that work. Even if he had, and I stress that the part where Lee takes the whip for himself has the least credibility and it makes no sense for Norris to include all he had and omit that one element, Lee would likely have understood the claim as a singular, egregious attack upon himself. The rest might easily have fallen out of mind as an ordinary part of his day, as normal and unremarkable we find putting our shoes on or the daily commute.

Either way, by the ordinary standards of historical inquiry we can’t credit Lee’s denial more than Norris’ testimony. The evidence firmly supports the enslaved, not his enslaver. We do no injustice to Lee to believe it so. Rather, knowing all we do, we would wrong Wesley Norris to think otherwise.

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