(November 25, 2020) Notwithstanding currently popular interpretations there is no convincing evidence that Robert E. Lee ever whipped slaves. The argument that he ordered the flogging of three runaways in 1859 took on a new life after Elizabeth Brown Pryor published Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters in 2007. Contrary to her implications, she provides no new evidence regarding accusations made by runaway slave Wesley Norris, which were first publicized in 1859 by two anonymous letters to The New York Tribune and later in an 1866 article obtained “from the lips of Wesley Norris” also in The New York Tribune.
Lee owned no slaves at the time but after his father-in-law died in 1857 he became executor of the estate that included two hundred slaves at three Virginia locations: Arlington House, Romancoke and White House Plantation. Although the will stipulated that the slaves were to be freed, it also gave Lee up to five years to release them, partly to comply with Virginia law that required they not be let loose into vagrancy. The properties were also in debt, unprofitable and needed repairs. Finally the will required that Lee’s daughters be given legacies of $10,000 each, which meant that the properties either become profitable or sold in order to raise the cash. Lee decided to work the properties before freeing the slaves. Since there were far more slaves than required at Arlington House, he rented some out. As events transpired, Lee complied with the five year limit in December 1862 when he freed the slaves.
As might be expected, the slaves had misunderstood that they were to be freed immediately based upon alleged conversations with Lee’s father-in-law before he died. In response, Lee pointed critics to the court documents that revealed the five year limit. Nonetheless, Wesley Norris and a few other Arlington slaves set out for Pennsylvania where they hoped to live as presumptive free blacks. All were caught and returned. Norris left with his sister Mary and their cousin, George Parks. When the three were recaptured, Norris claimed that all were whipped.
Notwithstanding that Lee denied the incident, author Pryor believed Norris’s story because she said there were five witnesses and other particulars of the narrative “ring true.” In reality, there were no witnesses. The five that Pryor implies were really just the two anonymous 1859 letters in The Tribune and anonymous versions of Norris’s 1866 Tribune article in other newspapers. The remaining particulars that Pryor feels validate the story involve Norris’a location at various times. The fact that Norris was recaptured and returned to Arlington on the date that he alleges the whipping occurred, for example, is no proof of an actual whipping. Finally, it should be noted that The Tribune was a newspaper with a long history of abolitionism.
In truth, there’s better evidence that Lee believed slaves should be well treated. The following excerpted letter suggests that he had friendly relations with the Arlington slaves. After the Civil War Lee was required to testify before a Senate committee in February 1866. While in Washington, one of the former Arlington slaves stopped by his hotel while he was out. The visitor was Amanda Parks, the sister of George Parks. If George had been whipped under Lee’s supervision in 1859 it seems unlikely that Amanda would want to visit with him. When Lee returned to his Lexington home he wrote Amanda as follows:
LEXINGTON, Virginia, March 9, 1866.
I have received your letter of February 27th and regret very much that I did not see you when I was in Washington. I heard on returning to my room, Sunday night, that you had been to see me; and I was sorry to have missed you, for I wished to learn how you were, and how all the people from Arlington were getting on in the world. My interest in them is as great now as it ever was, and I sincerely wish for their happiness and prosperity. . .
I do not know why you should ask if I am angry with you. I am not aware of your having done anything to give me offense, and I hope you would not say or do anything that was wrong. While you lived at Arlington you behaved very well, and were attentive and faithful to your duties. I hope you will always conduct yourself in the same manner.
Wishing you health, happiness, and success in life, I am truly,
R. E. LEE.
Additionally, while he was working the properties he advised Robert, Jr. how to manage the Romancoke slaves:”attend to them and give them every aid and comfort in your power and they will be happier.” After lamenting a fire at a neighbor’s place, Lee counseled, “I trust you will so gain the affection of your people that they will not wish to do you harm.” Earlier, as a young man, after he inherited slaves from his mother Lee took one with him on duty to Savannah. It was an elderly personal servant in ill health who it was thought would do better in a warmer climate. He eventually died while Lee was on duty and is buried along the Savanah River.
In short, Pryor’s book appears to be an agenda-driven smear of Robert E. Lee disguised as a breakthrough study of previously undisclosed letters of kept private by the Lee family. In an era when The New York Times wins a Pulitzer Prize for “The 1619 Project,” it’s not surprising that Pryor won the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for her book.
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