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The Lee Family Slaves

By: Joe Ryan


General Lee was born in 1807, at Stratford Hall, a great Virginia plantation that had passed down to his father’s first wife, Matilda Lee, through six generations of his ancestors. By the time of his birth, the conduct of his father, Henry Lee, had reduced the family's position of high honor and great wealth to one of dishonor and poverty. As the consequence of this, R.E. Lee, at the age of three years, was taken, with his brothers and sisters, to Alexanderia, VA, where his mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee, rented a house from a family friend. R.E. grew up in this house, leaving it at the age of eighteen, to enter the military academy at West Point. During the years he spent growing up in this house, he was attended by African slaves owned by the Carter family.

In the early campaigns of the War of the Revolution, "Light Horse Harry," as Henry Lee was known, commanded the Calvary of the Continental Army under General George Washington. His galloping down the camp lanes of the Continental Army with his entourage, carrying the decapitated heads of captured royalists on pikes, however, resulted in his resignation from the Army sometime before the war ended.

After Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Henry Lee served as governor of Virginia for three years. During his term as governor, he married his first cousin, Matilda Lee, who had inherited a life estate in Stratford Hall,  located on the Potomac in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The remainder of the fee—the “fee simple”—was bequeathed to her children at her death. When Matilda died, in 1791, leaving a son, who came to be known as "Blackhorse" Harry Lee, Henry Lee married Ann Carter, a daughter of Richard "King" Carter, owner of Shirley Plantation on the James River and was one of the richest men in Tidewater Virginia.

Stratford Hall 

Henry Lee and Ann Carter had five children: Charles Carter Lee, the eldest, was graduated from Harvard, became a lawyer, with an office in Washington, and then became a farmer in Pocahantas County, below Richmond; Ann Kinlock Lee married William Louis Marshall, a lawyer from Baltimore; Sydney Smith Lee became a captain in the United States Navy; Robert E. Lee became a soldier; and his younger sister, Catherine Mildred Lee, married Edward Vernon Childe of Boston, in 1831. Mildred and Edward Childe left the United States, in 1834, and lived in Europe until Mildred died in Paris, in 1856. The marriage produced a son named Edward Lee Childe who lived in France. Ann and Louis Marshall’s son, who graduated from West Point, served on the Headquarters staff of John Pope during the Second Manassas Campaign.

Henry and his new wife, Ann Carter, resided at Stratford Hall where their first four children were born until about 1810. At that time Henry's eldest son, Harry Lee Jr (later known as "Black Horse"), claimed his inheritance from his mother’s, Matilda Lee's, kin and took possession. He did not hold it long. Young Harry Lee married an heiress and became the guardian of her rich sister whom he promptly seduced; stealing in the process, much of her property. When his defalcations were discovered by the young woman's family, Harry fled the United States and lived in Europe. He died in poverty in Paris, in 1838, and his remains are buried in an unknown grave in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery.

Stratford Hall was sold at auction to satisfy a judgment for damages the heiress's family secured against Harry Lee. A similar fate fell to General Lee's father, Light Horse Harry; having lost possession of Stratford Hall to his eldest son, his creditors seized what slaves he owned, together with his real property holdings in and around Richmond, and he was jailed as a debtor in Westmoreland County for several years. In 1810, his friends posted a bond to secure his release from the jail and he fled to Cuba. When he became ill with a terminal disease, Henry Lee left Cuba and landed on the coast of Georgia where he lived for a time as a guest of the revolutionary war general, Nathaniel Green. He died a pauper on Green’s property in 1818 at the age of 62 and his remains were buried there. After the Civil War, his remains were removed to Lexington, Virginia and placed in the Lee Family mausoleum, today a vault next to a souvenir stand in the basement of what was the Washington College chapel.


Left with five children to raise, Ann Carter moved her family into a middle class residence owned by her relatives in the city of Arlington. General Lee lived at the town house in Arlington until 1824 when he entered West Point at the age of eighteen. He graduated from West Point, second in his class, in 1829, and was commissioned a second lieutenant of Engineers.

R.E. Lee's Personal Ownership of Africans

I. Nancy and her children

In the summer of 1829, Lee's mother died. Her will identified the fact that, at her death, she held legal title to at least three Africans as slaves: two women and a man. The will bequeathed the two women to her daughter, Ann Kinlock Lee, who was then married to the lawyer Louis Marshall of Baltimore, and the man she bequeathed to her second daughter, Mildred, who was then married to Edward Childe of Boston. The will makes reference to other "property" which Ann owned at her death, and as to this "property" the will specified that it be sold and that the proceeds be spilt pro rata between her three sons: Charles, Sidney, and R.E. It is probable that this "property" included unnamed Africans which Ann had a legal interest in.

ann hill will

wiill part 2

The Lee basher, Gettysburg College history professor, Allen Guelzo, offers his audiences the interpretation of the will's meaning as "Ann Lee itemized the slaves she bequeathed to her daughters, but the only designation of property to her sons was a vague division of `the remainder of my estate" among [my three sons]. (see, Robert E. Lee and Slavery, Encyclopedia Virginia 2018) The relevant text of the will actually reads, as Ann wrote it, this way: "All my property of every description that shall remain after the payment of my debts and legacies, I leave to be divided in equal portion between my three sons, Charles, Sidney and Robert." Guelzo's purpose in referencing this part of Ann's will, is to offer his audiences the proposition that part of the "property" to be divided between the three sons must have included "Nancy and her children" Guelzo is probably correct in this, as it is an undisputed fact that, in his will which was filed in the Rockbridge County courthouse, in 1846, R.E. Lee identifies "Nancy and her children" as "property" he owned as of that time. Given the text of a letter R.E. Lee wrote his brother, Charles, in 1835, Nancy's "children" numbered three. How old the children were, at the time of his mother's death, the record does not show.

R.E. Lee's Letter to Charles Lee, Feburary 24, 1835

II. Nat

In the summer of 1829, Lee was twenty-two years old. His first post of duty was at a fort in the vicinity of Savannah, Georgia. From a letter he wrote to family members at that time, we are informed that the male slave named "Nat," an eldery man, who his mother had given in her will to her daughter, Mildred Childe, went with Lee to his post where he became ill and died. Why Nat went with Lee the objective record does not say. We can speculate: maybe Mildred refused to accept the bequest, being married to a man in Boston; maybe Lee asked Mildred for Nat's services; maybe a lot of things.

III. Gardener

In his 1835 letter to his brother, Charles, Lee used this language in describing his legal relationship to African slaves: "Mrs. Nancy Ruffin and her three illegitimate pledges being all of that race in my possession," which suggests that, as of that date, Lee did not own any other Africans. However, there is additional evidence, in the form of letters and receipts in Lee's handwriting, which show the fact that, after his mother's death in 1829, her estate included a legal interest in an African male named Gardener who lived at her family home, Shirley Plantation on James River.

Between 1830 and 1833, Ann Carter's Estate, through its executer, her brother, Hill Carter, received $30 a year from Shirley "for the hire of Gardener." Between 1834 and 1845, R.E. Lee received the $30 for the annual hire of Gardener. (Hill Carter inherited Shirley from his father, King Carter.) Using Williamson's Measuring Slavery as a guide, the average male slave's market value at sale in 1833 was $300, spiking to $600 in 1837 and dropping back to $300 in 1845. According to Clement Eaton's Slave Hiring in the Upper South, such a slave would be hired out annually for 12% to 15% of his market value. If these numbers are accurate, in an ordinary business transaction, Gardener would have been hired out at the annual rate of about $30.

leeto hill

Given these undisputed facts, it appears reasonable to conclude that, by the close of his mother's Estate, R.E. Lee had been given the right to receive the annual hire fee for Gardener's labor. Whether Lee possessed, as a consequence of the Estate's settlement, legal title of ownership to Gardener, in the sense that he had the legal right to sell Gardener, without more evidence, it is impossible to decide. According to the existing Shirley Plantation records, the evidence of Lee's financial connection to Gardener ended in 1845. This fact, in conjunction with Lee's will, filed in court in 1846, gives rise to the reasonable inference that the connection did end as a matter of law, between 1845 and 1846. It might have ended, because Gardener died. Had Gardener been sold or manumitted, most reasonable persons would expect a record of this fact to exist.

Lee's 1846 Will

will of lee

schedule of property

Between about 1830 and 1833, Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, had been living in officers' quarters at Old Point Comfort (i.e., Fort Monroe, VA) and it appears that Nancy and her children had been living there with them. In 1835, after several years of duty at Fort Monroe, Lee was ordered to move himself to Fort Calhoun ("Rip Raps), a man-made island that sits in Hampton Roads, to supervise construction. Because the island did not have quarters suitable for a wife, Mary Lee returned to her father-in-law's home at Arlington, and Lee sent Nancy and her children, as the letter to Charles explains, to one of the New Kent County farms Mary's father owned. Given the text of Lee's letter to Charles, the punctuation of which creates ambiguity, Lee seems to have used the phrase, "illegitimate pledges" with a meaning peculiar to the times. The phrase probably means the idea of having put up something as security which the putter upper does not actually have legal title to. How Lee meant the idea of Nancy putting up as security something she did not own, in the form of her children, who can say.

Dr. Guezlo and his pals, chide Lee for not manumitting Nancy and her children, pointing out there is no objective evidence that he did so prior to 1862. Other writers, William C. Davis among them, point to a supposed letter Lee's youngest son, Robert, Jr., wrote, in 1908, in which he retells to the addressee what he said his older brother, Custis, told him about the history of Lee's ownership of Africans, However, the hearsay statement is not consistent with the objective facts the records shows.

"My Dear Dr. Paige:

"[My older brother, Custis,] tells me that General Lee inherited three or four families of slaves and `let them go.' The reason that no formal paper was executed at that time was that he did not wish any question to arise as to their being compelled to leave Virginia. [Custis's] recollection is that one of them went to Liberia. This liberation of them happened a long time before the war." (See, Some Letters of Thomas Nelson Paige, William E. Rachel, Virginia Magazine of History & Biography LXI (April 1953)

custisLee's son, Custis, was born in 1832 and died in 1913. He would have had no personal knowledge of Nancy, her children, of Nat and Gardener, or any of the Africans owned by his grandmother's and grandfather's families, and the statement attributed to him by his younger brother, in 1908, does not provide an objectively reasonable explanation for the fact that no record can be found that Lee had manumitted what slaves he owned prior to December 1862, when, as Executor of the Custis Estate, he caused the manumission document to be filed in the Henrico County Courthouse.

The explanation that no manumission papers were given, was because of the law of Virginia that required an emanicipated slave to leave the State within one year of the date of emancipation, and Nancy did not want to leave the State, is not objectively reasonable under the circumstances. The suggestion is contradicted by the objective fact that the laws of Virginia existing at the time did not allow the owner of a slave to effect a private emancipation; that is, free a slave to wander about Virginia without proof of emancipation; nor would the emancipated slave be prudent to do so. First, as to the owner, he would be subjecting himself to a fine and penalty for doing so. Second, as to the slave, she would be subjecting herself to being apprehended and sold by the state into slavery. Third, though the law did specifiy that an emancipated slave was required to leave the state within one year of emancipation, it was enforced only on a county level and then only when the white population considered the emancipated slave to be a thief, a malcontent, or a liability on the public resources of the county. In 1835, there were many petitions filed in the courts, some in the Legislature, by white persons asking that a particular emancipated slave be allowed to live in their county as she or he were considered to be useful lawabiding persons who were capable of supporting themselves. (See, John H. Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia 1619-1865, John Hopkins Press (1908).) Given the laws of Virginia, and the manner in which they were executed, then, it seems highly unlikely that Lee would have let Nancy, or any slave, wander off without proper emancipation papers, or that the freed slave would willingly wander off without them.

Therefore, given the state of the objective record, it is not possible to reasonably say R.E. Lee manumitted any slaves he had a legal interest in before 1846, much less Nancy and her children between 1846, the year he wrote his will including her as a slave, and 1862, the year he executed deeds of manumission covering all the slaves named in the list of slaves residing at GWP Custis's three farms: White House, Romancocke, and Arlington.

Whether "Nancy and her children," were included in the 1862 bill of manumission that Lee executed, no one can say. (While there is listed in the bill a "Nancy" who was, in 1862, residing at the White House Plantation in New Kent County, this Nancy's age is not known. The 1850 Richmond census shows a "Nancy Ruffin" as a free inhabitant, but this Nancy is listed as 33 years old which put her age, in 1830, at 13; making it difficult to assign to her at that age three children.)

Here it must be said, that Lee’s manumitting Nancy, if he did, as part of his action as executor as the Custis estate is curious. According to his will, Lee wished “Nancy and her children" “to be liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage.” But apparently not before his death. Yet, in the midst of war he decided to include Nancy—apparently his property, not Custis’s—in the emancipation of the Custis slaves. Perhaps, he just wanted to be done with it.

Since we know nothing of the circumstances of how he became the owner of Nancy, and nothing about Nancy, herself, it is impossible to state with any degree of certainty what their actual situation was. We can say, however, that, given the objective record of Lee's duty stations from 1829, when he graduated from West Point, to 1861 when he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, Nancy was not acting as his servant, or a servant in his household.

IV Philip Meridey

R.E. Lee's final known connection to the ownership of Africans is the power of attorney he executed at the time he left Washington D.C. to assume the assignment as Superintendent of West Point, in 1852. Lee gave the power of attorney to a clerk named James Eveleth, who was a long-time employee (clerk) of the Army's Engineer Department, to manage the hiring of "my servant man Philip Meridey." From the text of Lee's letter describing the power given Eveleth no one can intelligently say whether Lee actually held legal title to the person of the servant, in the sense that Lee could transfer the legal title to another. It may have been the case, as with the African named Gardener who lived at Shirley, that Lee's "right" in Meridey was based on bailment; i.e., the right to use the value of Meridey's labor.


Whatever was, in fact, the legal case, the circumstances make it plain that the reason Lee gave Eveleth the power was because Lee could not bring Meridey to West Point. Lee could have sent Meridey to one of the Custis plantations but instead chose to leave Meridey on his own (under Eveleth's watch) to live in familar circumstances in Washington.

The Custis Slaves

Professor Guelzo, in his bashing of Lee, emphasizes the fact that when, shortly after his mother's death in 1829, he married Mary Anne Randolph Custis, Lee "became part of a large slaveholding household." Indeed Mary Custis was the great, granddaughter of Martha Washington. Martha, a Dandridge from the Shenandoah Valley, had first married Daniel Parke Custis and they had a child who married and from that marriage came Martha's grandson, Mary's father, George Washington Custis. Guelzo points to a letter Lee wrote Mary, in 1841, when he was 34 years old, as evidence of Lee's attitude toward the institution of slavery, which recognizes that the master's authority over the servant must be maintained.

For some reason Mary wanted to purchase a slave named Robert, who was owned by one of her Washington relatives, as the means of saving him from what she perceived was a bad situation. What that situation was, the record does not say. Lee gave Mary this advice:

"Your plan of purchase will bring you nothing but trouble and vexation and it is very problematical whether Robert's condition will be injured rather than bettered. In judging of results you must endeavor to lay aside your feelings and prejudices and examine the question as thus exposed. In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant and nothing to the master? What will be the effect of the precedent upon the rest and the instruction of the example intended to be set as well as the comparsions likely to be made to the prejudice of your father and his authority? Others ought to be considered as well as Robert. If you determine to apply your money in this way, I am ready to pay it. So consider well upon the matter and act for yourself."

Much can be descerned from Lee's language.There were several farms owned by Mary's relatives interconnected with her father's at Arlington. The Africans residing on these farms were connected by family structure, some members residing on one farm, others on another. Apparently, Robert's owner was treating him in a manner Mary did not like; perhaps the issue was one of punishment in some form which Mary wished to prevent. The record shows that Mary's attitude toward slavery, as was her mother's, Mary Randolph Custis, was that, to the extent possible under the circumstances of the times, the Africans ought to be freed.

Mary Lee, and her mother, Mary Randolph Custis, did, in fact, teach the Africans to read and write English, contrary to the law of Virginia, and Mary Randolph manumited one or more family groups of Africans, fiancing their immigration to Liberia (It is this that Custis Lee was probably referring to, in replying to his younger's brother's question). So her concern for Robert as a person must be taken to have been real. But, in counter- balance to her "attitude" her husband was pointing out that stepping into the situation and saving Robert from whatever the matter was, would undermine the master's authority over the slave population and infect the Arlington slaves with feelings conducive to insubordination. It is hard to ignore, in criticizing Lee's attitude here, the reality of plantation life in which a small group of white persons were living in close proximity to a large group of Africans held in slavery. The last sentence of Lee's text highlights the fact that, in 1840, a wife as a legal person was subsumed into one person with her husband and he was that person.

Arlington House 


George Washington Custis's parents died when he was an infant and, when Martha, his grandmother, married George Washington, Custis went to live at Mount Vernon and eventually inherited much of the Washingtons’ property.

At the time of his death, in 1857, Custis owned three large farms: Arlington, composed of 1,100 arcs and a house built on the bluffs of the Potomac overlooking Washington City; Romancoke, located on the Pamunkey River; and the White House close by on the York River 15 miles west from Richmond, the place where Martha and George Washington made their marriage vows.

In addition to the business about Nancy and her children, Guelzo chides Lee for the fact that, in 1850, when he was living with his wife and children in a house in Baltimore, the federal "census-taker itemized three `mulattoes' as household slaves, all of them drawn from the Arlington slave population." What Guelzo leaves unsaid, is that the three "mulattoes" were, in fact, members of the Burke family of slaves that Lee's wife taught to read and write, that the husband and wife (the wife may have been, like Mary Lee, a daughter of GWP Custis, were married in the Arlington parlor, that Custis manumitted all of them, and that, in 1853, upon the application of R.E. Lee, they were accepted by the American Colonization Society for emmigration to Liberia.

Burke Letter Written to Mary Lee From Liberia

Lee's Legal Role as Executor of the Custis Estates, 1857-62

When General Lee returned to Arlington from Texas in the fall of 1857, he was informed that he had been appointed executor of his father-in-law's estate. It appears that a holographic will was probated at the Alexandra County Courthouse in 1858, but neither it nor a certified copy survives. Either a fire at the courthouse destroyed the original will, or it was stolen by unknown persons during the Civil War.

It is not disputed in the historical record that George Washington Custis had bequeathed his three farms to General Lee's three sons: upon the death of their mother, Mary Custis, G.W.C. (Custis) Lee was to inherit Arlington;  Fitzhugh (Rooney) Lee, the White House; and Robert E. Lee, Jr., the plantation of Romancoke. The will also provided that legacies of $10,000 were to be paid from the assets of the estate to each of General Lee's four daughters, Mary, Ann, Eleanor and Mildred. Nor is there any dispute as to the conditions that George Washington Custis made in his will for the emancipation of his slaves.


The Will of George Washington Custis

“In the name of God, amen. I, George Washington Custis, I give to my dearly beloved daughter and only child, Mary Ann Randolph Lee, my Arlington House estate. . . for her natural life. On her death it goes to my eldest grandson, GWC Lee, to him and his heirs forever. . . And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executor in such manner as he deems expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.” 

The Custis estate inventory records of 1858 list as assets, 93 slaves, 28 mules, 28 oxen, 73 sheep and 100 hogs at the White House in New Kent County; 43 slaves, 10 mules, 38 cattle, 44 sheep and 50 hogs at Romancoke in King William County. The inventory records list 62 slaves on the grounds of Arlington, grouped among seven families named: Bingham, Norris, Grey, Check, Burke, Parke and Taylor. Some of these slaves belonged to the Dandridge family and were inherited by Martha Washington and passed down to her great grandson.

The Arlington Slaves

The White House Slaves

The Romancoke Slaves

According to the will of George Washington, the slaves he owned in his own right and which passed to his wife, Martha, were to be emancipated upon her death: to emancipate them immediately Washington wrote, "would be attended with insuperable difficulties on the account of their intermixture with the dower negros," which he had no power to emancipate. The “insuperable difficulty” Washington was referring to was the impossible situation that would exist if one spouse was held to service and the other one was free.

Following his stepfather’s lead, George Washington Custis included a provision in his will for the emancipation of his slaves. But before it could be operative, circumstances required it be interpreted in a court of law.   One of the female slaves held at Arlington, possibly Custis's mistress, claimed after his death that Custis had promised her his will would provide for emancipation immediately upon his death. The slaves obtained support for this claim from white persons who came from across the Potomac and went among them in the fall of 1857, telling them that Custis's will had made them free immediately.

The issue became a matter of litigation in the probate court of Alexandria County after several of the male members of the Bingham slave family, Reuben, Henry, Edward and Austin, refused to accept assignments to work at jobs off the premises of Arlington.

Reuben, the leader of the rebellion, told General Lee, who was acting then as executor and manager of Arlington Plantation,  that he and his brothers were as free as he. A melee ensued between them when General Lee organized a posse to forcibly remove Reuben and his brothers to the Arlington county jail.

After a short struggle, the rebelling slaves were subdued and taken to the jail where they were held until taken south to Richmond under guard. Later, in the spring of 1859, Wesley and Mary Norris, siblings in the Norris slave family, fled across the Potomac into Maryland at this time, but were caught before they reached the Pennsylvania line and returned to Virginia: whereupon they too were sent down to Richmond. (In March 1863, after Lee had manumitted Rueben, Rueben was killed in violent circumstances unrelated to Lee. Learning of his death, Lee wrote he was afraid for Rueben because of his temper and he feared this had in some way caused his death.)

In October 1858, General Lee wrote to the Adjutant General of the Army requesting an extension of his leave of absence from Texas. In his letter Lee stated that the terms of emancipation in Custis's will were subject to different interpretations, because in his view the timing of emancipation depended upon the condition in the will that called for the payment of the monetary legacies Custis bequeathed to Lee’s four daughters.

As executor of the Custis estate, General Lee was, in fact, bound by principles of equity to carry out the wishes of the testator under circumstances in which he believed the testator's wishes were in conflict. Custis apparently wished that the slaves be emancipated immediately, yet the only way payment of his legacies to General Lee's daughters could be funded was through the cash received from the labor of the slaves. To resolve this conflict, General Lee applied to the circuit court of Arlington for an interpretation of the will provisions, and for an order specifying the point in time when the will’s provision regarding emancipation must be executed. Eventually, the Court ruled that Lee was legally empowered to hold the slaves in service to the estate until the legacies were satisfied, but that, notwithstanding this, the slaves had to be freed no later than five years from the date of Custis's death, October 10, 1857.

It appears that, over the ensuing five years, in addition to paying the legacies, the income derived from the labor of the slaves was used by General Lee to renovate dilapidated farm buildings and repair farm machinery that had fallen into disuse in the years before Custis's death as well as tend to the farms. The healthy adult male and female slaves 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, who were not needed as garden boys, yard girls, gardeners, market men, coachmen, maids and the like, were available for hiring out to third parties for the value of their labor.

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. (According to G.W.P. Custis's will, the execution of the manumission deed was due no later than October 1862. In October Lee was with his army in the lower Shenandoah Valley. In November the army was at Fredericksburg. During this time, it was manevuering against the Union Army, the manevuering ending with the December 10, 1862 battle at Fredericksburg.)

General Lee’s Emancipation Proclamation

Dated January 2, 1863 

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 January 2, 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. (For an analysis of the "Lee whipped Mary Norris" story, see General Lee Slave Whipper.)

In his letters to his wife Mary at the time he freed the Custis slaves, General Lee recognized the moral responsibility of the master who holds persons and their offspring to life service.  He wrote this, for example, on December 16, 1862:

“As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those of the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like if I could to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible.”

            Again Lee returned to the subject in a letter to Mary dated December 21, 1862:

“As regards the servants, those that are hired out can soon be settled. They can be furnished with their free papers and hire themselves out. Those on the farms, I will issue free papers as soon as I can and see that they can get a support. Any who want to leave can do so. The men could no doubt find hires, but what are the women and children to do?

As regards Mr. Collins (the overseer) he must remain and take care of the people until I can dispose of them in some way. I want to do what is right for the people. The estate is indebted to only me now. The legacies and debts have been paid, and I wish to close the whole affair. Whether I can do so during the war I cannot say now.”

Finally, after Lee executed the emancipation proclamation, he wrote Mary on January 8, 1863, from his camp at Fredericksburg:

"I executed the deed of manumission sent me by attorney Caskle and returned it to him. I perceived that John, Lawrence, and James, names had been omitted and inserted them. I fear there are others among the White House people that I did not discover. As to the attacks of the Northern papers I do not mind them. If all the names of the people are not embraced in the deed I have executed, I should want a supplementary deed to be drawn up containing all those omitted. Custis will have to get the lists from my box of papers if he has not them. I wish to emancipate the whole, whether of the estate or not. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them."

General Lee also wrote to the overseer on the White House Plantation and instructed him to "take care of the people" who wished to stay, on the condition that they continued as before until it could be determined "how to close the affair." For General Lee, the affair was closed 15 months later, when, after his flank march from the North Anna River, in April 1864, Ulysses S. Grant interposed the Army of the Potomac between the Custis farms and the Army of Northern Virginia.

In Virginia before the Civil War, the ownership of persons held to service was commonplace throughout all classes and conditions of society. The whites held legal title to Africans as chattel under the common law of Virginia. The whites used the labor of the slaves primarily as collateral for the payment of mortgages, family settlements and negotiable instruments transferable through the banks anywhere in the South. By 1857, the ordinary plight of the Africans held to service in Virginia was not much different than the plight of the serfs in Russia, the peasants living on the Hapsburg Lands, the peons of Mexico or the Irish in America, much less the lower castes amongs the Ashanti and Zulu tribes. They were held to service as much by the economic and social realities of the times as they were by the threat of shackles and chains. They were certainly better off than the decimated, starving members of the Comanche band held under the thumb of the American military on the reservation on the Clear Fork. (See Lee in Texas)

Of the 500,000 Africans in Virginia, in 1857, 60,000 were free outright and many others were leased for one year terms to third parties who paid wages to the owners in exchange for the Africans' labor. Of the 170,000 Africans residing in Maryland, in 1857, 84,000 were free inhabitants. In Delaware, of the 21,000 Africans in the state, 20,000 were free. The Africans held on the Virginia farms, like those at the White House and Romancoke, cared for the animals, tilled the fields and brought in the crops. They lived a way of life that remained unchanged for fifty years after the end of the Civil War; except for the fact that after 1865, they held the paper right to claim the fruits of their labor as their own.

General Lee had curious ideas about the concept of slavery, at least seen through our eyes. In 1858, while in Texas, he wrote to his wife, Mary, about the subject, expressing himself in words of circular contradiction:

“I think slavery a greater evil to the white than the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa (certainly this is true). The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race (perhaps this was once true but in 1858?). . . While we see the course of abolition is onward, and we give it the aid of our prayers. . . we must leave the progress in the hands of him to whom two thousand years are but as a single day.” (As if Lee would be as passive when his freedom was on the line.)

If General Lee had not been bound by the law to fulfill the death wish of Washington Custis that his slaves be freed, it is reasonable to believe that the unruly ones General Lee sent under guard to Richmond, in 1858, might have found themselves hustled down the back allies to some mean slave den and sold to the highest bidder from one of the Gulf States. There were almost two million slaves in the Gulf States, in 1858: for the most part, confined under miserable conditions on malarious plantations cut out of dense swampy pine forests. As the whites relentlessly pushed the red men out of their tribal homelands and westward across the Mississippi, they pushed their black men on to the vacated land to make cotton fields. Working from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields, the captive Africans produced three-fifths of the annual exports of the United States, containing twenty-three million people. The need to replenish the slave labor force, as the cotton fields spread westward toward the Mississippi, created a seller's market for Virginia slaves, guaranteeing that none of them sold south would ever find their way to freedom among the whites in the Gulf States.

The common law of slavery was based squarely on the deep-seated prejudice of the whole white people of the Union that the Africans among them constituted an inferior race (which certainly they did, in the “civilized” sense in 1789). The people of the Free States equally with those of the Slave States saw the African race among them as unfit to possess the rights, much less perform the duties, of American citizenship. Most of the Free States established laws to discourage if not prohibit outright the immigration of the Africans into their towns and cities; expelling them from their borders or restricting their presence. The census-takers of 1850 and 1860 could find hardly any increase in the presence of emancipated Africans in the Free States despite the fact that by 1860, there were 170,000 free Africans residing just south of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet, during the same period, hundreds of thousands of Germans, Irish, French and Scandinavians crossed over the Atlantic and poured through the eastern states to settle down on the open lands of the western states and territories of the United States. (See, The Dred Scott Case.)

When Abraham Lincoln first appeared on the National stage in opposition to Stephen Douglas for a seat in the Senate of the United States, in 1858, he readily acknowledged that even though he believed the Nation must extinguish slavery, his own feelings were against accepting Africans as politically and socially the equal of whites. The Republican party, Lincoln told the crowds that appeared in the towns where he debated Douglas, hoped for the extinction of slavery but its immediate goal was to keep the territories for free white settlers to bring their families upon; not blacks. Like the rest of the white people of the Free States, Lincoln didn't want the Africans to be slaves, but he didn't want them as his friends or neighbors either. "As God made us separate," he said, "we can leave one another alone and do much good thereby.” Lincoln did not explain to his listeners, how God communicated his will or what good he expected the human race to gain thereby.

What a stark contradiction Lincoln's political ideas present: On the one hand, Lincoln saw clearly that what guarantees the people's liberties is the tenuous belief that all men are created equal and thus endowed with certain abstract rights such as the right to live freely in the pursuit of happiness; yet on the other, Lincoln saw the color of the Africans' skin as a sign of something so dangerous to his pursuit of happiness that the white person must live separately from them. The African had the same right as whites to the fruit of his labor, Lincoln said, but the "physical difference" between the African and the white forbad them living together on terms of social and political equality. In Lincoln's mind, something in the nature of things which made the African's skin unchangeably black, made him inferior to the whites; incapable of sharing equally with the whites, a school room, a church pew, an omnibus, a train, a work place or a residential street. A black person was entitled to the fruit of his labor, Lincoln thought, in 1858, but not entitled to enjoy it, sitting next to a white person. What real difference, then, was there between the minds of Lincoln and Lee?

What did Abraham Lincoln or any white person of his times have in common with the African negro slave? It is true that he spoke the same language, lived in the same country and was a member of the human race; but he was really from a different world entirely, at least in the beginning. The white person came from the world of Christian Europe that over the span of two thousand years had created a great culture based on laws, literature, arts and industry that built great cities and fought great wars. The African came from a savage, natural world, which over the same span of time failed to take a single step away from the kraal toward a remotely similar civilization. This made amalgamation between such disparate members of the human race impossible in Lincoln's time; it would take, Lincoln said, one hundred years for the prejudice of culture to pass away. And it did.

Ten years after the end of the Civil War, in 1874, thousands of whites massed in Liberty Place in New Orleans and stormed the custom house the carpet bag Republican governor, William Kellog, was hiding in, and ousted him from office. City police and black militia troops, under the command of the old Confederate war horse, James Longstreet, attempted to block the entrance into the building, but the white mob charged through Longstreet's line and took him prisoner. The white supremacists broke into the building, deposed Kellog and ran the government until regular U.S. Army troops arrived and regained control of things. Thirty eight persons were killed in the fighting.

This 200 year old social attitude of the mass of white people, above and below the Mason-Dixon Line, refusing to live with Africans as citizens in community, is reflected in countless pieces written by lawyers, preachers, and politicans in books, newspapers and magazines, from the 1850s to the 1940s. The social attitude of white Americans toward black Americans has been no better stated than William Prime, the son of a line of Connecticut congregational ministers that stretched back to The Mayflower, in 1888.

Over the next sixty years, from 1890 to 1950, white Americans, living in the North as well as the South, terrorized black Americans: In the summer of 1908, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's hometown, a mob of 12,000 whites, incensed by a rumor that a white woman had been raped, tore through the black residential neighborhood and burned it to the ground. In the summer of 1919, a dispute over the use of a beach resulted in five days of race riots in Chicago that left 23 blacks and 15 whites dead. During the same summer one hundred blacks were killed and thousands wounded in race riots in such places as Washington D.C., South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Nebraska. In 1921, fifty whites and hundreds of blacks were killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a mob of 10,000 white persons attacked the black residential area. In 1943, in Detroit, mobs of whites and blacks poured from their neighborhoods across the borderland of Woodward Ave, which separated their respective segregated neighborhoods, and engaged in 36 hours of guerilla warfare: 9 whites were killed and 25 blacks, 17 of them killed by police. From 1874 to 1950, 3,500 African-Americans were hanged, shot, burned at the stake, maimed, dismembered, or castrated by civilized white Americans. Only New England citizens refrained from participating in the horror of this despicable conduct.

Then fifty years more and finally a certain peace at last. Not without a church bombing, a few more murders, a few crosses burned, but finally a white generation arose with the prejudice gone, for the most part, and the world has now America as an example of a country that has amalgamated into its social and political structure huge populations of Asians, Latins, Caucasians, and Blacks who truly have equal opportunities to share in its wealth. And Lee, in giving the country Gettysburg, holds an equal hand with Lincoln in achieving this. The forms of government rarely change without Gettysburgs.

Joe Ryan