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

Could Lee have whipped them? Of course he could. He was facing open rebellion from a number of the enslaved families on the various Custis properties. Now he had EPs walking off Custis lands in a bid to secure the freedom they were promised. They were in no mood to wait. The oldest tool in an enslaver’s handbook was his for the taking without any legal repercussion – because enslavers could do whatever they liked to their enslaved people. Making an example of someone using means to instill fear among the enslaved was as old as slavery itself.

So I am going to flip that question on its head and ask: how could he not have whipped them? Explain to me why he wouldn’t avail himself of a method of punishment used every minute of every day throughout the length and breadth of the slaveholding states?

I’ve read tales of how noble he was, and what a genteel Virginian he was, and how men of his class didn’t do such things to their enslaved people. Hogwash. If Thomas Jefferson, James and Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, and a host of other elite enslavers, could have their slaves whipped, he could too.

I am also going to be very honest.  I’d have left too. If I’d been waiting on the dream of freedom all my life, and that dream was actually there for the taking? – I wouldn’t have waiting a day, much less five years, to claim it. Especially if I’d been worked as hard as these enslaved people had been.

So yes, I believe that he had them whipped if he couldn’t bring himself to mete that punishment out himself. He was a military leader. Meting out harsh punishments wouldn’t have been alien to him. Again, I fail to see why he would hesitate in ordering these three people whipped. And that tallies with the family receipts I’ve heard told within my family, and collected myself. Were they whipped as brutally as has been stated in newspaper articles?  Now that I can’t say. No one can save those who were there in that Arlington barn in 1859. The severity of their punishment has been obscured by sensationalized, politicized accounts given in newspapers. Save one account. Wesley Norris gave one interview in 1866.

Wesley Norris’s account


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 Cemetery 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.

Basically, as per Wesley’s account, Lee made one point very clear:  You are free when I say you are free. Now that squares with everything I know about slavery. That fits with the experiences I know from my own enslaved ancestors’ histories.

What is interesting about Wesley’s statement isn’t so much what he says, which was powerful. No, it has been the reaction by neo-Confederates and a certain school of historian, to what Wesley said.  Again, I am going to get very unapologetically black with you for a moment.

Then, as now, a black person’s word counts for nothing when it comes to anything negative involving someone who is white, specifically speaking. We can bring all the receipts necessary, put them all down on the table, and watch them be ignored at best…at worst, such receipts are swept off the table and their existence categorically denied. It’s only now, with the advent of mobile telephone technology, that our cries about being profiled, harassed by law enforcement, killed without provocation, are now being shared online and discussed. Those are our modern-day receipts. All Wesley had was his word. That was not enough in 1859.  It still isn’t enough now.

White denial always trumps black facts.

The event is corroborated by contemporary accounts from multiple sources, including Lee’s own plantation records. Whilst that would not necessarily prevent Wesley’s Testimony from being fraudulent, it stands to reason that only someone familiar with the Lee estate could have known who Wesley Norris was in 1866 – the most likely explanation would seem to be that Wesley Norris did indeed dictate the testimony. The fact that the Testimony omits the account of Lee whipping Mary himself, which is surely the aspect of the story someone wanting to demonize the General would seize on above all else, likewise seems to suggest authenticity.

The aspect of the tale may have featured in the 1859 letters to the Editors because they come from speaking to relatives of the Norris family, who may themselves have misunderstood or misrepresented the story slightly. The essential details all align with one another throughout every account, and the historical record seems to strongly suggest that Wesley Norris’ testimony is authentically given by him. In that case, we can believe that the incident did take place more or less as Norris described.

The story of Wesley, Mary, and George was still being discussed in the press in 1864.

My question to the legion of doubters is this: why would he, his sister, and his cousin lie?  What could they have conceivably gained by it? Revenge wouldn’t have been enough of a motive. They knew the backlash that would follow upon their statements. They knew how difficult speaking out would be. They knew they would be accused of lying. Yet, they did speak out. They did have their say. Nor were they the only Custis EPs to state the fate that befell these three in their bid for securing their freedom. There were reports from other Arlington EPs, some family members and some who were not, who shared similar accounts of this episode.

I have no doubt that something happened to them in the barn they were taken to. It’s a matter of whether Lee punished them himself or ordered someone else to mete out the punishment he decreed. Lee would have been stressed from the burden that Custis had heaped upon him:  trying to repair badly managed, run, and maintained properties, trying to raise the funds to pay down an enormous debt while equally trying to secure a generous payout to the Custis heirs. Add to this toxic mix some 200 enslaved souls who were mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically exhausted; people who were now exceedingly frustrated at the prospect of a delayed freedom. Not all of the 200 shared this sentiment. There were those who would have continued to happily toil for the family. That was their choice. There were enough enslaved families who did not wish to continue toiling for the benefit of Lee’s family, that the issue of when they were to be freed disrupted the various estates Lee administered. Lee was living in a pressure cooker situation where he probably didn’t feel in control of too much of anything. Add to this the worst memories from his youth, when his father died, must have come racing back to him.  The one thing he could control, however, were the enslaved families he now had dominion over. He was a product of the world he had grown up within.  I wouldn’t expect him to be any different.

Again, I am going to suggest Lee could have made a different decision. In the debate over whether he whipped these three people are not, I have never seen anyone ask a very simple question: Why didn’t he just let them go? He didn’t have to send anyone after them. He didn’t have to have them forcibly brought back.

He did what he did precisely because he was a product of the world he grew up within. He was a slaveholder. He was not going to have his authority challenged or questioned. He wanted to prove a point, and he made sure that every other EP on the properties he administered knew it. That’s what makes sense within the realm of American chattel slavery.

You are free when I say you are free.

Do I believe statues of Lee should be destroyed? No, I do not. However, I equally don’t believe they have any place on Federal, State, or County property. No confederate monument ought to be. Instead, place them in museums, or on any family estates that are still in existence, or family burial plots, or applicable Civil War Battle fields (these would be the sole State or Federal land exemptions I would be fine with).

My enslaved ancestors paid enough for the predictions, fancies, foibles, and narcissism of their respective enslavers. Neither I, nor any other descendant of the enslaved, should have to see glorified reminders of the price our ancestors paid during their centuries of bondage, not unless we specifically seek them out.

A Freedom Delayed

Lee’s records and accounts show that over the ensuing five years, in addition to paying the legacies, the income derived from the labor of EPs was used by Lee to renovate dilapidated farm buildings and repair farm machinery that had fallen into disuse in the years before Custis’s death.  He also used the revenue to repair and tend to the various Custis properties. The healthy adult EPs located at the tidewater farms were needed there to secure the animals, harvest the annual crops of rye, oats, wheat and corn and bring in the hay; while the slaves located at Arlington labored as garden boys, yard girls, gardeners, market men, coachmen, maids and the like.  Those EPs who were not required for these tasks were hired out to third parties for the value of their labor.

How about a monument to that? After all, they were the souls who turned things round for the Lee and Custis family.

In December 1862, shortly after the battle of Fredericksburg, General Lee, as executor of the Custis estate, fulfilled the duty he owed the Custis family slaves by executing a deed of manumission which listed most of the slaves recorded on the estate inventory lists.

The EPs with surnames like Randolph, Parks, Gray/Grey, Crump, Taylor are my cousins. So too are the Dandridge, Randolph, and Lee EPs amongst this group of people.

Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia via

DEED OF MANUMISSION Arlington, New Kent, King William Counties

Know all men by these presents, that I, Robert E. Lee, executor of the last will and testament of George W. P. Custis deceased, acting by and under the authority and direction of the provisions of the said will, do hereby manumit, emancipate and forever set free from slavery the following named slaves belonging to the Arlington estate, viz: Eleanor Harris, Ephraina Dimicks, George Clarke, Charles Syphax; Selina and Thornton Grey and their six children Emma, Sarah, Harry, Anise, Ada, Thornton; Margaret Taylor and her four children Dandridge, [John], Billy, Quincy; Lawrence Parks and his nine children – Perry, George, Amanda, Martha, Lawrence, James, Magdalena, Leno, William; Julia Ann Check and her three children Catharine, Louis, Henry and an infant of the said Catharine; Sally Norris [and?] Len Norris and their three children Mary, Sally, and Wesley; Old Shaack Check; Austin Bingham and Louisa Bingham and their twelve children Harrison, Parks, Reuben, Henry, Edward, Austin, Lucius, Leanthe, Louisa, Caroline, Jem, and an infant; Obadiah Grey; Austin Banham, Michael Merriday, Catharine Burk and her child; Marianne Burke and Agnes Burke: Also the following slaves belonging to the White House estate, viz: Robert Crider and Desiah his wife, Locky, Zack Young and two other children [,] Fleming Randolph and child; Maria Meredith and Henry her husband and their three children Nelson, Henry, and Austin; Lorenzo Webb, Old Daniel, Clavert Dandridge, Claiborne Johnson, Mary and John Stewart, Harrison, Jeff, Pat and Gadsby, Dick, Joe, Robert, Anthony, Davy, Bill Crump, Peyton, Dandridge, Old Davy and Eloy his wife, Milly and her two children [,] Leanthe and her five children; Jasper, Elisha and Rachael his wife, Lavinia and her two children, Major, Phill, Miles, Mike and Scilla his wife and their five children Lavinia, Israel, Isaiah, Loksey [?] and Delphy; Old Fanny and her husband, Patsy, [L]ittle Daniel, and Cloe, James Henry, Milly, Ailsey and her two children, Susan Pollard [,] Armistead and Molly his wife, Airy, Jane Piler [?], Bob, Polly, Betsy and her child, Molly, Charity, John Reuben, George Crump, Minny, Grace, Martha and Matilda: Also the following belonging to the Romancoke estate, viz: Louis, Jem, Edward, Kitty and her children[,] Mary Dandridge and an infant; Nancy; Dolly, Esther, Serica[?], Macon and Louisa his wife, Walker, Peggy, Ebbee, Fanny, Chloe Custis and her child Julia Ann, Elvey Young and her child Charles, Airy Johnson, Anne Johnson, William and Sarah Johnston and their children Ailey, Crump, Molly, and George, James Henry and Anderson Crump, Major Custis and Lucy Custis, Nelson Meredith and Phoebe his wife, and their children Robert, Elisha, Nat, Rose and Sally, Ebbee Macon, Martha Jones & her children Davy & Austin; Patsey Braxton, Susan Smith and Mildred her child, Anne Brown, Jack Johnson, Marwell Bingham and Henry Baker.

     And I do hereby release the aforesaid slaves from all and every claim which I may have upon their services as executor aforesaid.

     Witness my hand and seal this 29th day of December in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred sixty-two

                                         [signed] R. E. Lee [seal]

                                                         Ex. of G. W. P. Custis

State of Virginia, County of Spotsylvania to wit:

     I, Benj[amin] S. Cason, Justice of the Peace in and for the said County, do hereby certify that Robert E. Lee, executor of the last will and testament of George W. P. Custis, a party to the foregoing deed of manumission, this day appeared before me, and acknowledge the same to be his act and deed.

     Given under my hand this 29 day of Dec 1862.

                                         [signed] Benj[amin] S. Cason J. P.

     City of Richmond, to wit:

     In the Office of the Court of Hustings for the said City, the 2d day of January 1863

     This deed was presented and with the Certificate annexed, admitted to record at twelve o’clock N.

                                         Teste    Ro[bert] Howard, Clerk

Source: Robert Edward Lee Papers, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

Under his legal authority as executor of the Custis Estate, vested in him by the common law of Virginia, General Lee pronounced the Custis slaves “forever set free from slavery.” The deed was recorded on 2 January  1863 in the Henrico County courthouse, located in Richmond, one day after the operative date of President Lincoln’s extralegal Emancipation Proclamation. Among the names included in General Lee’s deed of manumission are Wesley and Mary Norris and Reuben Bingham and his three brothers.

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