Robert E Lee, slavery, and 1859: The Spring of his Discontent

A State of Open Rebellion

As Custis lay dying at Arlington, word spread through Arlington that it was his desire that the enslaved be freed. Due to close-knit family links between Arlington and the other Custis properties, word soon spread to all the Custis’s estates that the enslaved were to be freed. No mention was made of a five year wait. Again, remember the deplorable state the EPs were living in. The toil and ceaseless hard labor they had endured for years. To them, their time of tribulation had come to an end. Remember, Custis himself acknowledged that he had worked them hard. Those were his own words.

The mood of the EPs must have been beyond giddy. It must have been jubilant and ecstatic. They were free! I can imagine plans being made: where they would live, what they would do for employment, how they would gather their family together from the other Custis properties; a myriad of details and items to go over in preparation for striking out on their own as a free people. Joining relations who had been freed by George and Martha Washington decades earlier would have also been something that was eagerly anticipated. And then you’re told you must wait for five more years.

I am going to get very, very unapologetically black with you for a moment. I do this so you can see things from the perspective of the enslaved.

Enslaved black people always paid a disproportionately high price for the bad decisions, mismanagement, caprice, predilections, affectations, and sins of their enslavers from the first day American chattel slavery became codified. Your enslaver died in debt or intestate? There was a good chance you, someone in your family, or your whole family, would be put on the auction block and sold here, there, and anywhere.   No consideration was given to your grief, your sorrow, or the horror of your predicament…which was in no way or manner your fault. Your enslaver lived way beyond his or her means? You or someone you knew or loved was getting sold. All because he, she, and their children had to continue living beyond their means. It was as simple, and as horrific, as that.

I have read accounts from historians and abolitionists that Lee sold some of the EPs who were supposed to be set free as per the Custis Will.  I have found no evidence of this. I, and others, have searched physical and online archives for sales deeds for proof that Lee had sold any of the Custis EPs. None have been found. What he did do, with the Court’s legal blessing, was split his enslaved families apart to hire them out in different parts of Virginia to raise the funds he needed to repair the estates and pay down Custis’s debt.

This did not go down well at all with the EPs.

The first sign of unrest in 1859 was when groups of EPs downed tools and went on a kind of work strike. Several of the male members of the Bingham family – Reuben, Henry, Edward, and Austin – refused to accept work assignments that were away from the Arlington estate. Reuben, the leader of the rebellion, told Lee that he and his brothers were as free as he. A melee ensued between them when Lee organized a posse to forcibly remove Reuben and his brothers to the Arlington county jail.  After a short struggle, the rebellious men were subdued and taken to the jail where they were held until taken south to Richmond under guard (The Lee Family Slaves, American Civil War via

The incident involving Reuben and his family was cited in Lee’s 1859 Chancery suit:

Citation: Virginia Memory: Chancery Records Index. 1859-017 Chancery Causes. Exr. Of George Washington Parks Custis vs. Mary Ann Randolph Lee & Others. Arlington via

Citation: Virginia Memory: Chancery Records Index. 1859-017 Chancery Causes. Exr. Of George Washington Parks Custis vs. Mary Ann Randolph Lee & Others. Arlington via


Your orator [Lee] further shows that he has experience great difficulty, in the control and management of slaves, at Arlington. That evil disposed persons, whose names are unknown to your orator, for unlawful and mischievous purposes, and imposing upon the ignorance, and credulity, of said slaves, have infused into their minds the idea, that they are entitled to immediate freedom, under the terms of the testator’s [Custis] will. That thus ???, a general spirit of dissatisfaction, and insubordination, has grown up, among said slaves. Some of them, have in the presence of your orator, boldly announced that they were free, and refused any longer to labor, and by their violent and dangerous conduct, have constrained your orator, to have them taken into legal custody and imprisoned.

That others, have not only refused to labor on the said Arlington estate, but when your orator has attempted to hire them out, have then ??? his efforts, by protesting to the parties proposing to hire, that they were free, and were illegally held in slavery. That three of said slaves, thus opposing the authority of your orator, are now in confinement.

More enslaved families followed suit. In a very real way, what they were saying was: “We’re done”. It was at this point that Lee sought the legal advice in the Courts that I previously mentioned. 

There is an option that Lee could have used to combat the growing resentment building on the properties he now managed. He could have struck a deal with families like Reuben’s; families who were angry and resentful of the prospect of a delayed freedom. The deal could have gone something like this; “Give me two years, work hard, and I will set you free and give you ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’”. He didn’t. Lee was a product of his world – and enslavers didn’t strike deals with the enslaved. No one – not a historian or a historical enthusiast – has ever suggested this in the back and forth around Lee.

I would argue that some deal making could have averted what was to come.

The Ghosts of George and Martha Washington Add a Complicated Layer

Lee was also faced with a complex, labyrinthine family inter-connections between the families enslaved by Custis going back to George and Martha Washington. George Washington’s enslaved people married some of Martha’s dowry slaves when she arrived at Mount Vernon. By the time they died, some of the children of these union between George and Martha’s EPs were now enslaved by Custis. When George freed his slaves in his Will, he could not free EPs who were held by Martha. They were her property.

We have a scenario when roughly half the members of a family were free, while the other half remained enslaved. When Martha died, she too freed her enslaved people. This meant that Custis now held the sole remaining members of families freed by George and Martha. In other words, roughly a third of the families formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon remained enslaved on Custis property. They had to wonder when it would be their turn to be freed, if ever. When would they be reunited with their family members who were free? This too was bound to result in bitterness and resentment among some of the enslaved families who were now in Lee’s control. This was added ammunition in the mounting EP rebellion against Lee. Knowing his family’s history as well as he did, and the history of the people he enslaved, Lee knew who these families were. He ought not to have been surprised when faced with the resentment that came from this quarter.

A Dark Tale of Three Whipped People Who Left Arlington House for Freedom

Swiftly following upon the heels of Reuben and his family’s rebellion, this history takes a darker turn sometime in April of 1859. It’s this next episode that has resulted in a furor among American historians, as well as neo-confederates, the alt-right, and the like.

Three EPs walked off the Arlington property in a bid to claim the freedom they felt had been promised to them by Custis. There were two siblings, Wesley and Mary Norris, and their cousin, George Parks. DNA suggests that Wesley and Mary’s mother Sarah is one of the missing sisters of my 4x great grandfather, George Henry Roane. So that’s my other bit of skin in the game.  The three had made it as far as Westminster, Maryland, where they were apprehended. They were brought back to Arlington. This part everyone agrees on. It’s what may or may not have happened next that has been the bone of contention.

Tales of the three escapee’s plight became a nationally syndicated news story.

Abolitionist newspapers took the story and ran with it. An anonymous letter about the affair appeared in the New York Tribune. It was reprinted across the nation:

To the Editor of The New York Tribune.

Sir: I live a mile from the plantation of George Washington P. Custis, now Col. Lee’s, as Custis willed it to Lee. All the slaves on this estate, as I understand, were set free at the death of Custis, but are now held in bondage by Lee. I have inquired concerning the will, but can get no satisfaction. Custis had fifteen children by his slave women. I see his grandchildren every day; they are of a dark yellow. Last week three of the slaves ran away; an officer was sent after them, overtook them nine miles this side of Pennsylvania, and brought them back. Col. Lee ordered them whipped They were two men and one woman. The officer whipped the two men, and said he would not whip the woman, and Col. Lee stripped her and whipped her himself. These are facts as I learn from near relatives of the men whipped.  After being whipped, he sent them to Richmond and hired them out as good farm hands.

    Yours,     A CITIZEN

Washington, June 19, 1859.

I don’t take much stock in anonymous letters. I truly don’t. If you have something to say publicly about someone, put your name to it. There are also some factual errors in this letter to the editor. Lee didn’t purportedly demand that an officer whip the EPs. He ordered his overseer to do it. Who, as the episode is relayed, refused to whip Mary Norris, which was purportedly carried out by Lee.

Custis certainly had children by enslaved women. I know of six. I am working on DNA matches with descendants of another possible three children. It will take some genetic detective work to try and investigate a claim of fifteen. However, that’s a bit of semantics on my part. Custis did indeed have enslaved children and grandchildren living on his properties. These would have been Lee’s brothers and sisters in law, as well as his nieces and nephews as they were all his wife’s kin. However, he had blood ties to some of the other Custis EPs through his own Lee and Carter lineages. Not that that would have mattered.  Slavery didn’t allow for such acknowledged family blood links between the enslaved and their enslavers.

The rest of the anonymous account remains more or less true. The three were indeed sent to Richmond, where they spent a spell in jail before they were hired out.

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