The Whipping Post at Arlington
In her zeal to paint a picture of Lee the slave whipper, Mrs. Pryor invokes the image of the “whipping post” in her narrative. It is for you to judge her credibility as an historian in doing this, using objectivity as your guide. Here is her narrative text followed by her supporting footnotes.
Of course Norris’s story would ring true, if, in fact, Pryor had a foundation for it and if as it was written it did not contain two important lies: first, that, despite the Circuit Court order, Lee sent Norris to Alabama, and, second, that, despite holding Lee’s pass in his hand, Norris “escaped” from Richmond in the spring of 1863. But that issue has been dealt with in the main body of this piece and is not the issue scrutinized here.
Nor is the business about the washing of the backs with brine being “corroborated by another eyewitness.” That witness Pryor identifies as:
Pryor assumes a fact not in evidence, that, indeed, the “narrative she relies on for her statement that the “washing of the backs with brine” is “corroborated by another eyewitness” is “from Cincinnati Commercial, recounted in Preston, West Point and Lexington, pp 76-77.
Pryor, as is her habit, plays fast and loose with the reality of the matter: the narrative of her “eyewitness” to the whipping of Mary Norris─for certainly Pryor wishes her readers to believe she is talking about the washing of Mary’s bloodied back that the “eyewitness” witnessed─was not, in fact, published in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper as the newspaper has been thoroughly searched for reference to the quoted text and it cannot be found. This is not surprising, because, contrary to Pryor’s representation, Preston is not referring to the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper as the source of his quoted text, but to an unidentified “correspondent” reporting in the antislavery rag─The Independant─what he claims an unidentified witness told him. How sad the profession of historians is, if this conduct of Pryor’s is the standard operating practice of their profession. An unidentified person tells us what he claims an unidentified person told him, and we, the general public, are supposed to believe the statement represents the objective truth of the matter? Just ridiculous.
But, our business here is to deal with Pryor’s vision of a whipping post at Arlington. At the end our her paragraph summarizing her case against Lee she inserts footnote 38 this way:
Even in the text of her footnotes, Pryor cannot resist misrepresenting reality. She writes “Witnesses” when she knows it’s “Witness.”
Cooling is Benjamin Franklin Cooling III, a gentleman who holds a Ph.D in History and is the author of several civil war books.
The text in Cooling’s book that Pryor is hanging her claim of “witnesses” upon is found at page 94, not 88, of the book.
Cooling’s text points to one “witness”─a person identified as “one son of the Granite State.” Cooling supports his text with footnote 22.
Of the three citations contained in Cooling’s footnote, only one of them relates to the one “witness” Pryor is invoking for proof of the existence of a “whipping post” at Arlington. This person is S. Millett Thompson, who appears to have published, in 1888, what he claims is his war time diary.
Is this rhetoric of a nostalgic soldier in his cups, or is it a statement of fact recorded by the soldier in a diary written at the time he observed Arlington? The first problem for the soldier, as a witness in the trial court, is his statement “mud-chinked, mud-floored, mud-and-sticks huts of the slaves belonging to the estate.”
First, the “slaves belonging to the estate” do not exist in October 1862, except for Selena Gray and her family; most, if not all the others, are gone to Washington and environs by that time. And Selena never lived in a “mud-and-sticks hut.” In fact, neither did any of the slaves that lived at Arlington.
The standard practice among large slave holders in the Virginia of 1860 was to build clap board cottages or cabins for their slave families. Indeed, this was the custom and practice among most, if not all, slave holders in the Carolinas as well. (Anyone who has visited Prospect Hill in Virginia, or the Carolina plantations would know this.)
Examples of Carolina Slave Quarters
What Thompson probably witnessed, if he did not know it, were the huts the Union soldiers had built during the winter of 1861, if not also, in the winter of 1862.
The 25th Maine Volunteers were part of hundreds of regiments that went into winter quarters around Arlington Heights. The above diagram demonstrates the ideal type of structures they lived in, as do the following images demonstrate the reality.
Not having any rational clue where Thompson was standing when he made his observation of “the mud-and-stick huts belonging to the slaves of the estate” it is impossible to leap to the conclusion that what he calls “the whipping post near by” was in fact near by the actual slave quarters at Arlington as they existed in 1860, much less that the “whipping post” was, in fact, a whipping post.
Cooling’s remaining two citations in his footnote contain nothing in them about slave quarters and whipping posts.
The “Dear Friend” letter highlights how tenuous the basis of historians’ civil war writing can be, even when they mean to be honest. The way Cooling phrases it, the letter can be found in an independent depository that has nothing to do with him. But the fact is the letter’s authenticity depends upon Cooling’s credibility as it was he who delivered it to the depository, and, as it is typed it could hardly have been created in 1862. Presumably, either he or some third person typed the document by reference to an original the location of which Cooling fails to inform us. Good luck to the serious student trusting these people to tell him the truth.