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

8,487 words | Read time: 20 minutes

Gen. Robert E. Lee and confederate statues are back in the news again. His statues have generated fierce commentary online. As I’ve watched the furious back and forth between those committed to pulling his statues down, and those equally committed to ensuring they remain where they are, one voice is lacking in the debate: a voice advocating for the nearly 200 enslaved souls on the properties he was tasked with administering as an executor for George Washington Parke Custis.

I will be the voice that advocates for them today.

There are two things that absolutely frustrate my soul with the national argument about slavery and confederate statues. First, this messy, tortuous, and politicized furor ought to be a dignified, informed, civil discussion. Centuries of enslaved people in colonial and post-colonial America deserve better. 

The second thing that frustrates me is how too many people try to intellectualize something that should never be intellectualized. That would be slavery itself, and the enslaved. Intellectualizing a topic like slavery strips the entire conversation of the real lives of those who were brutalized, humiliated, degraded, lampooned, diminished, tortured, and generally just suffered under the yoke of bondage. The intellectualized language people use is telling in this regard. It makes it easy for them to talk about enslaved people (EPs) as an intellectual abstract. EPs were never an abstract construct. They were real living, breathing human beings with lives shaped by fears, hopes, aspirations, pain, suffering – and whatever measure of joy and happiness they could experience. There is a stark difference between discussing people in the abstract – and discussing them with a sense of their humanity intact.

Enslaved people deserve better than to be abstracted to the point of becoming something that requires no emotion. Slavery was a horror show. You ought to feel emotional about that. No deflection, or conversational pivots, or faux “what about-ism” arguments, can ever detract from that.  Every enslaved person who lived out their lives in America deserves that recognition. Every. One.

I get it. No, honestly, I do. When you have no actual skin in the game, you can easily make something that is fundamentally disturbing, evil, or unpleasant, into an abstract notion. You can argue about it as an abstract concept. Millions of people who endured centuries of oppression ought not, and should never be, abstracted…much less abstracted to the point of a Vulcan, Spock-like, emotionlessness when discussing their plight.

If a person has no knowledge of the black experience in America – either ‘back then’ or in the present – he or she can only come from a place of assumptions. If a person doesn’t literally have skin in the game, he or she can intellectualize and abstract arguments about slavery because it doesn’t directly affect them. If such a person has nothing in their ancestry that touches historically oppressed groups, they have the luxury of not having to look at things from the viewpoint of the oppressed. He or she can easily engage in the modern-day semantic equivalent of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. In short, there is no empathy required. And I have seen a stunning lack of empathy towards enslaved people in the arguments raging about Robert E. Lee and his statues.

Slavery was raw. It was visceral. As someone who has spent decades researching the lives of his enslaved ancestors, I have the receipts. I know how the system of American chattel slavery worked. From ancestors who were among the first Africans who arrived, and were indentured, in Virginia, to the last ancestor who was freed in 1865, I can name names and experiences. I am also all too familiar with the thought processes of enslavers. I have read too many of their journals, day books, letters, oratory, and public commentary to not know the workings of their collective minds.

The above are important points to grasp. When it comes to the topic of Robert E. Lee and his statues, you must understand the viewpoint I am about to present. So much, too much, has been written about Robert E. Lee and what he may or may not have done in terms of his treatment of the EPs under his control. Paltry little has been written from the viewpoint of those he enslaved. Which is about on par for how Americans discuss slavery. People go to their respective corners with precious little consideration of those the argument should truly be about.

Center to this article is a series of 1859 events that involved Robert E. Lee which transpired at Arlington House in Alexandria, Virginia. Did he or did he not order the whipping of three EPs who had been granted freedom by his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, and had run off in 1859? There are those who swear that he not only ordered them whipped but whipped them himself. There are also those who vehemently deny he did. This article walks us through the known. This event has many moving parts just like any other historical episode or event. I will do my utmost best to walk you though this episode using a number of first hand sources.

History, honest history, is a complicated and messy business. The situation Lee found himself within in 1859 is exceedingly complex and messy.

It begins with George Washington Parke Custis

George Washington Parke Custis (hereafter, ‘Custis’) was the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, wife of President George Washington. He is also a complicated relation of mine. His grandmother, Martha, is an ancestral cousin many times over, a great aunt twice over, and my great-grandmother. My relationship to her depends on which Dandridge, Randolph, Jones, Macon line in her ancestry I look at. Lee is a cousin too. He’s a cousin in more ways than via Martha. He and I share common Lee and Carter ancestry. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis (Custis’s daughter)? She is another ancestral cousin.

I have skin in the game on both sides of the 1859 incident at Arlington House.

Custis died in 1857, leaving three Virginia estates – White House, Romancock (now Romancoke), and Arlington House – as well as various tracts of land to his daughter, Lee’s wife, and his four grandchildren.

A transcript of his Will follows below. It is a key piece to the lead up to Lee and that 1859 day at Arlington House:

In the name of God, amen. I, George Washington Parke Custis, of Arlington House, in the county of Alexandria and State of Virginia, being sound in body and mind, do make and ordain this instrument of writing as my last will and testament, revoking all other wills and testaments whatever. I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved daughter and only child, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, my Arlington House estate, in the county of Alexandria and State of Virginia, containing eleven hundred acres, more or less, and my mill on Four-Mile Run, in the county of Alexandria, and the lands of mine adjacent to said mill, in the counties of Alexandria and Fairfax, in the State of Virginia, the use and benefit of all just mentioned during the term of her natural life, together with my horses and carriages, furniture, pictures, and plate, during the term of her natural life.

On the death of my daughter, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, all the property left to her during the term of her natural life I give and bequeath to my eldest grandson, George Washington Custis Lee, to him and his heirs forever, he, my said eldest grandson, taking my name and arms.

I leave and bequeath to my four granddaughters, Mary, Ann, Agnes, and Mildred Lee, to each ten thousand dollars. I give and bequeath to my second grandson, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, when he shall be of age, my estate called the White House, in the county of New Kent and the State of Virginia, containing four thousand acres, more or less, to him and his heirs forever.

I give and bequeath to my third and youngest grandson, Robert Edward Lee, when he is of age, my estate in the county of King William and State of Virginia, called Romancock, containing four thousand acres, more or less, to him and his heirs forever.

My estate of Smith’s Island, at the capes of Virginia, and in the county of Northampton, I leave to be sold to assist in paying my granddaughters’ legacies, to be sold in such manner as may be deemed by my executors most expedient.

Any and all lands that I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland, I leave to be sold to aid in paying my granddaughters’ legacies.

I give and bequeath my lot in square No. 21, Washington city, to my son-in-law, Lieut. Col. Robert E. Lee, to him and his heirs forever. My daughter, Mary A. R. Lee, has the privilege, by this will, of dividing my family plate among my grandchildren, but the Mt. Vernon altogether, and every article I possess relating to Washington and that came from Mt. Vernon is to remain with my daughter at Arlington House during said daughter’s life, and at her death to go to my eldest grandson, George Washington Custis Lee, and to descend from him entire and unchanged to my latest posterity.

My estates of the White House, in the county of New Kent, and Romancock, in the county of King William, both being in the State of Virginia, together with Smith’s Island, and the lands I may possess in the counties of Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland counties are charged with the payment of the legacies of my granddaughters.

Smith’s Island and the aforesaid lands in Stafford, Richmond, and Westmoreland only are to be sold, the lands of the White House and Romancock to be worked to raise the aforesaid legacies to my four granddaughters.

And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies being clear of debt, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.

And I do constitute and appoint as my executors Lieut. Col. Robert Edward Lee, Robert Lee Randolph, of Eastern View, Rt. Rev. Bishop Meade, and George Washington Peter.

This will, written by my hand, is signed, sealed, and executed the twnty-sixth day of March, eighteen hundred and fifty-five.

George Washington Parke Custis.

26th March, 1855


Martha Custis Williams.

M. Eugene Webster.

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