General Lee: Slave Whipper?
By: Joe Ryan
The internet is full of blogs and videos, many hosted by black political entities, which promote the claim that, in the summer of 1859, a slave woman named Mary Norris─who then was owned by the Estate of G.W.P. Custis─was whipped in the presence of R.E. Lee, who, they claim, ordered the whipping under his authority as Executor.
The primary basis these sites offer the viewer for their claim is a statement they say came “from the lips” of Wesley Norris, Mary’s brother. This article assesses their claim in the light of the judicial process, with the issue of what credibility to give it left to a super majority of viewers to decide. (For a trial court summation, see General Lee: Slave Whipper? )
“Statement of Wesley Norris”
First published March 26, 1866
By the New York Tribune
Here we will examine several alleged facts which, if true, can reasonably be used to corroborate (i.e., lend credibility to) the “Norris Statement,” thereby trumping the counterclaim I make on behalf of General Lee that the statement was manufactured out of whole cloth by the editors of the New York Tribune─the first newspaper to publish the statement on March 26, 1866.
The Credibility of Historians
In resolving the issue of what is, in fact, the objective truth of the history, the reader is admonished to avoid simply adopting the expression of opinion, or narrative, that the historians give, for the reason they are objectively not trustworthy.
A prime example of how misleading such opinions and narratives can be, is shown by the book, Reading the Man: A portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, written by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and published in 2007. Mrs. Pryor’s book is essentially comprised of a series of essays, arranged in chapter form, the theme of each based on a particular letter written either by Lee or his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Lee, or, in the case of Chapter Sixteen which is examined here, on the alleged statement of Wesley Norris.
In her book, Pryor, who died recently in an accident, not only demonstrates her feigned ignorance of the basic facts of the case but also exhibits her prejudice in opinion which justifies the reader being wary of adopting as his own her conclusion that Mary Norris was whipped.
Pryor begins Chapter Sixteen with the statement that, “Wesley Norris’s testament was given to an antislavery newspaper in 1866. . . .” She is referring to The National AntiSlavery Standard newspaper which did, indeed, publish the statement on April 16, 1866. What Pryor, and for that matter everyone previously writing on the subject either did not actually know or knew but failed to disclose, is that the Norris Statement was, in fact, first published by the New York Tribune on March 26, 1866.
Having started her narrative off with an important error, Pryor continues with: “The story[‘s] veracity has been questioned by generations of Lee aficionados (i.e, “devoted followers”), and we might be tempted to dismiss it as the exaggerated ranting of a bitter ex-slave. Except for one thing: all the facts are verifiable.” (emphasis added.) To “verify' means to prove a fact to be true, by demonstration, evidence, or testimony.” Here follows Pryor’s trial of truth.
First, Pryor states, correctly, Lee’s objective state of mind as Executor of his father-in-law’s, George Washington Parke Custis’s, estate:
“There is no evidence that Lee thought of slaves as property in the sense of a liquid asset, to be bred, bought and sold for profit. But he did see the system in terms the historians would later describe as that of a practical entrepreneur. To Lee the blacks remained bondsmen, a workforce to be used at the owner’s will. It was his [legal] right to employ them where and how he wanted, to increase the profits of the estate.”
But then she injects her attitude, through her conscious choice of words, toward slavery in general and toward Lee in particular, by continuing her narrative with─”`Dispose of them at the end of the year to the best advantage,’ Lee instructed one agent, who was to handle [six] slaves he had wrenched away from Arlington and lodged in a Richmond jail.”
The particular slaves Pryor is referring to here, as “wrenched away,” were Reuben and several others who refused to obey Lee’s instructions on the ground that, on his death bed, Custis had verbally manumitted them. In a letter Lee wrote his son, Rooney, in May 1858, he described the situation: “I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them.” Apparently these slaves remained in the Arlington County jail for six weeks and then were send to Richmond and hired out until they were manumitted by Lee in December 1862.
Second, Pryor spends several pages of her twelve page chapter informing the reader that some of the hired slaves were unhappy, because “the work was too hard,” and that some of Lee’s choices of work for the hired slaves “does appear as a kind of punishment” which to her mind apparently means, “calculated to give difficult workers the discipline of a seasoned overseer, or keep sullen blacks away from the Arlington workforce.”
What Pryor does not willingly recognize is the practical necessity, under the circumstances of the case, of Lee doing this not only for the benefit of the Custis Estate, which needed cash to pay its debts and legacies, but also for the benefit of the slave. According to the Custis will, all the Arlington slaves─some sixty-six or so─were to be manumitted by the Executor no later than five years after Custis’s death, which meant no later than October 27, 1862.
As a free person, each manumitted slave would have to shift for himself, or herself, in the world: which means, not only find a job but perform it to the satisfaction of the employer. The slave system, as Pryor is quick to emphasize, certainly did not train a slave to work without constant supervision for an eight hour stretch. Put another way, the nature of slavery did not provide the laborer with much incentive to perform work efficiently. Certainly those engaged in a craft, on average, probably took pride in the product of their labor, but it is reasonable to think this was the exception, not the rule. By putting the slaves to work in a real world setting─the setting the white immigrant Irish laborer toiled in─the slaves gained the opportunity to prepare themselves for the real world of free labor where competition for jobs is keen. Where the Capitalist, instead of the slave owner, wields the whip.
A Famous 1858 Senate Speech
Third, Pryor introduces into her case the fact that, on December 30, 1857, the letter of an anonymous person appeared in the New York Times, which Pryor tells us “had a disturbing element of truth to it.” This “truth” being, in Pryor’s mind, the idea that, “From the outset Lee had interpreted the Custis will to mean that all the bequests must be paid before manumission.”
Pryor’s view of things is not, in fact, the reality. Indeed, from the text she wrote, it is plain she intended to smear Lee’s name and character in the interest of prejudicing her readers against him. Here is Pryor’s story:
“As it happens, the hearsay (the anonymous letter writer’s) had a disturbing element of truth to it. From the outset Lee had interpreted the Custis will to mean that all bequests must be paid before manumission. The will itself, however, actually called for land to be sold to pay the debts and legacies, and never states that these obligations should take precedence over freeing the slaves. Soon after he arrived at Arlington, Lee petitioned the courts to give him a ruling on the competing demands of the Custis will. In it he not only asked that ‘the emancipation of the slaves should be postponed till the said legacies are raised and the debts of the estate are paid off,’ but hoped for a decision that would justify “removing the property of the testator, beyond the limits of the state. This petition was the servants’ worst fear, and may have been the origin of newspaper gossip about the slaves being sold south. This request. . . would have permitted Lee to send them out of Virginia, far from their families and the benevolent oversight they had traditionally enjoyed at Arlington. When the court denied Lee’s petition, he applied to the Supreme Court of Appeals to have it overturned.” (Emphasis added. See, Reading the Man at page 265.)
Pryor certainly knew she was being intentionally dishonest in the picture she painted of the situation. This is easy to see when the actual facts are presented, actual facts Pryor obviously was aware of, but intentionally ignored since she inserts into her narrative words and phrases taken out of context from the actual “Bill in Chancery” that Lee’s attorney filed in the Alexandria County Court.
Lee appears on the Bill as the nominal plaintiff, standing in for the Custis Estate, the real party in interest, and his wife, sons and daughters appear by order of the court as compulsory defendants. The slaves, whose interests are equally involved, are not compulsory defendants under Virginia law, as the Court, itself, is responsible for them.
As Executor of the Custis Estate, Lee’s problem of interpreting the will arose because of conflict in priority among the will’s beneficiaries. Custis gave his grandsons real estate and his granddaughters, cash. If his bequests to his granddaughters were not paid within five years of the testator’s death, the unpaid portions became liens on the real estate, not the slaves. This was one issue─whether the land bequeathed to Lee’s sons, Rooney and R.E. Lee Jr., must be sold to the extent necessary to cover the unpaid portion of the bequests to Lee’s four daughters─that was the subject of the suit brought in the chancery courts under the title─Custis EXE v. Mary Anna Randolph Lee (the Testator’s daughter and Lee’s wife.). But there were other issues, too.
“To the Honorable John W. Tyler, Judge of the Circuit Court for the County of Alexandria, and State of Virginia.
Humbly complaining herewith unto Your Honor, your Orator, Robert E. Lee, acting Executor of the last will and testament of George W.P. Custis, decedent, states and charges as follows: Your testator left a large number of slaves on the said estates as will be seen by reference to the inventory of the slaves left on the Arlington estate at the testator’s death. . .
Your orator further states that many of said slaves, on account of their advanced and tender years, are incapable of labor, and are a charge on the testator’s estate, and some of them will so continue to be until their emancipation.
Your orator further shows that he has experienced great difficulty in the control and management of the slaves at Arlington. That evil-disposed persons, whose names are unknown to your orator, for unlawful and mischievous purposes, and imposing on 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 Estate’s will. That thus impressed, a general spirit of dissatisfaction and insubordination has grown up amongst said slaves. Some of them in the presence of your orator have boldly announced that they were free and refused any longer to labor, and by their violent and dangerous acts have constrained your orator to have them taken into legal custody and imprisoned. That three of these slaves, thus opposing the authority of your orator, are in confinement.
Your orator further shows that he finds himself embarrassed in the discharge of his duties as Executor in regard to said slaves, and other matters connected with said estate . . . and desiring faithfully to administer said estate and to carry into effect the intention of the testator, according to law, and for his proper guidance and direction in the premises he has been advised to file this bill of complaint and to obtain from this court a construction of the will on the following points:
1. Do the words “my Arlington estate” in the first clause of the will embrace the slaves on said estate at the time of the testator’s death, and do they operate] with the other personal property on the Arlington estate, for the use of Mrs. Mary A. Randolph Lee, until their emancipation? If not, what distribution is to be made of the hires and profits of said slaves, until said [point of emancipation]?
2. If the proceeds of the sales of the lands directed by the will to be sold, and the profits arising from the White House and Romancoke estates, should fall short of raising, within five years, a fund sufficient to pay the several legacies given to each of the testator’s granddaughters, how are said legacies to be raised, and for what period will the charge for that purpose continue on the lands and negroes of the White House and Romancoke estates?
3. When will the slaves belonging to said testator’s estate be entitled to their freedom, and in what manner are they to be manumitted by your orator?
4. What are the powers and duties of your orator over said slaves, in view of making their services available in aid of raising the legacies for the testator’s granddaughters, and for what period can your orator dispose of their services, and can he hire them beyond the limits of the State of Virginia?
5. When the proceeds of the real estate devised to be sold, shall be applied to the raising of the legacy fund, can the relative proportion of the charge on the slaves, and on the White House and Romancoke estates, be ascertained by reference to a master commissioner of this court, so as to ascertain how much should be raised for such purpose form the hire of the slaves, and how much from each of said estates respectively?
6. From what sources are the debts of the testator to be paid, and what dispositions, present and future, is to be made, after personal estate (exclusive of the slaves) on the White House and Romancoke Estates?
Your Orator further prays that Your Honor will construe the said last will and testament of the said George Custis, upon the several points above submitted, and direct your Orator as to his duty in the premises.” (Original document in the possession of the Virginia State Library.)
Searching the four corners of the five page Bill in Chancery there cannot be found in it Pryor’s narrative in which, presumably quoting directly from the Bill, she wrote that, “In it [Lee] not only asked that ‘the emancipation of the slaves should be postponed till the said legacies are raised and the debts of the estate are paid off,’ but hoped for a decision that would justify removing the property of the testator, beyond the limits of the state.” Clearly, Pryor is an untrustworthy narrator who sought to plant in the reader’s mind the idea that Lee’s intent in bringing the Bill in Chancery was dishonest.
On May 25, 1859─a date that may be relevant to the departure of Mary Norris from Arlington─the Circuit Court ruled on the several questions Lee’s Bill in Chancery raised.
“This cause came on to be heard this 25th day of May 1859 and the court does decree that according to the construction of the last will and testament of George W.P. Custis,
First, that devise to his daughter (Mary Lee) of the `Arlington House estate’ does not embrace the slaves, or any personal property, except the personal property enumerated in that clause of the will.
Second, that it is the duty of the Executor to pay the debts of the estate and that the personal property─the slaves─is the fund to be appropriate in discharge of the debts.
Third, If any surplus of the personal estate remain after the payment of the debts the residue is to be applied to payment of the legacies, and the lands directed to be sold, be sold and applied in the same way, and the hires of slaves, and the rents and profits of the White House and Romancoke estates, are also to be applied without distinction. . .
Fourth, the slaves are entitled to their freedom at the expiration of five years from the death of the testator, or sooner if the legacies are paid off. The Executor to give deeds of manumission.
Fifth, If the legacies are not paid off, by the personal property, hires of slaves, rents and sales of the real estate charged with the payment at the end of five years, the portion unpaid remains a charge on the White House and Romancoke estates until paid. The [heirs] take the estates [subject to the charge].
Sixth, The powers and duties of the Executor are limited to the State of Virginia. He should not place the assets of the estate beyond its jurisdiction.
Seventh, it is the duty of the Executor to work the estates (i.e., with the slaves) but if he can satisfy a writ of equity that the interests of the parties would be promoted by hiring out the slaves, the court would order him to do it.”
Finally, Pryor makes reference to a “Note of Argument of Appellant” which implies the Court’s decree was appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal of Virginia. How Pryor thought she could justify the line she wrote─”When the court denied [Lee’s] petition, he applied to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia to have it overturned.”─defies comprehension entirely, as the petition was not “denied.” It was answered by the court in every part. An appeal was, in fact, taken, to "overturn" rulings of law on issues of law, the central issue being whether the court’s fifth answer was correct; that being the issue of a charge being imposed on the White House and Romancoke estates in the event the debts and legacies of the Custis Estate were not entirely paid at the point in time the Court decreed the slaves shall be manumitted─an issue that had nothing whatsoever to do with the separate issue of the date of manumission. (See, Appendix II.)
Pryor next launches into the story of three slaves─Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and their cousin, George Parke─running away from Arlington in the spring of 1859 and going into Maryland, where they were caught at Westminster in late May or early June, jailed for a time, and then brought back to Arlington and allegedly whipped in the presence of Lee. (The Court’s ruling of May 25, 1859 and Mary Norris’s departure may be connected.)
The Norris Story
In bolstering the Norris story, Pryor relies upon unidentified persons, ignores the reality of the status of Wesley and Mary Norris among the Arlington slaves, ignores the nature of the relationship between their sister, Selina Norris Gray, and Arlington’s mistress, Mary Lee, and ignores the social state of slavery in Maryland.
According to the National Park Service which manages Arlington today, supported by the archivists at the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Mary Norris was a house maid which means she probably wore the kind of clothes worn by her sister, Selina Norris Gray, who appears in the photograph displayed below with one of her daughters.
Selina Gray with daughter
In 1859, Selina Gray acted in the capacity of Mary Lee’s housekeeper and was personally connected socially with Mary Lee in several ways. At Mary’s behest, the marriage ceremony between Selina and Thornton Gray was performed in the same room of the Arlington house in which Mary Lee married R.E. Lee. And, in 1861, when the Union military occupied Arlington House and Mary left it, Selina Gray remained in the house as its keeper until Irwin McDowell made it his headquarters, in 1862; at which point she gave him the keys to the place which Mary had given her. The idea that, in these circumstances, Mary Lee would tolerate her husband whipping Selina’s sister, Mary, or that Selina would remain a warm companion of Mary Lee afterward, is objectively ridiculous.
The disruption of the master/slave relationship between Mary Norris and R.E. Lee arose after Custis’s death over the issue of her unwillingness to work where she was assigned. As Pryor would have it, Mary was “wrenched away” from Arlington and her probable place of work inside the mansion where she might go about her day in the company of her sister, Selina, working at a certain pace. Put in a new place, having to deal with strangers, and no doubt feeling pressured under closer supervision than she was used to, expected to perform at an unaccustomed level of intensity, she, in company with her brother and cousin, decided to go off on their own. In the context of the real world situation of slavery in the Virginia of 1859, Lee’s solution, as Executor, to the problem of her rebellion was reasonable and plain. Like Washington did when he was confronted with the same problem, Lee sent someone to search for Mary and bring her back to Arlington. Once she was returned, Lee sent her to Richmond to work, which she did, until she was manumitted by Lee in December 1862.
As for the nature of slavery in Maryland at the time, the evidence shows it was hardly severe; indeed it hardly seems to have been functioning as slavery at all. One can clearly see the atmosphere of slavery in the newspapers of the times. In 1859, the Swan decision came down from the Ohio Supreme Court which upheld the conviction of persons who had interfered with the rendition of runaway slaves to their owners. At the same time, at Baltimore, a ship departed America carrying several hundred freed slaves from various states to Liberia; the Kansas statehood bill was being debated in Congress; and the Maryland press was writing about the fact that there was an increasing number of freed slaves residing in the state, who were living side-by-side with still bound slaves and no way for the latter to enter Pennsylvania due to the resistance of its citizens.
The Swan Case
Virginia Gov. Wise on the Kansas Bill
A Baltimore newspaper article in 1859
The Baltimore Daily Exchange newspaper
Abraham Lincoln’s Speech in the Douglas Debates of 1858
The New York Times
What these clips from the newspapers of the times ought to convey to most reasonable persons reading them today, is that the problem in the American community of 1859-61 was not slaves but freed slaves. The problem was not slavery, in other words; it was white racism. Something neither the white historians nor the black politicians of today have the moral courage to face. The white people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line plainly did not want to live with Africans whether they were free or not. They were afraid, as Lincoln expresses it, of amalgamation. And Maryland was in the middle of it
Maryland had almost one hundred thousand freed slaves, almost as many as the number of its bound slaves, and a large number of the former lived and worked in the vicinity of the latter at Westminster, just about three miles from the Pennsylvania border─a border the white people of Pennsylvania did not want them to cross. The fact that these freed Africans were there, and not in the Cumberland Valley, means they weren’t interested in running away through the Underground Railroad to cold upper New York State or Canada. They were happy just being where they were; and to be happy where they were, they needed to work, just like the immigrant Irish and Germans flooding the country since the 1840s needed to work, work the majority of them could find only in mines, in factories, or on canals and railroads.
So, in this boiling social atmosphere, Mary Norris decided to cross the Potomac with her brother and take up residence at Westminster, no doubt intending to melt into the free African population and find a job.
How she expected to find a job, though, is not easy to grasp, since she certainly would need “papers” which identified her to an employer as manumitted. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there were farmers in the countryside, or shopkeepers and craftsmen in the town, who would give her a job without papers. But, if this were so, one might wonder how the real freed Africans, already competing with the whites for jobs, would take this. After all, why should a runaway slave, who has a home to go back to, take the bread out of the mouth of a real freed African? Did this reality result in an African ratting on Mary, telling the man where she could be found? And did this anger the real slaves, which explains why, near the time of Mary’s arrest, the two sides got into a rumble in the streets of Westminster. Who knows, if the origin of the New York tribune’s whipping story came from this.
The Baltimore Press, June 30, 1859
Pryor ignores all this, telling us instead what is not in dispute; that Wesley and Mary Norris “ran away in the late spring of 1859,” Then, in the next breath, Pryor turns to the New York Tribune’s publication of the “Norris Statement,” and tells us that “Wesley Norris’s more sober account rings true.”
Here we see an historian’s narrative running amok. Pryor flies by the threshold question of foundation without so much as a backward glance. Norris is not offering you his statement, Elizabeth. The editorial staff of the New York Tribune is offering you what they say is a statement “from the lips” of Norris─a newspaper that fits your definition of “the abolitionist press, geared as it was to passion and propaganda.” And, therefore, a newspaper as capable as Pryor is, of recklessly smearing the reputation of a Confederate hero just for the pleasure of it.
That this is an accurate statement of the reality of the matter, one need only read the autobiography of John Russell Young, Horace Greeley’s managing agent at the time the Tribune published the statement “from the lips” of Wesley Norris.
Pryor proceeds next to recite the details contained in the Tribune’s statement from Norris’s lips that are easily verifiable, such as the fact the Arlington overseer at the time was named McQuinn, and the fact that the Estate records show a constable named Williams was paid money for his services in dealing with the return of the runaways, as proof the statement must have come from Norris’s lips. (See, Appendix III [Fugitive Slave Clause)
And then she destroys her case in a line, by writing: “Moreover every detail of [the statement] can be verified, from the time [Norris] ran away. . . to their employment after the war.” Yet, as Pryor must have known, every detail contained in the statement the Tribune attributed to the mouth of Norris is not true. The statement in pertinent part reads:
The Tribune says it’s “from the lips of Norris”
In her footnote supporting her contention, Pryor, the clever historian she was, writes this:
The note is the dagger in the heart of her credibility as a trustworthy narrator, because she must have known her phrasing was obscuring the truth of history. For, if, in fact, the statement had come “from the lips of Norris,” it would not say that he “escaped” from Richmond into the Union lines; it would say Norris, having been freed by Lee’s deed of manumission filed in the Henrico County Courthouse on January 2, 1863, had worked as a free man on the York River Railroad until September 1863, when General Lee’s son, Custis, gave him a pass which allowed him to ride the Virginia Central Railroad to Charlottesville, transfer to the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to Gordonsville, and then walk into the Union lines at Culpeper. We know this, because Major-General George Meade, the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, says so.
Pryor misrepresented the objective truth, by knowingly hiding from open view Meade’s message to Halleck, (leaving the reader to ferret out the text). Therefore, if she were before the bar in a courtroom, the judge would instruct the jury that her claims of fact, with regard to alleged corroborating narratives, must be viewed with distrust. For example, she tries to bolster her case by seizing upon what another writer claims was said by a Union soldier supposedly saw at Arlington at some unclear date after the war: “We know a whipping post stood at Arlington” she writes, attaching a footnote.
But “we” know nothing of the sort─at least not from reading page 88 of Coolings’ book as the reference does not appear there. (See, Cooling, Symbol, Sword and Shield Archon Books, 1975). But at page 94 Cooling, citing what an unnamed New Hampshire volunteer soldier said, gives his readers this:
“A visit to Arlington House, very fine, and the mud-chinked, mud floored, mud and sticks huts of the slaves belonging to the estate, reveals at a glance both sides of the picture of slavery’s curse, while the whipping post nearby adds a bold stroke of color to the dark side.” (Apparently Cooling gets his quotation from “Peckham-`Dear Friend’ 10 Oct. 61. Defenses of Washington Collection, Fort Ward.)
Note: If a post did stand somewhere at Arlington for some purpose its presence had nothing to do with the whipping of Mary Norris, as the Tribune’s statement from the lips tells us that Lee “ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. McGwin.”
Pryor’s fantasy story of whipping is also displayed when she writes: “Even the constable’s name is right─Dick Williams. Lee’s account book for June 1859 carries this item: `to Richard Williams, arrest and care of fugitive slaves─$321.14.’ The sum, which did not include the transport of the slaves to Hanover County. . . is exceptionally large.”
Pryor is leaping to a conclusion the objective evidence does not support. She has no objective basis for her conclusion that the $321.14 paid to Williams for his services in connection with the search, arrest and care of three slaves is, in fact, “exceptionally large.” The inference to be drawn, she is insinuating, is that it must be payment for the service of whipping. But “We” don’t, in fact, know exactly when Wesley and Mary Norris, and their cousin, were arrested in Westminster, nor how long Williams or his agents searched, nor how long the slaves remained in jails.
Given the newspaper account of the arrest, on June 2, 1859, it reasonably appears the arrest occurred in late May or, perhaps, early June, not “late June” as Pryor claims. The arrestees were held in a jail, or more than one jail, for a period of time and then returned by some means to Arlington. Under Virginia law as it existed at the time, statutory fees for services rendered─finding the slaves to arrest, arresting them, feeding them, transporting them etc─might easily in the aggregate reach the amount paid. The payment is about $107.00 per slave.
Virginia Code 1860
Pryor carries her speculation further by writing,
“The previous year Lee’s accounts show that he paid Williams only $52.25 to arrest and detain three other fugitives (she’s referring to Reuben and friends who were not, in fact, “fugitives.”), and another $37.12 to transport them to Richmond. The cost for the earlier capture had also been inflated by the need to keep them in jail for two months. The services rendered by Williams in relation to the Norris party must have been extraordinary to command a fee nearly six times as high as those paid the year before.”
But Pryor does not tell us anything about the circumstances of the search, arrest, and care of the slaves she is referring to as runaways the year before. In fact, the evidence shows that “Ruben” and several other slaves had refused to work as hires. There is no evidence Lee had to track them down; on the contrary, the evidence is that, when they became violent, he had them arrested and confined to jail at Alexandria. (Pryor glides casually by the obvious point of contrast here─If Reuben didn’t get whipped, and Pryor does not claim any evidence exists that he did, why would Mary Norris get whipped?) Thus, unlike with Norris, Williams did not have to hunt Ruben down in Maryland, a significant fact that Pryor ignores.
Finally, Pryor reaches the end of her narrative by writing this:
“Any trial lawyer will tell you that the witness who gives testimony that can be verified on every detail is likely to be considered believable on the whole. Although Norris’s statement. . . was not recounted immediately and was almost certainly filtered through a white journalist, it was unquestionably predicated on facts. Wesley Norris gave his interview after he was freed¸ when he had nothing to hide, gain, or fear. . . There seems to be no obvious reason that Norris’s description of his treatment, corroborated by five different witnesses, and substantiated by Lee’s own records, should be discounted.”
This is Pryor’s silliest statement. First, Pryor admits that the New York Tribune did not present the statement to the public truthfully. The statement plainly did not come “from the lips” of Norris, but from the pen of a white journalist who collected objective facts which could be collected without speaking to Norris directly.
Second, assuming, for the sake of argument, that Norris did speak directly to the Tribune journalist, he did not give “testimony” as Webster’s Dictionary defines the word. “Testimony” means “a statement made under oath by a witness in court.” All that Pryor can honestly tell us about the foundation for the Tribune’s publication of the story “from the lips” of Norris, is that one of its editors wrote it.
Third, as shown by the objective evidence Pryor intentionally ignored, the statement is not accurate in the case of the one detail the white Tribune journalist could not have gotten from any source other than Norris, if it were true─the fact that Norris escaped from Lee’s clutches in Richmond. And he got it wrong.
Meade’s message to Halleck contains Wesley Norris's admission that he did not escape from Richmond, he rode away on the Virginia Central with Lee’s pass in his hand. The Tribune editor, of course, had no way of knowing he would get caught putting words in Wesley’s mouth as the Official Records of the Rebellion were not available to him in 1866, and he would have no way of knowing Meade’s message to Halleck existed. In sum, what Pryor has done is to conjure a foundation for the statement out of nothing; a foundation which the trial lawyer must possess, if he expects to get the statement into evidence in the trial court.
Fourth, Pryor gets caught between the Tribune’s insertion in the Norris story of the fact that Norris is supposed to have said that, once at Richmond in 1859, he was sent out of the state to work and the Circuit Court’s decree that, because Lee’s authority as executor does not extend beyond the borders of Virginia, he could not send Norris to Alabama as Norris is supposed to have claimed.
Then, having failed to concoct a foundation by reference to the “Norris Statement” directly, she shifts to conjuring the illusion of foundation indirectly. Pryor claims that the statement is “corroborated by five witnesses” and is “substantiated by Lee’s own records.”
This is plain nonsense. Nowhere in her book does Pryor tell us exactly who the “five witnesses” are. According to a fellow named Burris who tells the Norris story on the webpage titled Crossroads of War (http://www.crossroadsofwar.org/discover-the-story/the-coming-storm/civil-war-stories/), Pryor’s “five witnesses” are “five extant descriptions of the episode.” Burris defines two of these “descriptions” as the letters of the two anonymous letter-writers the New York Tribune published in June 1859; and that’s it.
A third “extant description” is referred to by Pryor in a footnote as “one of the slave accounts, from the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper, which substantially agrees with Norris’s story.” Pryor is referring, here, to a statement of an unidentified person (call her “Aunty”) which the newspaper prints as: “[Lee] was the worst person I ever see,” said the old woman. “He used to have po’ souls cut most to pieces by the constable out there.” (See, Postscript below.)
A fourth “extant description” must be the account of the arrest published in the Carroll County Democrat newspaper on June 2, 1859, long before the supposed whipping of Norris occurred. Perhaps the fifth “extant description” is found in another of Pryor’s footnotes, this one referring to someone named “Betram Wyatt-Brown” who she tells us “gives a factually incorrect account of the Norris incident.” But this is pure guesswork as Pryor does not say.
In expressing her belief that “five witnesses” corroborated the Norris statement, Pryor invoked the discipline of trial lawyers. So, it is not unreasonable to hold her to the standard the judicial process requires in the trial court. In the real world of the trial court the statements of anonymous letter-writers do not find their way into the evidence. Nor do statements of unidentified witnesses printed in newspapers, or statements "from the lips" of identified witnesses which plainly are not.
The law requiring corroboration of a witness’s statement that a particular person committed a particular act is well established. The burden of proof is on the proponent of the charge of wrongdoing to produce independent evidence which, without the aid or assistance of the witness statement in dispute, tends to connect Robert E. Lee with the act charged. Corroborating evidence is sufficient if it substantiates enough of the witness’s statement to establish the witness’s credibility. In the trial court, then, corroboration of the truth of the Norris statement means that other evidence must exist which confirms, authenticates and verifies that, as a matter of plain historical fact, Mary Norris was whipped at Robert E. Lee’s behest.
What Pryor must produce, therefore, are witnesses who can testify to the act, or business records of the Custis Estate which contain facts from which the act can reasonably be inferred. Since none of the “extant descriptions” of the act are admissible in evidence and none of the Estate records support the existence of a reasonable inference the act occurred, Pryor’s case for smearing Lee’s name and character would be summarily dismissed in the trial court; and she would be exposed to an award of damages to Lee for her libel.
Mrs. Pryor was killed in April 2015, in an automobile accident in Richmond. She was 65. Apparently she ingratiated herself with the Lee descendants, who provided her with access to the correspondence she used as the basis of her book. Though she is dead, her book not only lives on, but it is constantly quoted by those who wish students of American History to be taught to think of Lee as a person not worthy of respect, and the character of the man as not worthy of admiration
One example of this comes from an email recently received from a novelist, Dorothy Love, who writes, “The most balanced treatment of the ‘slave whipping’ episode is found in Elizabeth Brown Pryor's biography Reading the Man A Biography of Robert E Lee Through His Private Letters. She points out that Wesley Norris ---who was Selina Gray's brother -- gave an account of the event to an antislavery newspaper several years after it happened and may have been embellished though his basic facts are correct.” In a follow up, Love bolstered her endorsement of Pryor’s fiction with this: “Having read close to twenty biographies of REL in the past year as well as dozens of articles, I must disagree with you regarding the Pryor biography.” The problem for the historians in their fiction writing, is that when they invoke the discipline of the judicial process, as Pryor does, here, reliance on “biographies” and “newspaper accounts” gets them nowhere in the trial court─the one forum where the objective truth of history is found by ordinary reasonable people every day.
The Reverend Robert Vaughn’s Story
Incredibly, the one “extant description” of the alleged whipping of Mary Norris, Pryor nowhere quotes in her four hundred and seventy-six page book smearing Lee’s character and his name. No reference to it can be found in the text of the book, in footnotes, in the index, or the bibliography. In fact, none of the Lee haters quote it anywhere, and that’s probably because, as novelist Love’s email shows, they only quote each other and certainly do not prepare their case as lawyers must do for trial.
In 1834 the Reverend Robert Vaughn, a Congregationalist minister, was appointed to the chair of history at London University. His connection with the London University brought him into relations with the Whig political leaders, and increased his influence which led to a secession of pulpits where he preached in a declamatory style. In 1836 he received the diploma of D.D. from Glasgow University. In 1843 he became president and professor of theology at Lancashire Independent College. In the summer of 1865, Vaughn came to America, as a member of a delegation, to attend a Council of Pastors of the Congregational Church being held at the Old North Church in Boston. The council was chaired by Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. In 1863, President Lincoln sent Beecher on a speaking tour of England to build support for the Union cause, and there he may have met Vaughn, though Vaughn denies it.
When Vaughn returned to Britain, in the fall of 1865, he wrote a long piece which he published in the British Quarterly Review in October. Vaughn was the originator and editor of the Review. In his piece, titled Notes on the United States Since The War, Vaughn related the events that occurred during the council meeting, his meeting with Beecher, the speeches he and Beecher gave to the several thousand pastors assembled, and his subsequent travels from Boston to New York, to Washington and, finally, to Wheeling, WV and his return. In the course of a long-winded exposition of these events, he inserts the story of the whipping of a Custis slave which he connects to R.E. Lee.
What Vaughn Says He Was Told
A week after Vaughn’s Review hit the street, his flogging story was repeated in the press.
Waiving the fact that Vaughn’s recitation of what he claims he heard “Mrs. Grey” say, is hearsay and inadmissible in the trial court, a trial lawyer necessarily would approach Vaughn’s statement very carefully─for its credibility is wrapped in holy cloth. Would Pastor Vaughn lie? The reader asks herself. What motive would the Pastor have to lie, especially since he is merely a traveler passing by? He is merely a foreigner with no axe to grind in America. In such circumstance, facing the Reverend Vaughn in the witness chair, the trial lawyer will focus the attention of the people in the jury box on Vaughn’s connection to Ward Beecher, a notorious and fiery abolitionist preacher, and more particularly on the discrepancies that plainly exist between the actual undisputed facts and those Vaughn recites in his piece.
Vaughn’s statement that “Washington chanced to halt for the night at [Arlington House] then occupied by a Mrs. Curtis, a widow, and two boys, her two sons” is not correct in three respects. First, Washington did not meet Mrs. Curtis at Arlington. He met her at the White House Plantation on the Pamunkey River, in New Kent County, where she lived. Second, Martha’s name was never “Mrs. Curtis.” It was “Mrs. Custis.” And, third, Arlington House did not exist in Washington’s lifetime. Its construction began shortly after Martha’s death, in 1802. Where the Reverend Vaughn got his “facts” no one can say, which means that, probably, he simply made them up. And, having made up the facts in one paragraph how are we to know he didn’t make up the facts in the next paragraph?
Vaughn’s version of the whipping story has only one character in it being whipped─a woman; and the “facts” he recites, he could have read in a newspaper clipping someone showed him.
“The fugitive was apprehended, brought back, and, by order of the general, taken into a building. . . to be flogged as a warning to the disaffected. The young woman was required to strip herself. She refused to do so. Lee insisted on the removal of her clothes. She was tied to a post, and the owner looked on while she received, some say, nearly two hundred lashes.”
Vaughn gets the most stinging detail─the number of stripes─plainly wrong. In the first hearsay version of this tale, coming from the pen of “A Citizen,” the story is that Lee himself wielded the whip over the bare back of the woman, but the number of stripes Lee gives her went unrecorded.
New York Tribune June 24, 1859
The second version, published by the Tribune the same day, adds the detail of the number of stripes.
New York Tribune, June 24, 1859
“A”s letter repeats the detail in “A Citizen’s” letter that it was Lee himself who whipped the woman and adds the detail that he gave her back thirty-nine stripes.
The Tribune’s “Norris Statement” changes both these details; it has Constable Williams whipping the woman and the stripes given are twenty, not thirty-nine, and not “nearly two hundred.” No statement exists in the record that corroborates the Reverend Vaughn’s claim that, “some say nearly two hundred lashes were given” by someone who whipped the woman. So where, or from whom, did he get this? An explanation for Vaughn’s exaggerating the number of stripes given, is that the flogging of women by Englishmen, in Vaughn’s awareness, was common in the British courts, the poorhouses, and, at the time he was writing his piece, in Jamaica where an uprising of freed, but still oppressed, Africans was in progress.
Slavery ended in Jamaica in 1834 with the passage of the Emancipation Act which gave freedom to the slaves after four years of apprenticeship. By 1864, the freed blacks were desperately poor, and out of over 400,000 only about 2,000 were eligible to vote. In early 1865, a group of them sent a petition to Queen Victoria, asking that she give them crown lands which they could use to cultivate crops. She replied by telling them to work harder. On October 11, 1865, a large number of the blacks rebelled against the rule of the whites and the usual result occurred, in the course of which the flogging of women occurred.
The London Times, January 1866
Whether the events in Jamaica stimulated the Reverend Vaughn’s imagination, it is impossible to say, as his piece in the British Quarterly Review appears to have been written before October 11.
That the flogging of women in British society was not an unusual event is evidenced by numerous articles in the British press of the times.
Reynolds Newspaper, London, December 1858
What sets Vaughn’s story apart from the others, however, is the fact that he represents to his readership that he took the story from the lips of a person he names as “Mrs. Grey” and who he identifies as the “injured woman’s sister.”
“All this I learned from [the injured woman’s] sister, a Mrs. Grey, who, as a slave also, had been housekeeper to the family, and still resides in a cottage near the mansion. Mrs. Grey is a well-spoken mulatto woman, with a husband and a family, and a person who manifestly felt no pleasure in giving this information. It came bit by bit, in answer to questions. . . and I have no doubt as to its truth.”
A lawyer facing the Reverend Vaughn in the trial court, with this statement in his hand, cannot but recognize the challenge to his case the witness presents. Vaughn is saying to the people in the jury box─”Trust me, I was there. I had to drag the facts out from Mrs. Grey and I believe her!” So, then, the issue of whether Mary Norris was, in fact, whipped at the behest of General Lee comes down to whether Vaughn is telling the truth.
Note: John Eaton wrote his memoirs which was published in book form, in 1907, a year after his death, titled "Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen." (reprint Negro Universities Press, 1969) In the book can be found this:
"Two English Congregational ministers, the Rev. Dr. Vaughn, editor of the British Quarterly Review, and the Rev. Dr. Raleigh, pastor of a prominent Congregational church in England had come to America as representatives from Great Britain to the Congregational Convention held in Boston in the summer of 1865. Before leaving this country, these gentlemen came to Washington. They called upon me with a letter of introduction, and were very anxious to see something of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau. . . . I took a carriage and devoted the better part of a day to showing them about, and late in the afternoon I brought them to General Grant's headquarters. [After the meeting] we returned to the carriage. Dr. Vaughn afterward wrote a very entertaining description of his American tour. He recounts the interview with Grant, but strangely enough depicts the General as something of a braggart—an odd misrepresentation. The article, even at this day, is well worth reading."
Eaton's text does include a reference to General Lee, but not in connection with Vaughn's story. Eaton wrote, "It was one of the finest of General Lee's many fine qualities that he should have it in him to turn aside all inducements for gaining wealth (which Grant did not) and devote himself so earnestly to the eductation of the South. In addition to his own labors as President of Washington College, he [supported] W.H. Ruffner, State Superintendent of Schools in Virginia. General Lee beleived that all classes should be given the privilege of education and he exerted himself bravely to that end."
The fact that Eaton does not include the scene Vaughn created of his meeting Mrs. Gray, but does include reference to General Lee's character deminishes what credibility a fact-finder might wish to attribute to Vaughn's reputation for veracity.
In assessing the credibility of Vaughn’s story, a reasonable person must wonder how it could be that the white historians and black politicians have ignored this devastating evidentiary weapon in the form of a minister of the Lord telling the “General Lee whipped me” story. It is, of course, true that the first and second generations of historians, in combing the available record as they did─witness their finding the “Aunty” story in the press─might be excused in their failure to uncover Vaughn’s story placed as it was in a British publication, reprinted once in a British newspaper of 1865. But, how can we reasonably assume, in this age of the world wide web, that the older generation of today─the one writing the books and articles and blogs for the last twenty years─did not know of Vaughn’s existence? They can find the snippet in Coolings’s 1975 book, but not Vaughn’s piece?
A trial lawyer, taking up the issue of General Lee being a slave whipper, can find the piece with the tap of a few key strokes, but the white historians and black politicians with red faces and blood in their eyes, didn’t do the same? In over one hundred and fifty years, no one but a single lawyer discovered Vaughn’s story. Who can seriously believe this? So what is wrong with Vaughn’s story? What about it do they know makes it false, unsafe to use in pillorying Lee? Because they knew, Pryor included, that they would have to explain how it is that Eaton, the one witness who should know, did not corroborate Vaughn's story in his memoirs but, in fact, undermines it by his endorsement of General Lee's character.
In addition to getting the facts wrong about how and where Martha Custis and George Washington met and married, and the getting Martha’s name wrong and causing a nonexistent building to materialize, Vaughn gets Mary Norris’s sister’s name wrong, too. It is not “Grey,” it is “Gray.” One mistake in spelling can be excused as simple oversight or carelessness, but getting the spelling of two names in the same paragraph wrong; isn’t this extraordinary?
In his piece Vaughn tells us he “became
acquainted with “Col. Eaton in Washington,” which gives rise to the inference
that Eaton probably shared time with Vaughn during the time he claims he
visited Arlington and spoke with “Mrs. Grey.”
Given the peculiar double misspelling of names─Curtis for Custis and Grey for Gray─it is within the realm of reasonable inference that Vaughn’s mistakes were predicated on the matter in which he came to know the names; e.g., he misread them when reading the Custis Estate’s inventory list given him by Eaton.
Is it an “r” or is it an “s”?
Is it an “e” or is it an “a”?
We know as a matter of fact that on May 9, 1865, the New York Tribune published a piece that claimed “a committee of the War Department” had found slave whipping going on at Arlington on R.E. Lee’s watch.
We know that, if the Tribune’s report is true, the “testimony” taken by the “committee of the War Department” should exist in the National Archives of the United States, but no historian─and some have searched─has found it.
We know from the evidence that Col. John Eaton was stationed at the War Department, from April 1865 to December 1865 and that Eaton held a position within the Freedman’s Bureau established in May 1865 by Congressional act, and that a Freedman’s village had been established at that time at Arlington. We can reasonably assume, therefore, that it is not without probability that Eaton gave Vaughn a look at the Custis Estate inventory list which was then a public record. Vaughn, then, could easily have constructed his story from the Tribune newspaper articles, the story of Lee’s slave whipping circulating among the abolitionist pastors at the convention in Boston and among the military officers, like Eaton, involved with the Freedman’s village at Arlington.
At the bottom of things, then, the case against Lee comes done to whether it is reasonable to believe “Mrs. Grey” would have told a minister of the lord who asked, in 1865, that, yes indeed, her sister, Mary Norris, was whipped in 1859 at R.E. Lee’s behest. For the belief to work, we must first believe the true identity of “Mrs. Grey” is Selina Norris who married Thornton Gray.
Elizabeth Pryor, in her book Reading the Man, refers twice to Selina. She first refers to Mrs. Gray at page 129:
“In 1860 Robert Lee complained that after his clothes were packed by house servants, Selina and Marcelina, a shaving brush and `my pants, my new pants I cannot account for.’ Finally, he sputtered: `They are only one more item to the number that have disappeared. Perhaps taken off by spirits, I know not where.’’ (citing a letter Lee wrote his son in December 1860.)
Given the place in which this passage and quote is found in Pryor’s narrative, it is plain she wants the reader to think of sneaky, rebellious slaves stealing things from their master. Had this not been her agenda, she would have been honest with the reader about the actual text of Lee’s letter, a letter he wrote to his son from New Orleans after a three day trip by train.
“I reached here last evening, at 1:00 pm., thus making the trip in 3 & ½ days. . . . Imagine my horror this morning when I found I had left my shaving brush and pants behind. The first I constantly leave, but my pants, my new pants, I cannot account for. I suppose they got covered up by Selina and Mamlina, and the other workers, and their work, and in my various callings off in my packing, were overlooked.”
This blurring of truth is a typical mode of operation among historians pushing agendas. They cling to the myths their predecessors create, afraid to risk rebuke if they focus on facts instead.
Pryor’s second and last reference to Selina Gray is found at page 140, and sums up both Pryor’s prejudice toward the Lee family in general and to Lee in particular, by ridiculing the idea Selina and Lee’s wife, Mary, held warm bonds between them.
“When the Lees fled Arlington in 1861, it was to the black housekeeper [Selina Gray] that Mrs. Lee entrusted the keys, and this servant carried out the responsibility with loyalty and spirit, challenging Union generals to stop their troops from looting.
. . . [Emma Syphax, another slave] cherished the tradition [the memory?] that housekeeper Selina Gray had been married in the same room as Robert and Mary Lee, by the same Episcopal minister. In all three of these accounts truth melds into the wistful desire to believe in a harmonious connection between master and slave. They point to the fond fantasy [truth?] that this household, so interdependent economically, might constitute a true family circle, with shared traditions, genuine respect, and mutual support.”
This passage states the objective truth of history with regard to the Lee family’s relationship with the Custis slaves, but Pryor cannot let it stand, so, in the next passage which follows, she works hard to dispel it by invoking the standard prejudice against slavery we generally manifest today.
“The reality of course was far harsher, even at Arlington. That some of these ties existed is indisputable (thank you); that blood relations gave the experience a haunting intimacy is strongly implied (Selina and Thornton probably descended from Daniel Custis’s slaves and came to Arlington from his Estate.). Yet the slaves were denied any ability to determine their simplest actions or to define their lives and the fate of their children. Slave women came in for special abuse, but the whipping post in the Arlington slave quarter (a figment of Pryor’s imagination) was a silent testament to the ever present threat of humiliation for all black people.”
It is telling, here, that nowhere in her 473 page book does Pryor give the reader one quote from one letter, memorandum, diary, or memoir written by any member of the Lee family, whether immediate or remote, which is evidence that a slave woman was ever abused at Arlington. The best that she can do, in conjuring the image is to cite the reader to a book written in 1975 by a fellow named Benjamin Cooling who quotes a soldier’s statement after the war that he found a “whipping post” on the property (See, Appendix I ). In citing Cooling citing an obscure soldier’s statement, Pryor ignores the fact that the Norris Statement speaks about three slaves being taken inside a barn and tied to “posts.” Which is it? Three persons simultaneously tied side by side to “posts” in a barn, or three persons standing in line, each in turn being tied to a “post” in the slave quarters? A throwaway detail, I suppose.
Given the fact that Selina Gray was married to Thornton Gray in the same room in the Arlington mansion as was R.E. Lee and Mary Custis, that Mary taught her to read and write, that Mary gave her the responsibility to manage the household, and that, when leaving the place in May 1861, she gave Selina the keys to the mansion, it seems unreasonable to believe Mary would have allowed her husband to whip Selina’s sister. And, given the fact such an event would certainly be expected to strain Selina’s relationship with the Lees, it is equally unreasonable to think Selina would take the delegated responsibility of the keys seriously, as the evidence shows she did─ if R.E. Lee had had her sister stripped of her dress and whipped. The Reverend Vaughn’s narrative cannot be seriously believed as the truth of history.
Selina Gray’s Relationship with Lee’s Spouse
White historians and black politicians, too (like those shown in the several recent videos put up on this site’s YouTube channel─JoeRyanCivilWar), by their rants over Lee’s status in American History, demonstrate gross disrespect for the character and humanity of Africans held as slaves in antebellum Virginia. No better example of this can be seen than in Pryor’s dismissal of Selina Gray as a woman who “wear[s] the mask that grins and lies,” that she felt of herself as a “thing.” Not quite so.
Then we have the letter Selina Gray wrote Lee’s wife, Mary, in 1872, less than a year before Mary’s death in November 1873 and ten years after Selina’s manumission. The foundation for the letter depends upon the honesty of the Lee descendants, particularly the two New York lawyers who orchestrated the “discovery” of Mary C. Lee’s─Lee’s eldest daughter’s─trunks in the vault of the Burke & Hebert Bank, in Alexandria VA.
Among the papers found in the trunks is the letter reproduced below with the courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.
The sentiments Selina Gray expresses in her letter to Mary Lee speak for themselves, as does her reference to her sister, Mary Norris. Who can seriously think this letter would have been written to Lee’s wife, in 1872, if he had whipped Selina’s sister in 1859?
General Lee’s Response to Rev. Young’s Charge
Pryor writes in her book, “Lee never completely denounced (as opposed to “deny?”) the story.” Indeed. Here is the text of a letter he wrote in reply to George K. Fox Jr., the clerk of the Loudoun County Circuit Court, who wrote him to ask whether the Norris story published in the press was true.
This letter, and an earlier one written to E.J. Quirk of San Francisco, in March 1866, is not the original. It is found in a letterbook in the possession of the Virginia Historical Society that does contain entries in Lee’s hand, but this one is written in the hand of an unidentified person, probably a clerk at Washington College who helped Lee with his record-keeping. What foundation exists for it beyond this is found in the fact it was published, in 1874, in a book of his letters titled Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, by the Rev. J. William Jones, D.D., formerly chaplain Army Northern Virginia and of Washington College Virginia.